Shang priests practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious" signs and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Discovered and translated beginning only in 1899, these oracle bones are the earliest written records of Chinese civilization. The inscriptions give us a highly selective record of some of the concerns and events that were relevant to the elite class of the Shang kingdom. However, the only such Shang dynasty oracle bones discovered have been from the reigns of Wu Ding (r.1198-1189 B.C.) and his successors. In other words, strictly speaking, China’s written history begins with these inscriptions around 1200 B.C. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The fragments that are usually referred to as “oracle bones” are, in fact, made up of two different types of materials. Most of the fragments are portions of the shoulder blades of oxen, called scapulas. The largest and most valuable, however, are not bones at all, but are the lower shells of large turtles: the stomach portion, called the plastron. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition held a very high place in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty. Some of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.
Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture
RELATED ARTICLES IN THIS WEBSITE: PREHISTORIC AND SHANG-ERA CHINA factsanddetails.com; CHINA: THE HOME OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST WRITING? factsanddetails.com; SHANG DYNASTY (1600 – 1046 B.C.) factsanddetails.com; ORACLE BONE INSCRIPTIONS factsanddetails.com; SHANG RELIGION AND BURIAL CUSTOMS factsanddetails.com; SHANG SACRIFICES factsanddetails.com; SHANG DYNASTY LIFE AND ECONOMIC ACTIVITY factsanddetails.com; SHANG SOCIETY factsanddetails.com
Inscriptions on Oracle Bones
Users of oracle bone divinations sought advice and predictions on matters such as raising of crops, the outcome of battles, illness, and childbirth. They also sought advise from the dead, the meaning of dreams, and suggestions on how many people to sacrifice. One inscription proposed sacrificing prisoners to an ancestor. Possibly after a divination was another inscription that recommended five prisoners. Some are quite simple versions of early characters. On the pictograph for ‘rain’ you can see drops falling from clouds.
The oracle bones were seen as a medium of communications between diviners and ancestors, with the latter regarded as the sources of the information. David N. Keightley, a historian an expert on oracle bones at the University of California at Berkeley, told National Geographic, “When it cracked, the ancestors were responding to the diviner’s statement. The diviners wanted to capture this moment.”
In an article in the New Yorker Peter Hessler described a rubbing of an oracle bone that Keightley studied on which a Shang king sought out an unhappy ancestor the king though was responsible for a tooth ache he was experiencing, Four names are listed “Father Jia, Father Geng, Father Xin, Father Yi” — the king’s dead uncle and three dead generals. For each ancestor there were multiple divinations. One inscription read: “Offer a dog to Father Geng...I think it was Father Geng who was causing the illness.”
Dr. Eno wrote: “Almost all of the divination texts we possess were made on behalf of the Shang king, and it is clear that upon occasions it was the king himself who acted as diviner. Some of the longer inscriptions record predictions of the outcome of events that the king made on learning the response of the spirits, and in a limited number of cases, we actually learn what the eventual outcome was.... These materials were, as the ancient texts had suggested in their descriptions of Shang practices, employed as media through which human diviners communicated with the spirit world. The bones and shells were first carefully prepared for this. Hollows were scooped out at regular intervals on one side of the bone or shell. Then, at the time when a divination query was addressed to the spirits, a hot poker or some other such item was applied to a hollow, causing the bone to break and a crack to appear on the flat side above the hollow. The diviner, either reading the form of the crack or listening to the sound of the bone as it split, determined the reply of the spirits to the query. Then, next to the crack, the query was recorded according to a standard form that the diviners employed for this purpose.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]
See Separate Article SHANG ORACLE BONE INSCRIPTIONS factsanddetails.com
Oracle Bones and Writing
The oracle bones unearthed in Xiaotun also provided some of the earliest firm evidence of Chinese writing and the first examples of writing in East Asia. They recorded harvests, childbirths and wars, detailed accomplishments of kings, described human sacrifices, plagues, natural disasters, enemy tribes and the ailments of kings. Some 3000 different Chinese characters — most of them pictograms — were used during the Shang dynasty.
