An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

jiaguwen 甲骨文, oracle bone inscriptions

Jul 10, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The so-called oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文 "plastron bone inscriptions") are remnants of archival documents from the late Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) upon which records of royal divinations were carved or inscribed. The material is the plastrons (breastshields, gui fujia 龜腹甲) of tortoises or scapulae (shoulder-blades shou jiagu 獸胛骨) of different cattle. The oracle bone inscriptions are the oldest extant Chinese texts written in a perfectly developed script. Unfortunately there are no older stages of the Chinese script preserved (except some clan insignia and examples of logographs of uncertain meaning), but it appears in full maturity on the Shang oracle inscriptions.

Wang Yirong 王懿榮 (1845-1900), a late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) expert of bronze inscriptions, was the first to recognize that the inscriptions written on bones sold by drugstores as medicine were of a very old date. From 1899 on he collected lots of such inscriptions.

His findings instigated a numerous other scholars to collect such bones, as Wang Xiang 王襄 (1876-1965), Meng Dingsheng 孟定生 (1867-1939), Liu E 劉鶚 (1857-1909), Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 (1866-1940), the American Frank Herring Chalfant (1862-1914, Chinese name: Fang Falian 方法斂), the Britains Samuel Couling (1859-1922, Ku Shouling 庫壽齡) and Lionel C. Hopkins (1854-1952, Jin Zhang 金璋) as well as the Japanese Hayashi Taisuke 林泰輔 (1954-1922).

Figures 1 and 2. Oracle bones (scapulae)
Left: Situation of oracle bones right during excavation. From Shi Zhangru (1985), plate VII. Right: Drawing of an oracle bone, showing the holes prepared to produce pyromantic cracks. From Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Kaogu Yanjiu Suo (1983), 83.
Figures 3 and 4. Oracle bones with inscriptions (scapulae)
Oracle bone with three lengthy inscriptions, left the original, as it is exhibited in the Museum of Chinese History (Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan 中國歷史博物館, since 2003 National Museum of China, Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan 中國國家博物館), right a rubbing of the same piece. From Guo Moruo, Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Lishi Yanjiu Suo (1982), Vol. 1, fig. 5; Vol. 4, no. 10405.

From 1928 to 1937, the Institute of History and Language of the Academia Sinica (Zhongguo yanjiuyuan Lishi yuyan yanjiusuo 中國研究院歷史語言研究所) undertook 15 excavation campaigns on the site of the ancient capital of the Shang, the so-called "Ruins of Yin" (Yinxu 殷墟) near Anyang 安陽, Henan. They dug out 25,000 pieces of oracle bones. In 1973, the Archaeological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古研究所) undertook an excavation campaign in the village of Xiaotun 小屯 near the Yinxu site. During the 1950s, more oracle bones were excavated in Zhengzhou 鄭州, Henan, the site of the royal capital in the mid-Shang period. Excavation sites of minor importance were Hongdong 洪洞 in Shanxi, Changping 昌平 near Beijing, Fenghao 豐鎬 in Shaanxi as well as other places of the early history of the Zhou dynasty nearby.

Until now more than 150,000 pieces of oracle bones are excavated which are to be found in different museums and archives around the world. The findings are to a great extent published. The most important printed collections are:

Table 1. Important publications reproducing oracle bone inscriptions
鐵雲藏龜 Tieyun canggui 劉鶚 Liu E (1903)
殷墟書契 Yinxu shuqi 羅振玉 Luo Zhenyu (1913)
殷墟卜辭 Yinxu buci James Mellon Menzies (Ming Yishi 明義士) (1917)
龜甲獸骨文字 Guijia shougu wenzi 林泰輔 Hayashi Taisuke (1917)
簠室殷契徵文 Fushi Yinqi zhengwen 王襄 Wang Xiang (1925)
小屯第二本殷虛文字甲編圖版 Xiaotun Di er ben Yinxu wenzi Jiabian/Yibian Tuban 董作賓 Dong Zuobin (1948)
戰後寧滬新獲甲骨集 Zhanhou Ning-Hu xinhuo jiagu ji 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan (1951)
戰後南北所見甲骨錄 Zhanhou nanbei suo jian jiagu lu 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan (1951)
戰後京津新獲甲骨錄 Zhanhou Jing-Jin xinhuo jiagu lu 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan (1951)
甲骨續存 Jiagu xucun 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan (1955)
小屯第二本殷虛文字丙編 Xiaotun Di er ben Yinxu wenzi Bingbian 張秉權 Zhang Bingquan (1972)
小屯南地甲骨 Xiaotun Nandi jiagu 中國社會科學院考古研究所 Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan kaogu yanjiusuo (1973)
甲骨文合集 Jiaguwen heji 郭沫若 Guo Moruo, 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan (1978-1982)
小屯第二本殷墟文字乙編補遺 Xiaotun Di er ben Yinxu wenzi Yibian buyi 鍾柏生 Zhong Bosheng (1995)

