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Oracle bones (Chinese: 甲骨; pinyin: jiǎgǔ) are pieces of bone or turtle plastron (underside) bearing the answers to divination chiefly during the late Shang Dynasty. They were heated and cracked, then typically inscribed using a bronze pin in what is known as oracle bone script. The oracle bones are the earliest known significant corpus of ancient Chinese writing, and contain important historical information such as the complete royal genealogy of the Shāng dynasty. These records confirmed the existence of the Shāng dynasty, which some scholars, until then, had doubted ever existed.


The vast majority of the inscribed oracle bones date to the last 230 or so years of the Shāng dynasty; oracle bones have been reliably dated to the fourth and subsequent reigns of the kings who ruled at Yīn (modern Ānyángmarker)—from king Wu Ding (武丁) to Di Xin (帝辛). However, the dating of these bones varies from ca. the 14th -11th centuries BCE to ca. 1200-1050 BCE because the end date of the Shāng dynasty is not a matter of consensus. The largest number date to the reign of king Wǔ Dīng . Very few oracle bones date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhōu Dynasty.


The Shāng-dynasty oracle bones are thought to have been unearthed periodically by local farmers, perhaps starting as early as the Hàn dynasty, and certainly by 19th century China, when they were sold as dragon bones (lóng gǔ 龍骨) in the traditional Chinese medicine markets, used either whole or crushed for the healing of various ailments. The turtle shell fragments were prescribed for malaria, while the other animal bones were used in powdered form to treat knife wounds. They were first recognized as bearing ancient Chinese writing by a scholar and high-ranking Qing dynasty official, Wáng Yìróng (王懿榮; 1845-1900) in 1899. A legendary tale states that Wang was sick with malaria, and his scholar friend Liú È (劉鶚; 1857-1909) was visiting him and helped examine his medicine. They discovered, before it was ground into powder, that it bore strange glyphs, which they, having studied the ancient bronze inscriptions, recognized as ancient writing. As Xǔ Yǎhuì (許雅惠 2002, p. 4) states:

"No one can know how many oracle bones, prior to 1899, were ground up by traditional Chinese pharmacies and disappeared into peoples’ stomachs."

It is not known how Wang and Liu actually came across these “dragon bones”, but Wang is credited with being the first to recognize their significance, and his friend Liu was the first to publish a book on oracle bones. Word spread among collectors of antiquities, and the market for oracle bones exploded. Although scholars tried to find their source, antique dealers falsely claimed that the bones came from Tāngyīn (湯陰) in Hénán. Decades of uncontrolled digs followed to fuel the antiques trade, and many of these pieces eventually entered collections in Europe, the US, Canada and Japan. The first Western collector was the American Rev. Frank H. Chalfant, while Presbyterian minister James Mellon Menzies (明義士) (1885-1957) of Canada bought the largest amount. The Chinese still acknowledge the pioneering contribution of Menzies as "the foremost western scholar of Yin-Shang culture and oracle bone inscriptions." His former residence in Anyang was declared in 2004 a "Protected Treasure" and the James Mellon Menzies Memorial Museum for Oracle Bone Studies was established

Official excavations

By the time of the establishment of the Institute of History and Philology headed by Fù Sīnián at the Academia Sinica in 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyángmarker in Hénánmarker Province. Official archaeological excavations in 1928-1937 led by Lĭ Jì (李濟; 1896-1979), the father of Chinese archaeology, discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, which now form the bulk of the Academia Sinica's collection in Taiwanmarker and constitute about 1/5 of the total discovered . The inscriptions on the oracle bones, once deciphered, turned out to be the records of the divinations performed for or by the royal household. These, together with royal-sized tombs, proved beyond a doubt for the first time the existence of the Shāng Dynasty, which had recently been doubted, and the location of its last capital, Yīn. Today, Xiǎotún at Ānyáng is thus also known as the Ruins of Yīn, or Yīnxū marker.


