Reading Oracle Bones and Writing the Future in the Shang Dynasty
Oracle bones (known in Chinese as 甲骨, transliterated as ‘jiǎ gǔ’, and literally translated as ‘shells and bones’) are a type of artifact best known for its association with the Shang Dynasty (roughly from 1600 BC to 1050 BC) of ancient China. As these artifacts were used for the purpose of divination, the bones came to be called ‘oracle bones’ in the English language. In the Chinese language, by contrast, the name of the objects is derived from the type materials they were made of, i.e. turtle shells and animal bones. Apart from providing us with information about the beliefs held by the people of the Shang Dynasty, oracle bones are also significant as they form the earliest known major body of ancient Chinese writing.
Making the Oracle Bones
As its Chinese name suggests, oracle bones have been found to be in one of either two materials – animal bones or turtle shells. For the first material, the main animal bone that was used for creating the oracle bones was the scapula, or shoulder blade. Oxen seem to be the preferred choice of animal, as the archaeological record has yielded a large amount of oracle bones that were made from this animal’s shoulder blade. Nevertheless, oracle bones have been found made from the shoulder blades of deer, sheep, and pigs.
As for the second material, it was the plastron (the nearly flat underside of the turtle) that was used. The carapace (the convex upper shell of the turtle) was not suitable for making oracle bones, as it was much more difficult to write on its curved surface.
Replica of an ancient Chinese oracle bone. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Osteomancy, Scapulimancy and Plastromancy
The use of bones for divination is known as osteomancy. More specifically, the use of animal scapulae for this purpose is known as scapulimancy, whilst the use of turtle shells is known as plastromancy. Additionally, divination by means of fire is known as pyromancy.
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In the context of the Shang Dynasty oracle bones, the method of divination is known as pyro-osteomancy, which is a combination of osteomancy and pyromancy. This is due to the fact that in addition to animal bones / turtle shells, fire was also involved in the process of predicting the future.
The process of divining the future with the aid of oracle bones would typically begin with a question asked by a client. These questions involved a diverse range of topics, including meteorological, agricultural and military issues. The diviner would then use a sharp tool to write the question onto the bone / shell, after which a hole / holes would be drilled into it. The oracle bone would then be placed under intense heat until cracks were produced. Finally, these cracks were interpreted by the diviners for their clients.
: The Co Csuan one side. Shang Dynasty inscription ( Public Domain )
The Writing on Dragon’s Bones
Interestingly, the rediscovery of oracle bones happened relatively recently, i.e. in 1899. In this year, the Chancellor of the Imperial Academy, Wang Yirong, fell sick with malaria. The best-known ‘remedy’ for this sickness in China during that time was something called ‘dragon’s bones’, which were believed to have mystical healing qualities. Usually, these bones were sold in a powder form. On this occasion, however, Wang got bones that were not ground up.
Wang Yirong, Chinese politician and scholar, was the first to recognize the oracle bones as ancient writing. ( Public Domain )
It is said that during that time, Wang was visited by a friend and fellow scholar, Liu E. The two men noticed that there was writing on the ‘dragon’s bone’, and began to study it. Realizing that this may be a form of ancient Chinese script, Wang and Liu returned to the apothecary to find out about the source of this medicinal item. Naturally, the apothecary refused to tell them where he had found the bones, as he made much money off the sale of them. Nonetheless, he agreed to sell them all the complete bones in his shop to them.
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Animal bone with divination inscription from the Shang Dynasty, dating to the 6th year of the reign of King Diyi or Dixin. Reportedly unearthed at Anyang, Henan Province. ( CC BY-SA 3.0)
Eventually, news of this discovery spread to other scholars, and they too began asking the apothecaries about the source of their ‘dragon’s bones’. This, however, was to no avail, as the apothecaries had too much to lose by revealing their secret. Finally, in 1908, a scholar and philologist by the name of Luo Zhenyu discovered that the bones were from an area outside the city of Anyang, which is the site of the Shang Dynasty’s capital.
Since then, thousands of oracle bones have been found. Studies into the oracle bones showed the way Chinese script developed over time, cast light onto the divinatory practices of the Shang Dynasty, and proved that the Shang did exist, and was not merely a mythical dynasty in China’s long history.
Featured image: The story of King Tang (Ta Ji), the dynasty, in a 17th-century painting Shang Dynasty ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
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