From the linguistic aspect it is important to notice that the inscriptions are written in Chinese language and are readable and understandable if the vocabulary is known. The characters are also constructed in the same patterns as those of later date, although the shape is in many cases not that of the standard characters.

Virtually all activities of the Shang kings were recorded in the oracle bone inscriptions. For this reason, the inscriptions provide an insight into society, economy and politics of that time. It is known how members of the royal house, males and females, of the aristocracy and groups the common people were called, titles of the bureaucracy are known, as well as terms from the judicial system and the army. Subservient states, inimical tribes and colonies are known by their names - although not always their location is clear. The inscriptions contain records of tributes of such polities paid to the royal court, and what social activities the king undertook, from huntings to offerings to his ancestors. Records of human sacrifices are also preserved.

Astronomical events are likewise recorded, like eclipses or irregularities in the starry sky. The calendar was already arranged in the sexagenary cycle as known later. Sickness and diseases are also included in the records.

All daily activities of the king were observed by superhuman beings, either natural deities and ghosts and spirits or by the king's ancestors. All these had to be asked if a planned activity would be lucky or if bad luck would befell the kings and his entourage. Virtually the whole life of a Shang king was thus guided by prophecies derived from an oracle made previously.

The method to divine by heating bones is unique to China and only a few other peoples of northern Asia. It is called scapulimany or plastromancy. The diviners (zhenren 貞人) tried to tell the future by creating cracks (bu 卜) on the bones. Inserting a hot bronze (?) stick (therefore also called pyromancy "divining by fire") into a hole drilled into the surface of the bones, the diviners were able to tell the future by interpreting the emerged cracks.

The Shang diviners told the future of sacrifices, military campaigns, tribute payments, hunting expeditions, settlement building, weather, sickness, agriculture and childbirth, that is almost every aspect of the daily routine. In many cases the deified ancestors of the dynasty were consulted in the simple question if a day was auspicious (ji 吉) or inauspious (xiong 凶).

The most interesting thing for our knowledge about the life and religious thought of the Shang people is that they did not only create cracks, but it is the fact that the scribes (li 吏, shi 史) of the king wrote down the result of the divination on the bones and also the outcome of the planned activity.

Thousands of these oracles bones were stored in the king's archives. The first king whose name appears in the inscriptions is that of Wu Ding 武丁, who lived around 1200 BCE. Dong Zuobin 董作賓 (1895-1963) divided the oracle inscriptions into several historical phases, depending on language, the names of the diviners, and other criteria:

Table 2. Phases or oracle bone divination according to Dong Zuobin 董作賓
Kings Pan Geng 盤庚 to Wu Ding 武丁 (c. 1280-1180)
Kings Zu Geng 祖庚 and Zu Jia 祖甲 (1179-1140)
Kings Lin Xin 廩辛 and Kang Ding 康丁 (1139-1130)
Kings Wu Yi 武乙 and Wen Ding 文丁 (1129-1084)
Kings Di Yi 帝乙 and Di Xin 帝辛 (1184-1027)

The excavation of the oracle bones proved that the stories about the Shang dynasty as reported in ancient histories like the Shiji 史記 were not simply pure mythology but historical facts. The oracle bone inscriptions of Yin make evident that at least the Shang rulers as listed in the later historiographies really existed.