The oracle bones are mostly tortoise plastrons (ventral or belly shells, probably female) and ox scapulae (shoulder blades), although some are the carapace (dorsal or back shells) of tortoises, and a few are ox rib bones, scapulae of sheep, boars, horses and deer, and some other animal bones. The skulls of deer, ox skulls and human skulls have also been found with inscriptions on them, although these are very rare, and appear to have been inscribed for record-keeping or practice rather than for actual divination; in one case inscribed deer antlers are reported, but Keightley (1978) reports that they are fake. Neolithic diviners in China had long been heating the bones of deer, sheep, pigs and cattle for similar purposes; evidence for this in Liáoníngmarker has been found dating to the late fourth millennium BCE. However, over time, the use of ox bones increased, and use of tortoise shells does not appear until early Shāng culture. The earliest tortoise shells found which had been prepared for oracle bone use (i.e., with chiseled pits) date to the earliest Shāng stratum at Èrlĭgāng (Zhèngzhoūmarker, Hénánmarker). By the end of the Èrlĭgāng the plastrons were numerous, and at Ānyángmarker scapulae and plastrons were used in roughly equal numbers. Due to the use of these shells in addition to bones, early references to the oracle bone script often used the term 'shell and bone script', but since tortoise shells are actually a bony material, the more concise term "oracle bones" is applied to them as well.

The bones or shells were first sourced, and then prepared for use. Their sourcing is significant because some of them (especially many of the shells) are believed to have been presented as tribute to the Shāng, which is valuable information about diplomatic relations of the time. We know this because notations were often made on them recording their provenance (e.g. tribute of how many shells from where and on what date). For example, one notation records that “Què (雀) sent 250 (tortoise shells)”, identifying this as, perhaps, a statelet within the Shāng sphere of influence. These notations were generally made on the back of the shell's bridge (called bridge notations), the lower carapace, or the xiphiplastron (tail edge). Some shells may have been from locally raised tortoises, however. Scapula notations were near the socket or a lower edge. Some of these notations were not carved after being written with a brush, proving (along with other evidence) the use of the writing brush in Shāng times. Scapulae are assumed to have generally come from the Shāng’s own livestock, perhaps those used in ritual sacrifice, although there are records of cattle sent as tribute as well, including some recorded via marginal notations.

Preparation and usage

The bones or shells were cleaned of meat, and then prepared by sawing, scraping, smoothing and even polishing to create convenient, flat surfaces. The predominance of scapulae and later of plastrons is also thought to be related to their convenience as large, flat surfaces needing minimal preparation. There is also speculation that only female tortoise shells were used, as these are significantly less concave. Pits or hollows were then drilled or chiseled partway through the bone or shell in orderly series. At least one such drill has been unearthed at Èrlĭgāng, exactly matching the pits in size and shape. The shape of these pits evolved over time, and is an important indicator for dating the oracle bones within various sub-periods in the Shāng dynasty. The shape and depth also helped determine the nature of the crack which would appear. The number of pits per bone or shell varied widely.


Since divination (-mancy) was by heat or fire (pyro-) and most often on plastrons or scapulae, the terms pyromancy, plastromancy and scapulimancy are often used for this process. Divinations were typically carried out for the Shāng kings, in the presence of a diviner. A very few oracle bones were used in divination by other members of the royal family or nobles close to the king. By the latest periods, the Shāng kings took over the role of diviner personally.

During a divination session, the shell or bone was anointed with blood , and in an inscription section called the 'preface', the date was recorded using the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, and the diviner name was noted. Next, the topic of divination (called the 'charge') was posed, such as whether a particular ancestor was causing a king's toothache. The divination charges were often directed at ancestors, whom the ancient Chinese revered and worshiped, as well as natural powers and Dì (帝), the highest god in the Shāng society. A wide variety of topics were asked, essentially anything of concern to the royal house of Shāng, from illness, birth and death, to weather, warfare, agriculture, tribute and so on. One of the most common topics was whether performing rituals in a certain manner would be satisfactory.

An intense heat source was then inserted in a pit until it cracked. Due to the shape of the pit, the front side of the bone cracked in a rough 卜 shape. The character 卜 (pinyin: bǔ or pǔ; Old Chinese: *puk; "to divine") may be a pictogram of such a crack; the reading of the character may also be an onomatopoeia for the cracking. A number of cracks were typically made in one session, sometimes on more than one bone, and these were typically numbered. The diviner in charge of the ceremony read the cracks to learn the answer to the divination. How exactly the cracks were interpreted is not known. The topic of divination was raised multiple times, and often in different ways, such as in the negative, or by changing the date being divined about. One oracle bone might be used for one session, or for many, and one session could be recorded on a number of bones. The divined answer was sometimes then marked either "auspicious" or "inauspicious," and the king occasionally added a “prognostication”, his reading on the nature of the omen. On very rare occasions, the actual outcome was later added to the bone in what is known as a “verification”. A complete record of all the above elements is rare; most bones contain just the date, diviner and topic of divination, and many remained uninscribed after the divination.

