Another Xie Yi? Dr Richard Wu on Oracle writing

I happened to be at the recent cultural speech by Dr Richard Wu, who is a famed Australian Chinese psychiatrist and a practising artist and art theorist. In recent years, he has dedicated himself to researching the traditional Chinese visual culture of Xie Yi, especially its close connection with modern psychiatric practice. He has been given cultural speeches extensively at numerous occasions invited by City of Sydney, Chinese Culture Centre, Australian Chinese Painting Associations, etc.

As a psychiatrist doctor, Dr Wu first gave an interesting biological comparison of the human’s eyes and the mantis shrimp’s eyes. In terms of complexity, human’s system is not even close to that of the mantis shrimp, which holds the world record for the most advanced visual system. Although human’s eyes see far more less than this marine creature, mantis shrimp is no match to human because human have a far more developed mind, thus ironically the mantis shrimp can only ended up in our plates as a famous delicacy. Thus he suggested that it’s not what we see that’s important, it’s how we perceive and interpret the vision in our minds that hold the truth to understanding. Vision opens a gate to our mind.

According to his research, the first human written language was an eye-like marking on a turtle shell, known as Jia Hu Symbol around 6600BC discovered in Jia Hu, He Nan Province in China. They bore resemblance to what was later called the Oracle Bone Scripts, the start of Chinese writing. Although the markings were primitive, they were visual and carried a meaning.

Meaning “people cries as the flute man is dead”.

He then explored the history of early pictorial languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics and Australian Aboriginal symbols, both bear the characteristics of being repetitive, widely used and carry a meaning. The start of Chinese written language or the Oracle writing was a legend. The 4-eyed Cang Jie was believed to the inventor of Chinese characters. But it wasn’t until 1899 when there was the first large-scale excavation of these mysterious turtle shells and ox scapulae (shoulder bones) at Anyang, He Nan Province, believed to be the ancient capital of late Shang Dynasty. It was said these inscripted bones were first used to predict future. There were two proposed questions on each half of the shell, and then the heated fire rod would insert through the shell, then the shell would crack. The priest would then read from the “signs” of ancestors to predict future.

Dr Wu then directed to talk about principles of Xie Yi in artmaking, which is evocative, profound meaning with short brushstrokes, between likeness and unlikeness and express the internal energy Qi and beauty and compared Oracle inscriptions to Xie Yi. He then proposed that Oracle characters were the earliest Xie Yi, or writing mind. Chinese language originated and still is very much a language of visual metaphor. He then gave a lot of examples of visual examples of how ancient Chinese use simple but clever visual image to build a character of Oracle writing and how such a tradition was inherited and still very much alive in today’s writing. For example…

This is not an exact example given at the speech, but shows how the visual language of Chinese evolved throughout history to be the characters of today.
This is not an exact example given at the speech, but shows how the visual language of Chinese evolved throughout history to be the characters of today.

Further exploration was given in the ancient inscriptions on bronzeware which originated and followed Oracle writings. Dr Wu observed the fact that new characters appeared and some old ones altered represent a change in social, political norms of the time. For example, the addiction of the word torture 刑 which visualises a torture instrument and an execution weapon.

It is particularly interesting to note that Dr Wu put forward a proposal about an international language. The most prevalent world language used to be Latin and then English, both are phonetically based. But we saw in recent decades a trend for phonetically based language to become more visual, pictorial and user friendly. The success story of Apple seems to set an example. Dr Wu then proceeds to ask the question: Could people understand each other without speaking the language, or just by visual means? And even bolder, “Could Chinese become the next universal language?”

However, he also pointed out the shortcoming of Chinese and other pictorially based languages, that it became increasingly symbolised and lost its connection with its original visual representation. People then without being aware, continue to use these “enscripted symbols” to created unnecessarily even more complicated new symbols. For example, the Chinese word for television 电视机 in simplified and 電視機 in traditional Chinese could be easily conveyed as one small rectangle inside a bigger one.

It is hard to summarize such a complex research just in a short instance, but it gave a taste of what could be possible in this refreshing and exciting area of visual culture. I believe Dr Wu started with his own interest with human minds (hence he is a psychiatrist by profession) and the Oracle bone symbols and bronzeware inscriptions. He then applied his existing research of Xie Yi, the traditional Chinese visual culture of writing mind and tried to prove that Xie Yi sprouted at the dawn of Chinese civilization and those ancient writings were the first embodiment and application of Xie Yi.

Although this research was not done within an academic circle, it was nevertheless interesting as it was from an alternative perspective and it’s full of common sense, originality and most importantly not boring.

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