oracle bone

Knowing the future is essential for every human being, and every culture developed her special techniques to know more about events in the future. In China, the Shang kings in Anyang developed a method to divine that is found only in that place. Using the scapulae (shoulder-blades) of different cattle or the plastron (breastshield) of turtles, diviners tried to tell the future by creating cracks on the bones. Holding the flat bones over the fire or inserting a hot bronze stick into a hole drilled in the surface of the bones, the diviners were able to tell good or bad by reading the emerged cracks.

The most interesting thing for us today is that they did not only create cracks, but it is the fact that the scribes of the king wrote down the result of the divination on the bones and sometimes compared it with the real event later. Hundreds of these oracles bones were stored in the king’s archives, and they are the first testimonies of Chinese history and writing.

The first king’s name appearing in the inscriptions is that of Wu-ding who lived around 1200 BC. Now we know that all stories written down in the Han Dynasty universal histories are not only fantasy, but also the mythic Shang dynasty and her kings must really have existed.

The oracle bone inscriptions are a further proof of the script- and document-oriented spirit of the Chinese people. Unlike the many documents written on bamboo strips that definitely did exist during the Spring and Autumn period and that have decayed since long, the bones were preserved and can give us a lively insight into the daily life of the Shang upper class and its political and leisure time activities. There must have been a huge office with hundreds of employees to administrate the preparing, making, and storing the thousands of divination documents.

During the later part of Shang Dynasty, the king took over the alone role of the diviner, which has been shared, by different diviners during early Shang. Until then, every diviner had a special topic or subject he was professional, e.g. one diviner for warfare, one for ancestral rites, one for household affairs, and so on. It was usual to make divinations for a ten-day week and during special days of this week.

The script on the oracle bones came up suddenly, and we have no traces of an earlier proto-script. An overview of the oracle bone inscriptions results in a total number of about 1200 characters. Modern scholars categorized them into different classifiers to compose dictionaries or collections, see a scanned overview of the oracle bone character classifiers.

Example of an oracle bone
This is the rubbing of an oxen scapula that served as an oracle bone for divining about when to going to hunt. The characters were filled with cinnabar to make them readable. Some of the characters have no modern counterpart like the animals, in the transliteration simply called “deer”. Making the burning cracks into the bone was the task of an oracle specialist, the specialist of this example is called Gu. After creating the cracks, the king himself as a diviner reads the cracks and interprets them. Finally, a scribe wrote down the result of divining and the real outcome of the events. Reading this bone, we are witnesses of an accident during the hunt. Row seven shows that predicted bad luck actually happened when the king cut his finger or so. The words in the square brackets [] are added, the characters in the round brackets are modern types or modern writing variants.

( 1) On the day wuzi, Zigong was bound for one month.

( 2) [The king] read the oracle, saying: Going on the sixth day would be disadvantageous. Day jimao going out to hunt deer, day ziyin coming back.

( 3) On the day guiwei, Gu made an oracle: The end of the ten-day week will be unlucky, better go to Qiong on the tenth day.

( 4) On the day guizi, Gu made an oracle: The end of the ten-day week will be unlucky, the king read the oracle, saying: it is even

( 5) disadvantageous to carry out an oracle. On the day jiawu, the king went to pursue deer.

( 6) Chariot and horses of he small officer Xie collided with the king’s chariot, the driver named Yang fell of the chariot.

( 7) On the day guiyou, Gu made an oracle: The end of the ten-day week will be unlucky. Two days later, the king was injured.

( 8) He read the oracle: Whoo! Disadvantage and awakening on the fifth day of the week.

( 9) On the day dingchou, the king hosted his ancestor Zhongding, and Qi stayed at

(10) the palace for two months.