This record is thought to have been brush-written on the oracle bones or accompanying documents, later to be carved in a workshop. As evidence of this, a few of the oracle bones found still bear their brush-written records, without carving, while some have been found partially carved. After use, the shells and bones which had seen ritual use were buried in separate pits (some for shells only; others for scapulae only), in groups of up to hundreds or even thousands (one pit unearthed in 1936 contained over 17,000 pieces along with a human skeleton).

Mythical origins of pyromancy

A mythical account published in the Míng dynastymarker credits the mythical Fú Xī with the invention of plastromancy, while a Sòng dynasty account tells of tribute of a divine tortoise shell from what is now Vietnammarker, sent to the court of the mythical emperor Yáo.

Archaeological evidence of pre-Anyang pyromancy

While the use of bones in divination has been practiced almost globally, such divination involving fire or heat has generally been found in Asia and the Asian-derived North American cultures. The use of heat to crack scapulae (pyro-scapulimancy) originated in ancient China, the earliest evidence of which extends back to the 4th millennium BCE, with archaeological finds from Liáoníngmarker, but these were not inscribed. In Neolithic China at a variety of sites, the scapulae of cattle, sheep, pigs and deer used in pyromancy have been found, and the practice appears to have become quite common by the end of the third millennium BCE. Scapulae were unearthed along with smaller numbers of pitless plastrons in the Nánguānwài (南關外) stage at Zhèngzhoūmarker, Hénánmarker; scapulae as well as smaller numbers of plastrons with chiseled pits were also discovered in the Lower and Upper Èrlĭgāng stages.

Significant use of tortoise plastrons does not appear until the Shāng culture sites. Ox scapulae and plastrons, both prepared for divination, were found at the Shāng culture sites of Táixīcūn (台西村) in Hébĕimarker, and Qiūwān (丘灣) in Jiāngsūmarker. One or more pitted scapulae were found at Lùsìcūn (鹿寺村) in Hénánmarker, while unpitted scapulae have been found at Èrlĭtóumarker in Hénánmarker, Cíxiàn (磁縣) in Hébĕimarker, Níngchéng (寧城) in Liáoníngmarker, and Qíjiā (齊家) in Gānsùmarker . Plastrons do not become more numerous than scapulae until the Rénmín (人民) Park phase.

As for pyromantic shells or bones with inscriptions, the earliest date back to the site of Èrlĭgāng in Zhèngzhoūmarker, Hénánmarker, where burned scapula of oxen, sheep and pigs were found, and one bone fragment from a pre-Shāng layer was inscribed with a graph (ㄓ) corresponding to Shāng oracle bone script. Another piece found at the site bears ten or more characters which are similar in form to the Shāng script but different in their pattern of use, and it is not clear what layer the piece came from.

Post-Shāng oracle bones

After the Zhōu conquest, the Shāng practices of bronze casting, pyromancy and writing continued. Oracle bones found in the 1970s have been dated to the Zhōu dynasty, with some dating to the Spring and Autumn period. However, very few of those were inscribed; these very early inscribed Zhōu oracle bones are also known as the Zhōuyuán oracle bones. It is thought that other methods of divination supplanted pyromancy, such as numerological divination using milfoil (yarrow) in connection with the hexagrams of the I Ching, leading to the decline in inscribed oracle bones. However, evidence for the continued use of plastromancy exists for the Eastern Zhōu, Hàn, Táng and Qīngmarker dynasty periods, and Keightley (1978, p. 9) mentions use in Taiwanmarker as late as 1972.