Messages recorded on the oracle bones included: “Lady Hao’s childbearing will be good”; “After 31 days” Lady Hao “gave birth, it was not good, it was a girl”; “In the next ten days there will be no disasters;” “If we raise 3,000 men and call on them to attack the Gofang, we will receive abundant assistance.” Some of the messages could even be poetic. One goes: “In the afternoon a rainbow also came out of the north and drank in the Yellow River.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010 +]
Oracle bones were also a means of communicating with the unseen world, including passing messages to ancestors of the royal family. "We ritually report the king's sick eyes to Grandfather Ding" read one. "As to the coming of the Shaofang [an enemy], we make ritual-report to Father Ding" read another. Keightley told National Geographic that he's particularly struck by how oracle-bone inscriptions convey a sense of hierarchy and order. "The more recently dead deal with the small things; the ones who have been dead for longer deal with the bigger things," he said. "This is a way to organize the world." +\
Chinese writing originated with pictures, as can be plainly seen on some oracle bones and shells. One Shang-era bone is engraved with a rare pictograph character of a bird, describing features from its head down to the tail. Another bone, a turtle plastron, is engraved with images of a macaque, a horse above fire, a tiger, and what is perhaps a pheasant. Though a practice piece, it demonstrates the relation between Chinese writing and pictorial art. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]
History of Writing in China
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Writing appeared “in the Indus valley around 2500 B.C., and in China from around 1300 B.C.. This is the script that is found on oracle bones at the capital of the late Shang dynasty today known as the Yin Ruins at Hsiao-t'un Village (in Anyang, Henan Province). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]
“Although oracle bone inscriptions are early examples of systematic writing in China, they do not represent the earliest attempts at pictographic writing. For example, they already possess the principles of character construction (the six classes of characters include pictographs, ideographs, and compound ideographs, as well as more abstract extended meanings, determinative phonetics, and loan characters), sentence structure, and grammar. Therefore, it may be inferred that prior to oracle bone inscriptions, Chinese writing must have already undergone a long period of development. \=/
Shang dynasty writing was inherited by the Chou after King Wu overthrew the Shang. Passed down through the Western and Eastern Chou (11th century-221 B.C.), and standardized under China's first emperor Ch'in Shih-huang in the 3rd century B.C., Chinese writing has developed continuously over some three thousand years to the present day. Oracle bone script gradually disappeared in the early part of this long flow of history. \=/
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Primitive characters were often pictographs. On an oracle bone character for ‘rain’we can see the drops falling from the clouds.. But as with Egyptian hieroglyphs, over the centuries the language evolved tremendously. First, the pictographs became more stylised as writing became more common— first on carved jade seals, then bronzes, then written with brush and ink on paper (a Chinese invention). Orthography (basic character shapes) were standardised and fixed in about 200 BC. This was known as the ‘rectification of writing, one of the great accomplishments of Emperor Qinshihuang. Leader of a unified China from 221 to 210 B.C. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
“But by that time, characters were quite stylised relative to their original forms. The modern character for ‘rain’ is ზ; already, the pictographic origin is less obvious. Then, and crucially, pictographs began to be combined to create more complex characters that had new and more abstract meanings. In some cases, these more abstract meanings can be guessed from the combination of pictographs. For instance, rain with lightning streaking from the clouds to the ground is (but in modern script, it is, traditionally meant ‘lightning storm’. In modern usage, it has come to mean ‘electricity’. But the combinations are far from always being as obvious as that. For instance, the combination of a person passing a door became the character (in modern script, which also means ‘lightning’. One traditional etymology explains that lightning happens ‘in a flash’, just as a person moves quickly through a door. This explanation is wonderful, but hardly intuitive; ‘person in doorway’ does not automatically suggest ‘lightning’. Additionally, as we now know also about Egyptian hieroglyphs, in many cases Chinese combinations are based on sound as much as or more than they are on pictographic content. For instance, the character that means ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ is often combined with other characters to suggest parts of the human body. The characters it combines with generally suggest the sound of the body part, at least the sound that was in use at the time the character was created.
