Exploring Chinese History
- Archaeology -

Oracle Bones

Over 3,000 years ago, the Chinese used animal bones to help make important decisions. To use an oracle bone, a diviner made two statements, one positive and one negative. Each oracle bone had two halves, a positive one and a negative one, with holes bored in each half. When the holes were heated with a burning stick, the bone cracked. The king would read the cracks to find the answers. No one knows exactly how the cracks were interpreted. Afterwards, information about the oracle was carved onto the bone.


Oracle bones (Chinese: 甲骨; Pinyin: jiǎgǔ; literally "shell bone")

First fully excavated in 1899 from a site in Anyang, near Yinxu (殷墟), the ancient capital of the latter part of the Shang Dynasty of China, located in present day Henan Province.

Oracle bone with script.
Fig 1

The discovery of the oracle bones is credited to the scholar Wang Jung, from Peking. He was prescribed a remedy containing "dragon bones" for his illness: "dragon bones" were widely used in Chinese medicine and usually refer to fossils of dead animals. Wang Jung noticed some carvings that looked like some kind of writing on the bones he acquired from the local pharmacy

Oracle bone with script.
Fig 2

They are mostly ox scapulae (shoulder blades) and turtle shells or plastrons, used for scapulomancy: after being heated (such as having a heated rod inserted through the bone), they would crack, and the priest in charge of the ceremony would read the cracks to learn the answer to a question written on the bone. He looked both for the presence of a crack or the absence of a crack to assay the relative strength of one question's answer to another, or to balance the weight between any two or more questions. Often these ceremonies would be performed to foretell the future. As the questions and answers became formulaic, and recorded in books and notes, it became convenient to reject bones that tended to crack in an unacceptable manner, and accept only those bones that had the right size and thickness for the right number of cracks in the right places. The size of the bone turned out to be that which could support hexagrams - and not heptagrams or octagrams - notwithstanding the fact that six lines in a row, any of which could be intact or broken, added up to 64, was the most manageable number for the task at hand.

The questions were often asked of ancestors, whom the ancient Chinese revered and worshipped. Oracle bones offer some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing. Their use as a method of divination in China dates back to the middle of the Shang Dynasty, probably in the reign of Pangeng, around 1350 BCE when the Shang capital was moved to Yin. The site at Anyang is believed to be the site of this ancient capital.

Oracle bones found in the 1970s have been dated to the Zhou period, with some dating to the Spring and Autumn period of the later Zhou Dynasty.

They were also called dragon bones on account of their discovered use by Chinese scholar when they were found being sold in Chinese medicinal centers either whole or crushed for the healing of various ailments that Jung hoped to use to cure his then-mysterious malaria, which western doctors could not diagnose.

New oracle bone sites continue to be found in China.  The most recent discovery was announced on 8 April 2003. This excavation area is located south-east of the Daxinzhuang Shang ruins, where 30 "tanfang" (artificial pits measuring 10x10 meters or 5x5 meters) were found. Professor Fang Hui of the Archaeological Department of Shandong University is in charge of the excavation work.

Eight pieces carrying oracle bone script have been sorted out, four of them formed one whole piece, with 25 characters. Through the shape of bones, character and grammar, it has been determined that these belong to the same group of inscriptions unearthed at the original site in Anyang City.

Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; Pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally "shell bone writing")

Oracle bone with script.
Fig 3
When the script is broken down, with present-day Chinese equivalents, the purpose of the inscription becomes clear.
Fig 4

Incised characters found on ox scapulae and tortoise plastrons (oracle bones) thought to be the earliest Chinese characters.
Oracle bone script is seen to develop over the several generations of Shang kings, so there is no single defined form of each character.

The bones and script were used in the practice of scapulomancy: the diviner would inscribe on the bone or shell his name, the current date of the sexagesimal cycle and then inscribe two possible outcomes on the shell. Depending on how the fired object cracked, diviners would interpret the answer from them.

For example:

"Test : Tomorrow it will rain"

"Test: Tomorrow it will not rain"

The outcome was then inscribed on the bone and saved. The inscriptions are known as jiaguwen (甲骨文) or oracle bone inscriptions.
Oracle bone characters may have components which differ in later characters, for instance the character for Autumn 秋 now appears with 禾 as one component and fire 火 as another component. From the Oracle script, one sees that an ant-like creature is carved instead.

The study of these characters is an important source for understanding the development of present day Chinese writing. While some of the thousands of inscriptions are not very difficult to interpret as in the examples above, the majority remain undeciphered.

Oracle script for Spring.
Fig 5

In the fragment labeled "Oracle script for Spring", the top left character in this image has no modern Chinese character counterpart to date. One of the better known characters however is shown directly beneath it looking like an upright isosceles triangle with a line cutting through the upper portion. This Oracle script character's modern Chinese counterpart is that of 王 "wáng" or King.

The continued study of these characters remains an academic discipline all its own.
The body of knowledge now available to researchers include over 4,600 known characters. Of these some 1,000 have already been deciphered. Scholars have succeeded in gaining meaningful insight into this ancient script. They have learned the basic structure of how words, phrases and sentences are constructed.

Their research has identified various ways in which words were represented as well; some were onomatopoeic seeking to directly represent a particular sound or action, pictophonetic, with one element of the character conveying a meaning and another a sound. The technique known as the phonetic loan, where a written character borrows an additional meaning from another word that sounded much the same in the spoken language, was also discovered to have been used in the Oracle Bone script.


Scroll to Top