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Chinese Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty

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The Shang Dynasty flourished in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE. It was a period that witnessed the introduction of two important technologies into China: bronze metallurgy and writing. We have no archaeological evidence for any predecessors or transitional forms of written language prior to the Shang era, suggesting that it was probably imported, along with bronze, from the Near East, where both technologies had been in use for over a thousand years.

The overwhelming majority of written material that has come down to us from the Shang Dynasty was preserved in fascinating artifacts called oracle bones, which are bone and shell fragments inscribed with an ancient Chinese script. They appear to have been known to peasants in the late nineteenth century, who were impressed by their evident mojo, and called them “dragon bones.” Unknown numbers of oracle bones were ground up and swallowed as medicine.

By the early twentieth century, they came to the attention of archaeologists, who have subsequently collected tens of thousands of the inscribed bone fragments and have deciphered their script.

Typically made from pieces of the scapulae of bulls or the plastrons of turtles, oracle bones were used some 3500 years ago to consult with the ancestors about matters of urgency. They were inscribed with questions inquiring about topics such as the likely success of the harvest, the need for military action, or fortunes of an expecting mother. In an elaborate ceremony attended by kings and courtiers, a burning-hot poker of some sort was thrust into the bones, and they would crack in characteristic patterns, signifying either a yes or a no answer.

Fortunately for historians, the Shang diviners carried out their art with a scientific spirit. The oracle bones were subsequently inscribed with reports detailing whether or not the predictions turned out to be accurate. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to determine which ancestors could be reliably addressed about which matters.

And so the earliest-known writing system in China is preserved in the form of tens of thousands of bones, used in magico-religious divination, inscribed with questions the practitioners regarded as of compelling interest, and with a record of how things turned out. Just a marvelous, fascinating phenomenon.

Sample Oracle Bone Translations

The divination on day chi-mao was performed by Kuo. The King after examining the crack forms commented that it would rain on day jen. On day jen-wu indeed it did rain. (1)

On day jen-in it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon [an astronomical event of unclear meaning]. A sacrifice is to be made to Earth; should a burnt offering of cattle be made?” On day jen-yin it was inquired: “There has been another chih of the Moon.” The King did not want the disaster to befall on one person. yet again, there is a disaster. (1)

Crack making on gui-si day, Que divined: In the next ten days there will be no disaster. The king, reading the cracks, said, “There will be no harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.” When it came to the fifth day, ding-you, there really was the the coming of alarming news from the west. Zhi Guo, reporting, said, “The Du Fang [a border people] are besieging in our eastern borders and have harmed two settlements.” The Gong-fang also raided the fields of our western borders. (2)

Crack-making on jiashen (day 21), Que divined: “Lady Hao’s (a consort of Wu Ding) childbearing will be good.” The king read the cracks and said: “If it be on a ding-day that she give birth, there will be prolonged luck.” (After) thirty-one days, on jiayin (day 51), she gave birth; it was not good; it was a girl. (3)


1) Zhentao X. et al. “Astronomical Records on the Shang Dynasy Oracle Bones“. Archaeoastronomy. Supplement to Volume 20. No. 14. 1989. S61-S72
2) Keightley DN. Sources of Shang History. University of California Press. 1978. p. 44
3) de Bary WT, Bloom I. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press. 1999.

Images of oracle bone fragments from the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, (c) Barnaby Thieme.


Written by Mesocosm

June 29, 2012 at 10:34 am

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