Bird’s Nest and Brain The flesh character combines with the top part of the character that means ‘bird’s nest’ (today pronounced ‘chao’, and in Middle Chinese closer to ‘nao’) to make the character (also pronounced ‘nao’), which means ‘brain’. The etymology is simply phonetic: this, the components tell us, is the character for that body part which sounds like ‘nao’. We defy anyone, using any logic other than phonetics, to explain why a fleshy bird’s nest should otherwise suggest ‘brain’.”
See Separate Article CHINA: THE HOME OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST WRITING? factsanddetails.com
Oracle Bone Divinations
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Shang people practiced divination by boring a series of pits into either a tortoise plastron (the bottom part of the tortoise shell) or a cattle scapula. A hot bronze rod was applied, producing cracks, which were interpreted as answers to questions (often expressed as a pair of two possible outcomes) that the king and/or his diviner had posed. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“Sometimes the questions, a record of the divination, and occasionally even a record of the actual outcome were inscribed on the plastron or scapula. Through such divinations, the Shang hoped to discover the causes of events, the will of their ancestors and of their highest deity, Di, and the correct course of action to take when faced with difficult decisions.
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The practice of divination by Shang kings generally involved the official diviner drilling indentations into the reverse side of a turtle shell or cattle bone and then burning the indentations to cause cracks, called "chao" (signs), to appear on the other side. On the basis of these cracks, omens or information were determined. After completing the divination, the time, name of the diviner, question asked, determination of the omen or information, and whether it came true, were often engraved on the shell or bone, either beside the cracks or on the reverse. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]
Dr. Eno wrote: “Divination by bone and shell was a highly formulaic process. The charges to the bones and the rituals of cracking proceed independent of the issue of getting an answer to the divination – even after the identification of the spirit...the entire process must be pursued to the end. The object of the divination questionswas the realm of the spirits, and the relevant spirits were most often royal ancestors. It was they, above all others, who exerted influence upon the person of the king and the body of the state – the two often seem to have been viewed as inseparable. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
Re-enactment of a Oracle Bone Divination
Doing an oracle bone divinationDavid Keightley, a Berkeley professor and the foremost expert on oracle texts in the West, has written a “brief, imaginative account of the scene of such a divination ritual,” based on the text of an actual set of inscriptions. In his description, Keightley aims to show not only the act of divination itself but also to conjure up a scene that displays the atmosphere and importance of the ancient ritual. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
Keightley writes: “The sun’s rays glint first on the mountains to the west, then, moments later, touch the thatched roofs of the temples and pit dwellings that follow the curve of the Huan. The river, still in shadow at the foot of the earthen cliff, winds to the southeast between clearings of sprouting millet, on its way to merge with the powerful Ho, the Yellow River. The year is the eleventh of the reign of Wu-22, the season spring, the day, the eighth of the ten-day week. [Source: David Keightley, “Sources of Shang History” (Berkeley: 1977), 1-2 ***]
“Filtering through the portal of the ancestral temple, the sunlight wakens the eyes of the monster mask, bulging with life on the garish bronze tripod. At the center of the temple stands the king, at the center of the four quarters, the center of the Shang world. Ripening millet glimpsed through the doorway shows that his harvest rituals have found favor. Bronze cauldrons with their cooked meat offerings invite the presence of his ancestors, their bodies buried deep and safely across the river, but their spirits, some benevolent, some not, still reigning over the royal house and the king’s person. One is angry, for the king’s jaw ached all the night before and is aching still, on the eve of his departure to follow Zhi Guo on campaign against the Bafang. ***