During the later part of Shang Dynasty, the king took over the role of the diviner which had been shared by different diviners during early Shang. Only the last few rulers of Yin did not personally make divinations. Until then, each diviner had a special topic or subject he was aprofessional in, e.g. one diviner for warfare, one for ancestral rites, one for household affairs, and so on. It was usual to make divinations for a ten-day week (xun 旬, see Chinese calendar) and during certain special days of that week.

After many decades of studies in oracle bone inscriptions a total number of about 1,200 characters can be identified of which about half can be translated. The meaning of the others is unknown. In registers and dictionaries, oracle bone characters are usually sorted according to a radical system.

Figure 3ab. Oracle bone inscriptions in dictionaries
Words of oracle bone inscriptions organized according to radicals. Yao Xiaosui, Xiao Ding (1989), Vol. 1 (left). Zhongguo shehui kexue yan kaogu yanjiusuo (1982), p. 2 (right). Click to enlarge.

Before the divination process, the bone (scapula) or tortoise shell (plastron) was cleaned and polished. Oval and round hollows (aoxue 凹穴; the number is depending on the thickness of the material) were chiseled or drilled in paralled rows on the back side of the bone. The diviner placed a very hot round item (more details are unknown; the divination method is also called pyromancy "divination by fire") in the hollows. The heat produced cracks (bu 卜) on the polished front side of the bone. The first task of the diviner after the divination had taken place was to incise the sequential number of the burning spots (crack numbers, xushu 序數) of the whole divination set (chengtao 成套), in tortoise shells normally alternating between two parallel rows on the surface, in other, lengthy bones from top to bottom. The whole inscription of a divination (buci 卜辭, zhaoyu 兆語) consists (ideally) of several parts:

Table 3. Typical parts of an oracle bone inscription
Preface (xuci 序辭 or 敘辭), indicating the date and the diviner (like: "crack-making on day XY, NN divined")
Charge (mingci 命辭), indicating the topic or question of the divination, often in positive and negative pairs (duizhen 對貞, like "will there be rain?/will there not perhaps be rain?")
Prognostication (zhanci 占辭), an interpretation of the resulting cracks, often made by the king
Verification (yanci 驗辭), record of actual events verifying the divination

The Chinese terms are not original but were invented by modern Chinese scholars studying the Shang oracle inscriptions.

Figure 1. Rubbing of an oracle bone, front and back
Source: Guo Moruo, Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Lishi Yanjiusuo (1978), Vol. 3, no. 6834. Click to enlarge. Translation of a the central inscription (large characters) see below. There are in total 19 different inscriptions on the obverse side of the plastron.
Quotation 1. Example of an oracle bone inscription
[negative, left side] Crack-making on guichou day, Zheng 爭 divined: "From today to dingsi day, we will not perhaps harm the Zhou 冑."
[positive, right side][Preface] Crack-making on guichou day, Zheng divined: [Charge] "From today to dingsi day, we will harm the Zhou." [Prognostication] The king, reading the cracks, said: "[Down to] dingsi day, we should not perhaps harm [them]; on the coming jiazi day we will harm [them]." [Verification] On the eleventh day, guihai day, [our] chariots did not harm [them]; in the tou period ['midnight'] between the evening and jiazi day, [we] really harmed [them].
Central text of the obverse side of the plastron above, in two literally mirrored (to be seen in the first three characters) versions, one positive, and one negative. Sources: [Text and transcription] Yao Xiaosui, Xiao Ding (1988), Vol. 1, No. 6834. [Rubbing] See figure above. [Translation] Keightley (1978), [41].

Normally the scribes first incised the vertical strokes of the characters and then the horizontals. The characters of the text, sometimes also the cracks resulting from the heat application, could be filled with cinnabar or ash to make them more easily readable. Sometimes the text was not incised but written down with a brush. Where the text was written depended on the shape of the crack and on which side of the plastron the crack was made. The remarks to a crack running to the left were written to the right, and vice versa. From these conditions it also depended if the text columns were written from the right to the left, as it is usual in traditional Chinese text and still in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or from the left to the right. It was very common to create two oracles for the same charge, one on the left and one on the right side of the plastron, the one with a negative charge or question, the other with a positive charge.

