In our lecture on the ancient Chinese State we briefly discussed Oracle bones; I found these items very interesting and wanted to do further research on them to get a greater understanding of their use and significance. In my research I came across quite a bit of interesting information about the bones that I wanted to share with those who might not know much about them.
Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone, typically from ox scapulae or turtle shells due to their flat surfaces. They were used in as a form of divination in ancient China, mainly during the late Shang dynasty. The bones were used in a ritual where diviners would inscribe questions to deities regarding many things some of which being questions about: future weather, crop planting, military endeavors, and similar topics. The questions were carved onto the bone or shells using a sharp tool in a language known as oracle bone script. The process of carving used a metal rod put under intense heat and was applied to the bone or shell until it cracked due to thermal expansion. The pattern of cracks would be interpreted by the diviner for meaning. Later in time the preferred writing method became using cinnabar ink and brush to write on the bones which results in a lot of bones being unearthed blank.
The oracle bones are important because they bear the earliest form of ancient Chinese writing and contain historically important information. From oracle bones scholars have learned the complete royal genealogy of the Shang dynasty. In my research I learned that the Shang-dynasty oracle bones are thought to have been unearthed periodically by local farmers as early as the Sui and Tang dynasties. However, local inhabitants probably did not realize what the bones were and probably reburied them. In the 19th century, local villagers digging in the fields found the bones and used them as “dragon bones”. Dragon bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine practice and are ground up Pleistocene fossils used in tonics and poultices. Turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria and other animal bones were used in a powdered form to treat knife wounds. The importance of oracle bones was first realized in 1899, when an antiques dealer from the Shangdong Province searching for Chinese bronzes in the areas acquired many oracle bones from locals and sold many to the chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. The chancellor was very knowledgeable of Chinese bronzes and is thought to be the first person in modern times to realize the oracle bones’ markings were an ancient Chinese writing.
As I researched oracle bones further they became more and more interesting to me, everything from their preparation to how they were used in practice. They give us a written record of history in a form that isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. And all the mystery that surrounds them makes them that much interesting to learn about.