“Five turtle shells lie on the rammed earth altar. The plastrons have been polished like jade, but are scarred on their inner side with rows of oval hollows, some already blackened by fire. Into one of the unburned hollows, on the right side of the shell, the diviner Que is thrusting a brand of flaming thorn. As he does so he cries, “The sick tooth is not due to Father !” Fanned by an assistant to keep the flowing tip intensely hot, the stick flames again against the surface of the shell. Smoke rises. The seconds slowly pass. The stench of scorched bone mingles with the aroma of millet wine scattered in libation. And then, with a sharp, clear, like sound, the turtle, most silent of creatures, speaks. A crack has formed in the hollow where the plastron was scorched. Once again the brand is thrust, now into the matching hollow on the left side of the shell: “It is due to Father !” More time passes; another crack forms in response. Moving to the next plastron, Que repeats the charges: “It is not due to Father !” “It is due to Father !” He rams the brand into the hollows and cracks the second turtle shell, then the third, the fourth, and the fifth. ***
“The diviners consult. The congregation of kinsmen strains to catch their words, for the curse of a dead father may, in the king’s eyes, be the work of a living son. Que rubs wood ash from the fire into the new set of cracks and scrutinizes them once more. But the shell has given no indication. The charge must be divined again. Two more cracks are made in each of the five plastrons... and there is again no sign. /+/
“Another brand is plucked from the fire and the new charge cried: “The sick tooth is not due to Father !... It is due to Father !” Father – the king’s senior uncle. This time the indications are clear. The sons of Father, the king’s older cousins, turn away in dismay at the diviner’s reading of the cracks. The spirit, their father, has been blamed. But still the work of spiritual identification continues. “It is not due to Father !... It is due to Father !” Que moves methodically down the row of five plastrons, reciting the negative and positive charges and cracking each shell twice in this way. No judgment can be made. Once again, as for Father, ten more cracks are burned. “Auspicious!” Que points to two cracks on the second and fourth shells. Father is without blame, his descendants relieved. /+/
“Now the king speaks. Assistants drag two victims into the temple. There is the barking and bleating of animals in panic, then silence. Blood stains the earth floor. The king dismembers the victims as Que proposes a new charge: “We sacrifice a dog to Father and butcher a sheep.” The brand flames............ the plastrons crack in slow and stately sequence. Has the sacrifice mollified the dead uncle? Will the pain in the sick tooth depart? The king, his hands still sticky with blood, scans the cracks...*
Eno wrote: “Keightley illustrates how the process of divination was one step in a larger program of ritual observances. The opulent bronze vessels of sacrifice that decorate the scene suggest the focal importance of sacrificial rites to the noble clans of the Shang polity. An enormous concentration of wealth and labor was invested in the objects of the ritual industries. This fact is underscored in another way in Keightley’s tale: the fact that it cost the Shang court one sheep and one dog to pacify Father Geng and cure the king’s tooth.”
Oracle Bone Texts and the Origins of Writing in China
Dr. Eno wrote: “The inscriptions on the oracle texts are the earliest surviving examples of written language in China. Chinese scholars are well aware that writing emerged in Mesopotamia (cuneiform) and Egypt (hieroglyphics) as early as the late 4th millennium B.C., and, with an eye towards establishing an equivalent antiquity for the Chinese case, there have been a number of attempts to argue that writing emerged in China much earlier than the late 2nd millennium date of the oracle texts.Written signs that predate the oracle texts have indeed been discovered at Chinese sites dating back to the Neolithic; these are generally inscribed on pottery vessels and some bear resemblances to simple Chinese characters. However, there is no evidence that these signs represented spoken language, which is the critical feature of symbolic records that establishes them meaningfully as “writing.” Early pottery signs appear to be best interpreted as maker’s marks designating pottery workshops or as clan insignia designating owners. The closest correlations with language are what appear to be notations of number, though these need not have been associated with phonetically articulated words any more than the symbol must be read or “read” at all. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
“The status or oracle graphs as the earliest Chinese writing presents a puzzle because the evidence we confront in the bones is of a robust system with a wide array of lexical items and clearly emerging norms of orthography. It has been a common assumption of the field that oracle texts owe their unique historical status to the fact that shell and bone are relatively imperishable media for writing – that the writing system initially developed and was deployed on items such as wood, unfired clay, and other easily marked media, none of which survive. On this argument, oracle writing is probably a reduced form of early Chinese writing: the difficulty of etching on shell and bone is such that calligraphic values that would have informed earlier writing, particularly brush writing, have been sacrificed in order to facilitate the “mass” production of oracle inscriptions. /+/
