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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Oracle Bones

Updated: May 15, 2022

"Divined on Geng, at Lai: Sacrifice (to) Ancestress Geng three rams and have (> add) two bowls of aromatic ale to deliver the exorcism; announce by written record (sacrifice of) one hundred and five head of cattle."

An Oracle stone translation, From Adam Craig Schwartz, The Oracle Bone Inscriptions from Huayuanzhuang East (2020)

In 1899, Wang Qirong was the head of the Guozijian or Imperial Academy in Beijing. The Imperial Acadamy was China's highest institution of learning and research. A relative of Wang's, so the story goes, fell ill with malaria. The man sent a servant out to buy a traditional Chinese remedy - a decayed turtle shell. When the servant brought the shell back, the man noticed scratchings on them. Being educated, he surmised that they might be older versions of Chinese script. He immediately sent them over to Wang for a second opinion.

Wang Qirong

Wang studied the shell and its markings, and he deduced that they dated back to the Shang Dynasty. Wang then scoured the markets buying more shells. He set about deciphering the ancient script, but unfortunately, he was swept up in the events of the Boxer Rebellion against foreign intervention. The dowager empress supported the rebellion, and Wang, being a high government official, was given a militia to command. The rebellion failed, and Wang ended his own life in disgrace. The inscribed bones though passed to a friend, Liu E. Liu published the inscriptions in a book in 1903, shortly before his own death. The book set off a scramble by scholars to find more shells and bones. Dealers tried to keep sources secret, but many began to guess they came from the village of Anyang. The Chinese government started an official excavation at Anyang in 1928 and discovered tens of thousands of inscribed and burnt bones. Along with fending off local warlords, bandits, and tomb robbers, the archeologists raced against the invading Japanese army. World War II interrupted the digging and much of what had been excavated was lost during the war. Luckily, a majority of the bones and shells ended up in Taiwan.

We don't know for sure how Wang obtained the shell, but nonetheless, he recognized its importance. The so-called oracle bones have been dated to the late Shang Dynasty. The Shang ruled during the Chinese bronze age of the 15th through 11th century BCE. Much of early Chinese history is shrouded in legend and only known from later Chinese historians of the first century BCE and CE. The Shang Dynasty represents the earliest Chinese dynasty that can be supported by archeological evidence.

The extent of their rule centered along the fertile Yellow River valley. The Shang Dynasty helped lay the foundation of Chinese culture. It ushered in a period of growth and social development. The Chinese made advances in bronze casting and agricultural production as well as creating a calendar. Increase food availability led to growth in population, especially in urban settings. It also meant more available labor for large-scale public work projects such as dynastic tombs. King Tang, the founder of the dynasty, is accredited with beginning government programs to help the poor. Religious rituals played a crucial part in the life of the people. As the oracle bones indicate, the Shang developed the earliest known form of writing in China.

Anyang was established in 1300 BCE and became the last Shang capital. The actual walled settlement was only uncovered in 1997. Like most settlements of this time period, Anyang was built upon a platform of compacted earth. The central part of the city is small, but it is surrounded by a large area of temples, burial grounds, and bronze foundries. In total, the city covered an area one-third the size of Manhatten.

The oracle bones show the importance of ritual during the Shang dynasty. A key element in many of the rituals is ancestor worship. Everything the Shang did they sought the approval of the spirits of ancestors. Living kings were expected to host elaborate parties calling on past kings to host their own ancestors. For serious matters, this chain would continue all the way up to the high god, Di. The oracle bones were a way of communicating with dead ancestors and gaining their guidance. The king and guests would binge drink perhaps as a way to open their minds to the spirits. The king summoned the spirits of the ancestors from their tombs and posed questions to them. A heated stick was applied to a shell or bone. The king then interpreted the cracks that were produced. The bones were inscribed with the answer by specially trained scribes.

This type of divination is known as pyromancy. The oracle bones at Anyang consist of mainly ox scapula (shoulder blade) or turtle plastron (the flat bottom of the shell). If a scapula is used it is called scapulimancy whereas if turtle shells are used it is called plastromancy. Over 200,000 bones and shells have been recovered from Anyang. David Keightley, an expert on the bones, estimates that 2 million to 4 million were probably made during the occupation of Anyang. This meant consuming a hundred thousand oxen and turtles.

Beyond the consumption of so many oxen and turtles, the oracle bones reveal a darker aspect of the rites performed. The bones speak of ritual sacrifice, not just of animals, but of humans as well. It is estimated that the oracle bones mention over 13,000 ritual killings. Keightley suggests we have only found maybe 10% of the oracle bones actually produced. This means perhaps a quarter of a million people may have ultimately been sacrificed in the name of Shang ancestors. Similar to the Aztecs who would come later in Mesoamerica, it appears that the Shang may have waged war against other peoples for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners to use in these many ritual sacrifices. And like other Bronze Age cultures, the Shang buried their dead with grave goods and with sacrifices. What is notable about the Shang is the violence. There is evidence of dismemberment, beheadings, and chopping in two. There is also evidence of people being bound and buried alive.

Other than providing evidence of ritual sacrifice and divination, the oracle bones are essential in the fact they offer a glimpse at the earliest, fully developed system of writing in China. The script appears pictographic and may have been initially more so. There are oracle bones older than those found at Anyang, and one can trace the development and maturity from these older bones to those at Anyang. Despite the pictorial nature, by Anyang, the script was fully functional and showed signs of moving towards greater simplification and linearization. Scholars agree that the script represents a direct ancestral line to modern Chinese script and influenced the development of many other East Asian scripts. The Shang were known to write with brush and ink as well and for purposes other than divination. Writing, for many early cultures, was a sign of a highly organized state which needed to keep track of rituals, events, and taxes.

Eventually, the prosperity of the Shang declined. As often happens, the kings began to neglect their duties being concerned more for their own needs rather than those of the people. As the kings began to abuse their power, a number of local lords, particularly in the border areas of the empire, became disgruntled. The Shang Dynasty was overthrown by King Wu of the province of Zhou in 1046 BCE. King Wu declared himself the founder of the Zhou Dynasty that would rule through the next millennia. With the end of the Shang Dynasty came the gradual end of using oracle bones for divination.


Further Reading:

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China: Peter Hessler (National Book Award Winner)

Shang Dynasty: Emily Mark (World History Encyclopedia)

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