We have all had our fair share of curiosity when it comes to predicting our future. We buy magic 8 balls, and go to fortune tellers. This same curiosity was present all the way back to 1600 BCE, in the Shang Dynasty of China, but at that time magic 8 balls had not been invented. Instead, the Shang created Oracle Bones to see what their futures held.
Oracle bones are pieces of ox scapula or turtle plastron, which were used for pyromancy, a method of telling the future using fire, in ancient China, mainly during the Shang dynasty. The oracle bones of this dynasty are said to have been unearthed over a period of many years by local farmers in three different Chinese dynasties, but local inhabitants did not realize what the bones were, and most times they simply reburied them. During the 1800’s, Chinese villagers were digging in the fields when they discovered a number of these bones and used them as “dragon bones,” which was a traditional Chinese medicine practice of grinding up fossils from almost twelve thousand years ago into tonics or poultices. The turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria, while the other animal bones were mixed and produced into a powder to treat knife wounds.1
The Diviners would ask Chinese deities questions directed towards their own ancestors, considering that their faith placed a strong respect towards for elders. Other questions asked addressed future weather, crop planting, the futures of members of the royal family, military matters, hypothetical business endeavors, and more. These questions were carved onto the bone or shell in a special form of Chinese characters known as oracle bone script, using a sharp tool. During the special session, the bone was often covered in blood along with the name of the diviner and the date for record keeping purposes. Heat was then applied with a metal rod until the bone or shell cracked due to the bone expanding because of the heat. The diviner would then interpret and analyze the pattern of cracks and write the predicted future on the piece as well, and in some cases recorded the outcome on the bone, provided the bone was still intact by the end of the divining session. By the time of the Zhou dynasty, cinnabar ink and brush had become the preferred writing method, resulting in fewer carved inscriptions and often blank oracle bones being unearthed.2
The oracle bones also bear the earliest known ancient Chinese writing and contain important significant information such as the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty, or a complete royal family tree. When they were discovered and deciphered in the early twentieth century, these records confirmed the existence of the Shang, which some scholars had doubted until then. Scholars then discovered a variety of 4500 characters written on the oracle bones, but only discovered what 1700 of these characters meant. The resemblance between the oracle bone script and the modern Chinese script is an obvious one, and scholars were able to identify the meaning behind the script because of this.3
To this day oracle bones are still being discovered in many areas of the Zhōuyuán, which is the original location of the Zhou. Although many oracle bones have been found, few were inscribed. It is thought that a new writing method had been discovered and pyromancy was no longer used.
- John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 152. ↵
- Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones : A Journey between China’s Past and Present (New York : HarperCollins, 2006), 33. ↵
- Fei Deng and Xu Wen, “On the Image Schemas of Time Expressions in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Ancient China’s Shang Dynasty,” Journal of Sino-Western Communications vol 4, no. 2 (Dec 2012): 91. ↵