“Very recently, this commonsense view of the origins of writing in China has been challenged by a young scholar named Adam D. Smith, who has developed a set of sophisticated claims which argue that in the oracle inscriptions we are seeing the actual invention of writing. Smith’s arguments take as empirical data a group of inscriptions that have long been recognized as “practice” etchings made by student scribes learning how to record oracle divinations. Smith’s analyses demonstrate that in some cases, at least, it appears clear that the student trainee is not learning how to etch, he is learning how to write, implying that shell and bone may indeed, in individual cases at least, have been the first media for writing. /+/
“More important historically, however, are a series of arguments Smith makes concerning the social contexts necessary for the emergence of writing, contexts that involve standardized action in a “professionalized” and regulated environment, frequent repetition of a complex set of tasks, and a stable structure of marked expert-trainee relationships that can provide a conduit for the preservation of technical art and its replication by others over time. Smith’s claim is that given such conditions, if there is an innovation to used written symbols to record information, it is far more likely for that innovation to be preserved and developed, and the development can be both restricted to the generating environment and very rapid. In the Mesopotamian case, these conditions seem to have been provided by contexts of economic bookkeeping in contexts of trade. Smith argues that the divination bone workshops of the Shang may have provided precisely the same types of conditions. /+/
“If we follow Smith’s arguments – and since they are as yet unpublished it is far from clear that the field will choose to do so – the implication may be that under the Shang king Wu-ding, whose ritual and divinatory interests appear to have been exceptional, the religious activity at it s central locus, the divination workshop, reached a pitch of frequency complexity, and regulation that created the conditions for the innovation of literacy in East Asia, one of only three times in world history that enduring writing systems have emerged. Given the importance of the technology of writing to the emergence of the Chinese cultural sphere as dominant throughout the East Asian mainland, this would signify that the role of oracle texts in the cultural history of China and East Asia is in fact far greater than has previously been understood. /+/
Writing and Symbols During the Early Shang Period
Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “The well-developed economic system and ceremonial activities that were important for the theocracy during the early Shang period boosted development of the arts. This included an increase in symbolic communication and production of goods used for ritual and other purposes. The forms of art included early writing and special decorative techniques. [Source: “Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture” by Yuan Guangkuo, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013 /thirdworld.nl ~|~]
“The emergence of writing is one of the indicators of civilization, and there is abundant evidence for this from early Shang sites. Inscribed symbols have been found mainly in phase III deposits at Zhengzhou (rank 1), Xiaoshuangqiao (rank 1), and Taixi (rank 2). Several symbols were found at Zhengzhou, as well as some resembling modern characters. These symbols were found mostly on “dakou zun”(“large-mouthed” “zun”jars). In addition, some vessels from Xiaoshuangqiao have incised symbols under the rim. Some of these symbols seem similar to inscriptions on oracle bones from the late Shang period. ~|~
“There are symbols carved on vessels from Taixi such as “gui”.. ring-foot bowls, “weng”.. jars, “guan”.. jars, “dou”.. stemmed dishes, “pen”.. basins, “lei”.. jars, “bo”..bowls, and “li”.. tripods. Most of the symbols were found on the shoulders of “weng”jars. More than 80 different symbols were found at the Taixi site, including single characters that are the same as characters for numbers today and symbols of objects such as fish. It seems that the use of vessels with inscribed symbols in ceremonies involving sacrificial offerings was common in this period. ~|~
“A few inscribed oracle bones have been found in the Zhengzhou city site since the early fieldwork there, raising many debates about context and interpretation. Three bone fragments were found with characters. One of them is a cattle bone found in April 1953 within a disturbed layer. Eleven characters were inscribed in three lines.