  1. Not all oracle bones were inscribed after divination. (Xu Yahui p.30)
  2. The oracle bones are not the earliest writing in China--a very few isolated mid to late Shang pottery, bone and bronze inscriptions may predate them. However, the oracle bones are considered the earliest significant body of writing, due to the length of the inscriptions, the vast amount of vocabulary (very roughly 4000 graphs), and the sheer quantity of pieces found -- at least 100,000 pieces (Qiu 2000, p.61; Keightley 1978, p.xiii) bearing millions (Qiu 2000, p.49) of characters, and around 5,000 different characters (Qiu 2000, p.49), forming a full working vocabulary (Qiu 2000, p.50 cites various statistical studies before concluding that “the number of Chinese characters in general use is around five to six thousand”). It should be noted that there are also inscribed or brush-written Neolithic signs in China, but they do not generally occur in strings of signs resembling writing; rather, they generally occur singly and whether or not these constitute writing or are ancestral to the Shang writing system is currently a matter of great academic controversy. They are also insignificant in number compared to the massive amounts of oracle bones found so far. See Qiú 2000, Boltz 2003, and Woon 1987.
  3. Zhōu Hóngxiáng (周鴻翔) 1976 p.12 cites two such scapulae, citing his own “商殷帝王本紀” Shāng–Yīn dìwáng bĕnjì, pp. 18-21
  4. Keightley 1978, p.xiii; p.139
  5. 裘錫圭 Qiú Xīguī (1993; 2000) Chinese Writing, p.29
  6. Xu Yahui p.4
  7. Keightley 1978 p.xiii; see also pp.171-176
  8. 55% of all fragments are Period I; Period I covers kings Pán Gēng (盤庚), Xiǎo Xīn (小辛), Xiǎo Yǐ (小乙) and Wǔ Dīng. However, few or perhaps none can be reliably assigned to pre-Wǔ Dīng reigns. Therefore about 55% of all oracle bone fragments found belong to the King Wǔ Dīng reign period. It is assumed that earlier oracle bones from Ānyáng exist but have not been found yet. (Keightley 1978, p.139, 140 & 203)
  9. Qiu 2000, p.60
  10. Zhōu Hóngxiáng (周鴻翔) 1976 p.1, citing Wei Juxian 1939, “Qín-Hàn shi fāxiàn jiǎgǔwén shuō”, in Shuōwén Yuè Kān, vol. 1, no.4; and He Tianxing 1940, "Jiǎgǔwén yi xianyu gǔdài shuō”, in Xueshu (Shànghǎi), no. 1
  11. Fairbank, 2006, p. 33.
  12. Xu Yahui p.4-5 cites The Compendium of Materia Medica and includes a photo of the relevant page and entry.
  13. Xu Yahui p.16
  14. Xu Yahui p.6 cites eight waves of illegal digs over three decades, with tens of thousands of pieces taken.
  15. Zhou 1976, p.1
  16. Rev. Chalfant acquired 803 oracle bone pieces between 1903 and 1908, and hand-traced over 2500 pieces including these. Zhōu 1976, p.1-2.
  17. Xu Yahui p.6
  18. Wang Haiping (2006). "Menzies and Yin-Shang Culture Scholarship – An Unbreakable Bond." Anyang Ribao (Anyang Daily), August 12, 2006, p.1
  19. See Linfu Dong (2005). Cross Culture snd Faith: the Life and Work of James Mellon Menzies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
  20. Geoff York (2008). "The unsung Canadian some knew as 'Old Bones' James Mellon Menzies, a man of God whose faith inspired him to unearth clues about the Middle Kingdom." Globe and Mail, January 18, 2008, p. F4-5
  21. Xu Yahui, p.9
  22. over 100,000 pieces have been found in all (Qiu 2000, p.61; Keightley 1978, p.xiii)
  23. Eleven royal-sized tombs were found --Xu Yahui p.10; note that this exactly matches the number of kings who should have been buried at Yīn (the 12th king died in the Zhou conquest and would not have received a royal burial).
  24. Keightley 1978, p.9 – the female shells are smoother, flatter and of more uniform thickness, facilitating pyromantic use.
  25. According to Zhōu 1976 p.7, only four rib bones have been found.
  26. such as ox humerus or astragalus (ankle bone); see Zhōu 1976, p.1
  27. Xu Yahui p.34 shows a large, clear photograph of a piece of inscribed human skull in the collection of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, Taiwan, presumably belonging to an enemy of the Shang.