The first scholarly study on the oracle bone inscriptions was Sun Yirang's 孫詒讓 (1848–1908) Qiewen juli 契文舉例. It was followed by quite a number of further studies of which only the most important shall be mentioned here:

Table 4. Important studies on oracle bone inscriptions
契文舉例 Qiewen juli 孫詒讓 Sun Yirang
殷墟書契考釋 Yinxu shuqi kaoshi 羅振玉 Luo Zhenyu
殷墟文字記 Yinxu wenzi ji 唐蘭 Tang Lan
古文字學導論 Guwen zixue daolun 唐蘭 Tang Lan
耐林廎甲骨說 Nailinqing jiagu shuo 楊樹達 Yang Shuda
積微居甲骨說 Jiweiju jiaguo shuo 楊樹達 Yang Shuda
卜辭通纂考釋 Buci tongzuan kaoshi 郭沫若 Guo Moruo
殷契粹文考釋 Yinqi cuiwen kaoshi 郭沫若 Guo Moruo
甲骨文字研究 Jiagu wenzi yanjiu 郭沫若 Guo Moruo
甲骨文字釋林 Jiagu wenzi shilin 于省吾 Yu Shengwu
殷卜辭中所見先公先王考 Yin buci zhong suo jian xiangong xianwang kao 王國維 Wang Guowei
中國古代社會研究 Zhongguo gudai shehui yanjiu 郭沫若 Guo Moruo, 董作賓 Dong Zuobin, 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan
殷曆譜 Yin lipu 郭沫若 Guo Moruo, 董作賓 Dong Zuobin, 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan
甲骨學商史論叢 Jiaguxue Shangshi luncong 郭沫若 Guo Moruo, 董作賓 Dong Zuobin, 胡厚宣 Hu Houxuan
殷墟卜辭綜述 Yinxu buci zongshu 陳夢家 Chen Mengjia
Guo Moruo 郭沫若, Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Lishi Yanjiu Suo 中國社會科學院歷史研究所, ed. (1982). Jiaguwen heji 甲骨文合集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju).
Hu Houxuan 胡厚宣 (1992). "Jiaguwen 甲骨文", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 427.
David N. Keightley (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley etc.: University of California Press).
Liu Qing'e 劉慶俄 (1997). "Jiaguwen 甲骨文", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanjin 張燕瑾, ed. Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), 718.
Shi Zhangru 石章如 (1985). Xiaotun (Henan Anyang Yinxu yizhi zhi yi), Part 1, Yizhi de faxian yu fajue, Vol. 4, Jiagu kengceng zhi yi, yici zhi jiuci chutu jiagu 小屯(河南安陽殷墟遺址之一):第一本:遺址的發現與發掘:丁編:甲骨坑層之一,一次至九次出土甲骨 (Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiu yuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo). (Series Zhongguo kaogu baogao ji. 2 中國考古報告集之二).
Su Wanwu 蘇萬物 (1991). "Jiaguwen 甲骨文", in Li Mingfang 李名方, Chang Guowu 常國武, ed. Zhongguo shufa mingzuo jianshang cidian 中國書法名作鑒賞辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 1.
Wang Yuguang 王余光, Xu Yan 徐雁, ed. (1999). Zhongguo dushu da cidian 中國讀書大辭典 (Nanjing: Nanjing daxue chubanshe), 414.
Xie Tianyu 謝天宇, ed. (2004). 中國古玩收藏與鑒賞全書 (Tianjin: Tianjin guji chubanshe), Vol. 2, 293.
Yao Xiaosui 姚孝遂, Xiao Ding 肖丁, ed. (1989). Xinyu jiagu keci leizuan 殷墟甲骨刻辭類纂 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju).
Zhang Zhenglang 張政烺 (1988). "Jiaguwen 甲骨文", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Yuyan wenzi 語言•文字 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 224.
Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Yuan Kaogu Yanjiu Suo 中國社會科學院考古研究所, ed. (1983). Xiaotun Nandi jiagu 小屯南地甲骨, Part 2, Vol. 3, Zuanzao 鑽鑿 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju), 83. (Series Kaoguxue zhuankan 考古學專刊, Yi zhong 乙種, Di shiba hao 第18號).
Zhongguo shehui kexue yan kaogu yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院考古研究所, ed (1983). Xiaotun Nandi jiagu 小屯南地甲骨, Vol. 2, Part 2, Suoyin 索引 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju), p. 2. (Series Kaoguxue zhuankan, 2. 18 考古學專刊,乙種,18號)

