Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Magician’s Map

From the series: Sino-Platonic Papers No 218 from Dec. 2011

A five-thousand-year-old water pitcher on display for a limited time (1999 to 2000) during an exhibit titled The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology shows the figure of a human framed in a panel. The human panel is one of four painted panels surrounding the belly of the pottery water pitcher. The other three panels are filled with repeating images of pictographs forming a pictographic inscription. Pictographic inscriptions are like complex characters — the meaning derives from the multiplication and manipulation of pictographs in a group.

Decoding the pictographic inscription reveals a map of the Yellow River made with symbols that represent the landscape in three directions around the homeland in the middle: the great mountains to the west, a great river to the north, and the great marshland filled with plants to the east. It appears the modern theory of five elements is rooted in spatial associations such as four lands around a middle land. It seems certain that the pottery jar is a written document at least a thousand years older than writing found on Shang oracle bones.

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