“As already mentioned, many sacrificial pits containing human victims, cattle heads and horns, dogs, and other remains were found at the large Xiaoshuangqiao site. The ceramic jars excavated from these sacrificial pits can be classified into two groups on the basis of their size. About 10 jars show traces of more than 20 characters written in cinnabar. ~|~
“They mostly indicate single words that can be put into three categories: numbers (such as.. two,.. three,.. seven); human-like symbols and pictographs (one from pit H101 has a human-like symbol near the vessel rim with a clear head, body, arms, and legs); and animal-like symbols. It should be pointed out that although these symbols or words were written on pottery vessels with cinnabar, their shape, strokes, structure, and techniques of expression reveal that they are in the family of oracle-bone inscriptions and inscriptions on bronze artifacts. The characters with smooth lines and beautiful structure are dated earlier than inscriptions on bone and bronze. It appears that these types of words represent a stage in the development of ancient Chinese writing. During the early Shang period, it was already quite developed (Song 2003).” ~|~
Discovery of Oracle Bone Inscriptions
The first oracle bones were discovered in 1899. According to legend a member of the family of scholar Wang Yirong came down with malaria and was prescribed ground up turtle shells as a treatment. The shells arrived pre-ground. Wang noticed that some of them had scratchings on them that looked like Chinese writing. After that he began collected shells and bones with similar scratchings — oracle bones — and analyzed them and wrote about his findings. His research came to a sudden end when he committed suicide by taking poison and jumping down a well during the Boxer Rebellion.
The source of the oracle bones was an area near a small village called Xiaotun near Anyang. Dealers in “dragon bones” kept the site secret to maintain their monopoly. When archeologist finally discovered the site they began doing serious excavations, unearthing more than 100,000 inscribed fragments in the 1920s When the Oracles bones were discovered scholars were able to decipher some of them immediately. The oracle bones were the first hard archeological evidence of the Shang dynasty’s existence. There were historical documents that referred to the Shang but many Western scholars dismissed them as mythical.
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Antiquities had long been unearthed around the village of Hsiao-t'un in Anyang. Farmers plowing their fields often uncovered turtle shells and animal bones, which were engraved with writing and sometimes also smeared with red. They sold them as "dragon bones" to apothecaries for use as a raw material in medication for wounds.” In antiquity, fragment of cattle scapula and other bones with no inscriptions) were used to make "medicine for incised wounds". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]
“The first person to discover the value of oracle bones was Wang Yi-jung (1845-1900), a high-ranking official at the end of the Ch'ing dynasty. In 1899, it was said that Wang was suffering from malaria when he sent his servant to an apothecary for medicine to fulfill his prescription. His friend Liu Eh found ancient writing inscribed on a piece of turtle plastron in the medicine, which led to the rediscovery of oracle bone inscriptions. \=/
“The attention placed on oracle bones resulted in rampant private excavation, in which many unearthed pieces were sold to collectors in Europe, the U.S., and Japan. It was not until the establishment of Academia Sinica's Institute of History and Philology in 1928 that scientific approaches in archaeological field work began there. According to some estimates, in the thirty years between Wang's discovery in 1899 and the start of archaeological excavation at the Yin Ruins in 1928, as many as 10,000 pieces of bone and turtle plastron were privately excavated. \=/
“Archaeological excavation began at the Yin Ruins, and oracle bones were brought into the scientific era. The archaeological harvest from the Yin Ruins has been abundant with more than twenty thousand pieces of bone and shell bearing inscriptions being unearthed. Oracle bones were no longer items that occasionally turned up in antique shops, and the artifacts that accompanied oracle bones from the ground provided first-hand evidence for researchers to understand Shang history and to penetrate Shang civilization.” \=/
Dr. Eno wrote: “The bones that Wang Yirong and Liu E discovered in Wang’s medicine packet were indeed the records of the kings of the Shang. After the excavations at Xiaotun had yielded substantial numbers of unbroken inscriptions, progress on deciphering the texts accelerated rapidly. After 1937, archaeological work was halted again, first by the Japanese invasion of China that signaled the start of World War II in Asia, and then by the civil wars that preceded the Communist revolution of 1949. Nevertheless, by this time over 100,000 fragments of inscribed bone had been mined from Xiaotun and nearby sites, and it this pre-war collection that remains the heart of the oracle text corpus. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Oracle Bones: Brooklyn College and United College Hong Kong; Making an oracle bone, British Museum;
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2021