Shang Dynasty and Oracle Bones

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.

3 thoughts on “Shang Dynasty and Oracle Bones

  1. fortonma

    The presence of oracle bones in the archaeological record is such an amazing tool available to Chinese archaeologists. So many ancient cultures did not develop a written language, or if they did it’s meaning has been long lost. Having a written record of historical events and the religious beliefs of the Shang Dynasty offers insight into the world of this ancient culture, that would otherwise be unknown.

    However I believe one must use caution when taking a direct interpretation of historical texts. While these writings may offer an unparalleled glimpse into the past, it is nonetheless through the eyes of the original author. Humans are naturally going to have different outlooks on life, and this will manifest itself in their writings. No writing is completely unbiased and the Shang oracle bones are going to give only the viewpoint of the diviner and their customer. Thus these oracle bones must be read with a grain of salt. They won’t contain the whole picture, and the view they do show of Shang Dynasty is restricted to a certain class of people.

    This caution is not unique to ancient texts. Any historical document is going to be biased toward the interpretation of the author. Often only the wealthy and affluent could afford education and knowledge of writing. Thus much of written history is passed down from nobles, royalty, or religious institutions like the church. Very little is usually said what life was like for the common man and the little that is mentioned is through the interpretation of a lord or noble.

    This is where archaeology can help fill in the gaps of history. While the written record can be misleading on the condition of a culture, the archaeological record does not lie. So while the Oracle Bones provide a unique view into the religious beliefs of the Shang Dynasty, their reliability is not foolproof. Rather they should be used in supplementation with the archaeological record to get the clearest picture of what life was like during the Shang Dynasty.

  2. Ciera Uyeunten

    I thought that your post was really interesting because I have heard of oracle bones before but I have not ever really known what it was. I do agree with you about how interesting it is to find that all of the inscriptions were of religious matter rather than economic ideas like the many civilizations before them. But to somewhat better understand oracle bones and what they are I decided to look a few things up myself and what I found was pretty much the same thing that you did. Oracle bones were normally pieces of an animal’s shell or even bone, usually the scapula of an ox or a turtle plastron, which is the flat part of the shell that’s essentially on its “belly.” These bones would then be used for divination. Questions about the weather, their crops, the fortunes of the royal family, and other curiosities, would then be carved into the bone and when heat is applied the bone would then crack and it is that crack that the diviners would then interpret as the answer. These oracle bones are the earliest known significant evidence of Chinese writing and contain important information about China’s history that was not known before the discovery of these bones and shells. Such important information included the entire royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty. Learning the genealogy of the Shang dynasty was vital because once they were discovered and deciphered, it proved that the Shang dynasty really was a time period in China since until its discovery, there were many scholars that didn’t believe that the Shang even existed from lack of evidence.

  3. Alison Alessi

    The oracle bones really interested me as well. It reminded me of another form of Chinese divination known as I Ching. I Ching is usually done by flipping a coin and based on heads or tails, a hexagram is formed. One side of the coin equals a broken line, while the other represents an unbroken line. These lines are stacked and then interpreted based on a text that goes back to almost 500 BC. Originally, the way for getting these hexagrams was through something called the “yarrow” method but this was lost as it was replaced by the coins during the Han dynasty. This form of divination existed during the time of the Shang dynasty and even evidence of the trigrams and hexagrams have been found on oracle bones. Even the last ruler of the Shang dynasty, Zhou Wang thought that all the hexagrams that started with “initiating” spoke of the rise of Zhou. Though oracle bones are not very prevalent in modern society, a copy of the I Ching can be found at most book stores. It’s sort of looked on as the Chinese Tarot. You’d probably find the I Ching in the same section as Tarot. It’s amazing how a couple thousand years ago, something carved onto an oracle bone is still used in modern times.

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