Oracle Bones

Oracle bones were first brought to the attention of modern scholars in 1899 when Wang Yirong, a young Chinese scholar, discovered that the “dragon bones” he had been prescribed for traditional medicinal use were bones inscribed with an early form of ancient Chinese writing (Flad 405). Subsequent excavations at Anyang, Hunan province in the 1920s and 30s unveiled Xu Yun, the capital of the Shang Dynasty  (approximately 1600-1050 BCE), and resting place of the first discovered mass site of oracle bones. Today, over 130,000 oracle bones have been excavated throughout China, although many more undoubtedly remain undiscovered (Shi and Zhang).


Oracle bones were first used by Neolithic communities in Northern China, in a process called pyro-scapulimancy, during which heat-induced stress cracks on bones were interpreted by local, decentralized shamans for the purpose of divination – foretelling the outcome of future events. The bones of deer, sheep, pigs and cattle, among others, demonstrate early oracle bone divination as an unpolished and un-engraved form of later methods. Scapulas eventually became the predominately used medium for divination, for reasons not yet determined (Keightley 1978: 3-8). While these early oracle bones suggest the development and continuity of ancient practice, the use of oracle bones in China is most closely associated with the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1050 BCE), which also developed a steady use of turtle shells for divination practices (Keightley 8). During that time, oracle bone divination became increasingly codified and hierarchal. Not only did late Shang (1250-1059 BCE) kings introduce engravings into the process of divination, creating the first written record of Chinese history, but they also were the first to use divination to enforce a legitimizing hierarchy for their regime (Flad 403-437). So, by the time of Wu Ding’s rule in the late Shang historical period, strict protocols had been enacted for both oracle bone divination and inscription that reinforced state ritual and hierarchy. It is estimated that during this time, the preparation process for divining required 50 man hours a day: bones were cleaned, sawed, scraped, and smoothed before small, circular hollows were made in the surface of the bone. It was within these hollows that diviners would apply directed heat to create cracks in the surface, to foretell the nature of future events (Keightley 1978). As can be seen in Images 1 and 2, this created a two-sided treatment of the bones with one side bearing the hollows where cracks were applied, and the other bearing the record of the divination. Bones could only be prepared and divined by those who had been royally sanctioned, and while many diviners could induce cracks in the surface of bones, it was only the king who could determine the outcome of the cracks (Keightley 1978: 31). As such, religious interpretations of the oracles bones gave previously unprecedented moral authority to state imperatives.


Warfare, Ritual, and Divination

While much is left unknown about life under Shang rule, it is almost certain that warfare was an unavoidable fact of life. The uncertainties of life in a state of constant military mobilization received structure under strong Shang leadership (Campbell 830-832). Ultimately, the ancestral hierarchy that defined Shang society connected the king with spiritual, as well as political authority. The king was ranked only below ancestral spirits, and a master deity named Di, who was invoked frequently in oracle bones that contain engravings (Keightley 1995: 128-145). Pyro-scapulimancy was a process both ritualized and incredibly structured. The use of sacrificial ritual only added to the king’s displays of power. 10,000 sacrificial victims have been found in connection to royal sacrifice; while many of these were livestock, many others were also captives of war. Records found on oracle bones recount events that hundreds of victims were sacrificed in a single event (Campbell 833). The sacrificial ritual demonstrated the harsh, warring climate of Shang China, as well as served to further enforce the regime through shows of royal power.

Subjects of divination were numerous and varied. While many questions were related to sacrificial rituals, others ranged in scale from military campaigns, agriculture, hunting, dream interpretation, childbearing, identification of sickness, and even the weather (136). The Shang rulers based decisions on which date military campaigns would be carried and which diplomatic ties to foster, along with every day decisions like the start of hunting campaigns (Flad; Keightley). In this way, oracle bones directly helped determine the activities of Shang leaders. The wide scope of topics addressed in oracle bone divination also express the extent to which ritual defined daily life. Oracle bone divinations took place within a societal framework of ancestral worship; ancestors influenced minute factors of day-to-day life, including weather patterns (Keightley 1995: 128-145). While some divinations would look far into the future, the majority of readings were concerned with events taking place within the immediate future, typically ten days of the reading. This suggests an immediate and intimate relationship with ever-present ancestral spirits. It is important to note that only 10% of known oracle bones are inscribed. Because inscriptions are endemic to Shang elite oracle bone divination, the high level of unmarked oracle bones suggests a widespread, broad based use of pyro-scapulimancy by the public, under the direction of local specialists. While Shang rulers used Oracle bone divination to increase their legitimacy, this all-encompassing ancestral worldview was undoubtedly shared by mass society.

“The Cradle of Written Language”

As the first written record of Chinese history, oracle bones demonstrate the development of Chinese written and spoken language. Symbols found on late Shang engravings display an early form of logography, the phonetic, pictographic format that still constitutes Chinese writing today (Hessler). The cultural significance of these bones can be found in the detailed inscriptions they contain: bones from the late Shang historical period, provide detailed information on the date, diviner, prognostication, and outcome. It is these engravings that allow historians to learn about specific military campaigns, dynastic lineage, and cultural practices (Keightley 1978). In the Zhou, and preceding dynasties, oracle bones continued to be used, but without the engravings and structure provided by late Shang divinations. While oracle bone inscriptions are crucial in determining historical, linguistic, and cultural markers of Ancient China, these written records have broader implications for the understanding of natural earth processes over time. Referencing oracle bone inscriptions, NASA astrologists recast oracle bones into the public eye when they determined that the length of a day is one-twentieth of a second longer now than in Shang times, proving the rotation of earth has slowed (Brown). Undoubtedly, oracle bones continue to strengthen human understanding of a shared past.

Yinxu, the capital of the Shang dynasty, and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In modern times, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has adopted the Shang method of using oracle bones to legitimate its political hegemony and to accentuate its ties to an ancient and continuous Chinese historical legacy. By demonstrating an unbroken tie to what is considered the “cradle of written language” the CCP garners national pride, and international recognition for the modern Chinese state (Hessler). As the ongoing subject of research and scholarly discourse the government has invested in continued excavation and examination of sites containing oracle bones: in 2005 the Henan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage funded an extensive archaeological project to determine the exact way in which oracle bones were manufactured (Wang; Peng). In 2009, the Chinese Character Museum was opened in Anyang to document the development of Chinese writing, with heavy emphasis on Shang inscriptions and bronzes, and the CCP recently enshrined oracles bones as part of national literary legacy (Yang). Furthermore, as can be seen in Image 3, the recognition of Yin Xu, the Shang capital in Anyang, Henan, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has increased tourism flow, both domestically and internationally (UNESCO; Baoyin and Zhang). While oracle bones still provide a large source of mystery to scholars, the constantly expanding implications of oracle bone scholarship combined with their mysticism in the public eye, ensure that oracle bones will continue to be a source of ongoing research, debate, and imaginings