Further reading:
Allan, Sarah (2007). "On the Identity of Shang Di and the Origin of the Concept of a Celestial Mandate (tian ming)", Early China, 31: 1-46.
Demattè, Paola (2010). "The Origins of Chinese Writing: the Neolithic Evidence", Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 20/2: 211-228.
Duckens, Mara A. (2010). "The Fu of the Shang dynasty: Women, Wives and Warriors", in Wang Ying, ed. Bronze Age China: Style and Material (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 117-128.
Fiskesjo, Magnus (2001). "Rising from Blood-Stained Fields: Royal Hunting and State Formation in Shang Dynasty China", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 73: 48-192.
Flad, Rowan K. (2008). "Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China", Current Anthropology, 49/3: 403-437.
Fracasso, Riccardo (1988). "A Technical Glossary of Jiaguology (Oracle Bone Studies)", Istituto universitario orientale, Supplemento, n.56 agli Annali, 48: fasc. 3.
Keightley, David N. (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Keightley, David N. (1979). "The Shang State as Seen in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions", Early China, 5: 25-34.
Keightley, David N. (1990). "Sources of Shang History: Two Major Oracle-Bone Collections Published in the People's Republic of China", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 110/1: 39-59.
Keightley, David N. (1997). "Graphs, Words, and Meanings: Three Reference Works for Shang Oracle-Bone Studies, with an Excursus on the Religious Role of the Day or Sun", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 117/3: 507-524.
Keightley, David N. (1997). “"Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions", in Edward L. Shaughnessy, ed. New Sources of Early Chinese History: An Introduction to the Reading of Inscriptions and Manuscripts (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California): 15-55.
Keightley, David N. (2000). The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200 - 1045 B.C.) (Berkeley: University of California, Center for Chinese Studies).
Li, Xueqin, Xing Wen (2013). "Zhou (1046 B.C.E.-256 B.C.E.) Oracle Bones Excavated from Yinxu, Ruins of Yin (1300 B.C.E.-1046 B.C.E.)", Contemporary Chinese Thought, 44/3: 27-33.
Li, Xueqin, Xing, Wen (2013). "The Divinatory Turtle Plastrons Dated to King Wen of Zhou (r. first half of the eleventh century B.C.E.): The Cultural Relations between the Shang (1600 B.C.E.-1046 B.C.E.) and Zhou (1046 B.C.E.-256 B.C.E.)", Contemporary Chinese Thought, 44/3: p.16-26.
Nivison, David S. (1989). "The Question Question", with comments by Fan Yuzhou, et al., Early China, 14: 115-172.
Qiu, Xigui (1989). "An Examination of whether the Charges in Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions are Questions", Early China, 14: 77-114.
Redouane, Djamouri (1999). "Écriture et divination sous les Shang", Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident, 21, Divination et rationalité en Chine ancienne: 11-35.
Serruys, Paul L-M. (1974). "Studies in the Language of the Shang Oracle Inscriptions", T'oung Pao, 60/1-3: 12-120.
Takashima, Ken-ichi (2004). "How to Eead Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions: A Critique of the Current Method", Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 76: 22-43.
Takashima, Ken-ichi (2005). "Placement of Inscriptions on Oracle-Bone Plastrons as a Guide to Decipherment", Asiatische Studien, 59/1: 11-29.
Wang, Ping (2008). "Methods of Killing Human Sacrifice in Shang-Dynasty Oracle-Bone Inscriptions", Minima Sinica, 20/1: 11-29.
Wang, Ping (2012). "Human Sacrifices Offered to the 'Xianbi' in the Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Shang Dynasty)", Minima Sinica, 24/1: 53-66.
Zhang, Xueli (1990). "On the Function of qi in the Charges of Oracles Inscriptions", East and West, 40/1-4: 201-212.