Oracle Bones: Writing Begins with a Mystery

Replica of a oracle bone turtle shell | Courtesy of History Ancient China. Word Press

The Shang Dynasty was born in 1550 B.C.E. after the fall of the Xia Dynasty. A ritual was created during the latter part of the Shang Dynasty, which placed an emphasis on the use what we now call Oracle Bones. Those bone give us a glimpse into how China’s first written language emerged as well as some of its first uses.

This all began in 1200 B.C.E. with the ruler of China establishing a palace and temple complex in Xiaotun, near Anyang. This move pushed the leaders of the Shang Dynasty to undergo a dramatic change. It ushered in what may be the first written records of a civilization in East Asia. The Late Shang Dynasty began with Wu Ding, the twenty-first king, and ended with Di Xin. During the Great Shang Dynasty these kings with their nobles, kinsmen, and other subjects consulted their ancestors on how to go about doing their various political duties.1

They contacted their ancestors for guidance through what archaeologists call Oracle Bones. Shang Diviners were experts in the use of fire and bones to divine the future. These Diviners would drill holes in ox shoulder blades or turtle shells; they would take red-hot pokers and place them into the hollows of the bones, which would in turn cause the bones and shells to crack and sometimes break. At the moment when the Diviners pressed the pokers in the holes, they would speak the king’s questions to the spirit that was being summoned. Once the cracks were interpreted, they were further recorded by etchings near the cracks. Those etchings make up the earliest form of Chinese writing. They served as records of the kinds of things kings wanted to know, what kinds of answers they believed were revealed, the names of the Diviners, the outcomes of the events, and the dates these divinations took place. These “oracle bone inscriptions” or “oracle bone texts” have been found in complexes in Xiaotun, near Anyang, which appear to have been the resting place for many of the Oracle Bone texts that we have today.2

Early Chinese writing carved on a Shang Dynasty oracle bone.
Early Chinese writing carved on a Shang Dynasty oracle bone | Printed by about education | Courtesy of Harvard     University

In some cases with the oracle bone texts, we find that the diviner was the king of the Shang Dynasty himself. When the etchings speak of the future or outcome of important events, the diviner for that ritual was most likely the king. None of the Oracle Bone texts that have been written by the king have seemingly ever been wrong. This record of perfection was important for the king because it legitimized his rule and prestige for having strong powers of spiritual interpretation. Yet, we know that someone cannot always be right in foreseeing the future and so the errors of the king were not recorded, but silenced. This large amount of record keeping really sheds light on Shang religion and culture that had not been seen before. Reading these historical texts is a hardship in itself. The evolution of writing in the Shang dynasty through other texts have given historians clues into deciphering these Oracle Bone descriptions.3

The foremost interpreter and historian of Oracle Bone Inscriptions in the West is David Keightley. Writing many books and articles on his interpretations, he has created a history for the people of the Late Shang Dynasty that includes religious and cultural beliefs in his works. One of the biggest collections of Oracle Bones resides at Princeton University and many of these have been seen and interpreted by Keightley. There are always new evidence surfacing and most of the time the meanings of the bones change, making it truly a mystery that can only be solved with time.4

  1.  David N. Keightley, The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2000), 119-123.
  2.  Donald S. Lopez Jr., Religions of China in Practice (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996), 41-46.
  3. Lopez, Religions of China in Practice, 41-46.
  4. Keightly, The Ancestral Landscape, 119-123.

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This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Oracle bones are so intriguing, the idea of reading the cracks in the bones that occur after being heated must take skill. Or they are really good at faking it. However the idea that they “silenced” the incorrect visions they had is interesting because then it plays a role in the politics of the Shang Dynasty. So were oracle bones really legitimate or were the powerful using it as a tool to maintain power?

  2. This article made me find that written language is created as a result of someone’s aim and we can know it through the letters that are left.
    It is wonderful and mysterious that we can find out the situation or ideas of people in such an ancient times.
    The mystry of the borns has not been revealed, which makes me rather excited.

  3. I have always found information regarding artifacts interesting because it is astonishing to me that things are able to be preserved for such long periods of time. Also, artifacts sometimes reveal information about the past that solves mysteries and can help us build our future, which is exactly what these oracle bones did. The information gained from these findings reveal to historians more about the religion and behaviors of China during this time, which helps to create a timeline of history that can explain why things are the way they are today.

  4. This is a very interesting article on writing and prophecies. I have only ever known about the rituals of reading bone shapes and such but never the cracks and writing the messages on the bones. The King of China is a great example of how this was manipulated and used to his own benefit because it said that it is believed that he would prophecies what he could prove and what could not was erased. It goes to show that forms of government and leaders have doing the same thing for centuries unfortunately.

  5. In all honesty, I was mesmerized since the first time I ever saw one. The artifacts are a piece of the Shang Dynasty and it surprises me that these “oracle bones” have survived this long. There is no doubt that most of the symbols in the bones still remain a mystery to use but as the author put it, it can only be solved with time. I thought that the last sentence was a nice closing sentence that summarized the whole article.

  6. Natalie Thamm

    This was an interesting article. Before reading it, I had never heard of oracle bones. It was fascinating that they would take the bones, and have them crack with pokers and then make interpretations from there. It also seems that these give an incredible and accurate look into the history and culture of the time period, since like the author mentioned, the ones that were wrong were destroyed.

  7. Samman Tyata

    What a fascinating article! I really love the way how you have structured you article. It is interesting to me that this early writing was found on bones. It is amazing how Diviners drilled holes in ox shoulder blades or turtle shells and took red-hot pokers and placed them into the hollows of the bones. Particularly, Oracle bones were fascinating objects, and a fascinating aspect of that culture. To sum it up, it was a good read.

  8. It is astonishing learning about all the different cultures we have in our world today. Before reading this article, I have never of the “Oracle Bones”. This topic is very interesting because it gives us an idea how religion and culture was back then. When I first read the title of this article, I did not think it was a way to get in contact with your ancestors. It also makes us think differently on how we connect with other people. Great Article!

  9. Maria Callejas

    First of all, great title, very creative! This is an amazingly interesting article, I had no prior knowledge about oracle bones and the history being it. Great usage of evidence, specifically when you describe how diviners would “drill holes in ox shoulder blades or turtle shells”. It is amazing to see how the earliest civilizations aimed to become great communicators and leave evidence of it. Great conclusion, you leave the readers with a suspenseful mood, showing the complexity of this pre-historic language.

  10. This was a very good article. I am very interested in different languages and love to see how different languages and ways of writing come about in different areas around the world. I found it very interesting that they used bones in order to write things that they wanted. I think it is so cool that we still have artifacts from that long ago. I also found it interesting that these writings always empowered the king and never recorded any of the mistakes that the king would make.

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