  28. Keightley 1978, p.7; note that there appears to be some confusion in published reports between inscribed bones in general, and bones which have actually been heated and cracked for use in divination
  29. Keightley 1978, p.7, note 21; Xu Yahui p.35 does show an inscribed deer skull, thought to have been killed by a Shang king during a hunt.
  30. Keightley 1978, p.3
  31. Keightley 1978 p.8
  32. Keightley 1978, p.8
  33. Keightley 1978, p.10
  34. Keightley 1978, p.9; Xu Yahui p.22. Some cattle scapulae were also tribute (Xu Yahui p.24.)
  35. Keightley 1978, p.12 mentions reports of Xiǎotún villagers finding hundreds of shells of all sizes, implying live tending or breeding of the turtles onsite.
  36. Keightley 1978, p.11
  37. Xu Yahui p.24; Zhou 1976 p.12 notes that evidence of sawing is present on some oracle bones, and that the saws were likely of bronze, although none have ever been found.
  38. For details of the preparations, see Keightley 1978, pp.13-14.
  39. Keightley 1978, p.9
  40. Keightley 1978 p.18
  41. According to Keightley 1978, p.5, citing Yang Junshi 1963, the term plastromancy was coined by Li Ji
  42. Qiu 2000, p.61.
  43. Xu Yahui p.28, citing the Rites of Zhōu
  44. There is scholarly debate about whether the topic was posed as a question or not; Keightley prefers the term 'charge', since grammatical questions were often not involved
  45. For a fuller overview of the topics of divination and what can be gleaned from them about the Shāng and their environment, see Keightley 2000.
  46. The nature of this heat source is still a matter of debate
  47. Most full (non-fragmentary) oracle bones bear multiple inscriptions; the longest of which are around 90 characters long: Qiu 2000, p.62
  48. Xu Yahui p.30
  49. Qiu 2000, p.62
  50. Qiu 2000, p.60 mentions that some were written with a brush and either ink or cinnabar, but not carved
  51. Those which were for practice or records where buried in common rubbish pits (Xu Yahui p.32)
  52. Xu Yahui p.32
  53. Keightley 1978, p.8, n.26
  54. Keightley 1978 p.3, p.4, and p.4 n.11 & 12.
  55. Keightley 1978 p.3
  56. Keightley 1978, p.3; p.6, n.16
  57. Keightley 1978, p.8, note 25, citing KKHP 1973.1, pp.70, 79, 88, 91, plates 3.1, 4.2, 13.8
  58. Keightley p.8
  59. Keightley 1978, p.8, note 25 cites KK 1973.2 p.74
  60. Keightley 1978 p.6, n.16
  61. Keightley 1978, p.8, note 25 cites Zhèngzhoū Èrlĭgāng, p.38
  62. Qiu Xigui 2000 p. 41cites Kexue Press 1959:38, also Fig. 30
  63. Keightley 1978 p.4 n.4
  64. Keightley 1978, p.9, n.30, citing Hu Xu 1782-1787, ch. 4, p.3b on use in Jiāngsū
  65. Keightley cites Zhāng Guangyuan 1972


  • Boltz, William G. (1994). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8
  • Fairbank, John King and Merle Goldman (1992). China: A New History; Second Enlarged Edition (2006). Cambridge; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01828-1.
  • Keightley, David N. (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-02969-0; Paperback 2nd edition (1985) ISBN 0-520-05455-5.
  • Keightley, David N. (2000). The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200 – 1045 B.C.). China Research Monograph 53, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-070-9.
  • Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭) (2000). Chinese Writing. Translation of 文字学概要 by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Woon, Wee Lee 雲惟利 (1987). “Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution” (in English; Chinese title漢字的原始和演變). Originally published by the Univ. of East Asia, Macau; now by Joint Publishing, Hong Kong.
  • Xǔ Yǎhuì (許雅惠 Hsu Ya-huei) (2002). Ancient Chinese Writing, Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Ruins of Yin. Illustrated guide to the Special Exhibition of Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica. English translation by Mark Caltonhill and Jeff Moser. National Palace Museum, Taipei. Govt. Publ. No. 1009100250.
  • Zhōu Hóngxiáng (周鴻翔, wg Chou Hung-hsiang) (1976). “Oracle Bone Collections in the United States”. University of California Press, Berkeley – Los Angeles – London. ISBN 0-520-09534-0.

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