Thursday Lecture Series

Ernest Smith’s Chinese Bones: Shang Inscriptions in the Collection of Columbia University Library

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

The oldest documents in the collection of the Starr East Asian Library at Columbia are Chinese records of divinations done on behalf of the Shang kings during the last centuries of the second millennium BC, inscribed into cattle bones and turtle shells. The core of the collection was acquired by Ernest K. Smith during the early 1930s, while he was a professor of English in Beijing. Several of Smith’s more complex inscriptions are frequently discussed in the scholarly literature. Two issues, however, have received little attention: the provenance of Smith’s collection, and the prominence within it of scribal training exercises. Unusually for a collection without a recorded archaeological provenance, we can say with precision where Smith’s bones were unearthed. Re-imagining the texts within their original archaeological context enriches our picture of literacy acquisition at the very earliest stage of the use of writing in East Asia.