Our recent discussion on the Shang Dynasty got me thinking about an East Asian Religion course I took, where we also discussed the Shang Dynasty and its connection to oracle bones. The Shang Dynasty of China is considered the first civilization to leave written records and solid archaeological evidence. It is believed that the Shang Dynasty was the second of the Three Dynasties Period, although many dispute the existence of an earlier dynasty. The proposed earlier dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, is only referenced in legends and later writings.
Previously, Shang history was based on historical accounts that were written long after the Shang Dynasty. There were bronze inscriptions found, but those were short and did not provide much detail. This lack of information all changed when the oracle bones were discovered. The inscriptions on oracle bones matched the information about the Shang Dynasty written hundreds of years after its end. This information provided an important key to proof for the existence of the Shang Dynasty. These oracle bones and bronze inscriptions helped legitimize the Shang Dynasty. More evidence was then gathered, examined, and connected to the Shang Dynasty (like archaeological sites and other artifacts).
Oracle bones are usually scapula of large animals or turtle shells, that were used by kings and diviners to answer questions and tell the future. A diviner would carve the question into one side, then small pits would be carved out of the other side. They would use the art of pyromancy (using fire) to tell the fortune, or divine the answer from the bone or shell. A red-hot poker would be pressed into the pits, causing the bone or shell to crack. It is these resulting cracks that the diviner would interpret, and the answer was then carved into the oracle bone as well. An interesting point here is that all of the writings for the Shang Dynasty are religious text, since they are all dealing with oracle bones and bronze inscriptions.
In the latter years of the Shang Dynasty, the banks of the Huan river saw a royal ritual center established by the kings. This center housed a group of diviners who specialized in the dealing and communicating with the complex spirit world. They were in service to the king, and responsible for conducting the rituals with the oracle bones, asking the questions, and interpreting the answers. These questions could range anywhere from the outcome of a war, how plentiful a harvest would be, or even the cause of a king’s headache.
It is interesting to note the variety of topics that were dealt with using oracle bones, yet all the writings are religious in nature (since the oracle bone ritual is religious). This is in drastic comparison to Mesopotamia’s earliest writings/forms of writing, which are commercial or economic in nature.