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Shāng Dynasty Oracle Bone Script on Ox Scapula, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany.
Photo by Dr. Meierhofer

Oracle bone script ( ) refers to incised (or, rarely, brush-written) ancient Chinese characters found on oracle bones, which are animal bones or turtle shells used in divination in Bronze Age China. The vast majority record the pyromantic divinations of the royal house of the late Shāng dynasty at the capital of Yīn (modern Ānyángmarker, Hénán Provincemarker); dating of the Ānyáng examples of oracle bone script varies from ca. 14th -11th centuries BCE to ca. 1200 to ca. 1050 BCE. Very few oracle bone writings date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhou Dynasty, because pyromancy fell from favor and divining with milfoil became more common. The late Shāng oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shāng writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.


Because turtle shells as well as bones were used, the oracle bone script is also sometimes called shell and bone script. As the majority of oracle bones bearing writing date to the late Shāng dynasty, oracle bone script essentially refers to a Shāng script.


It is certain that Shāng-lineage writing underwent a period of development before the Ānyángmarker oracle bone script, because of its mature nature ; however, no significant quantity of clearly identifiable writing from before or during the early to middle Shāng cultural period has been discovered. The few Neolithic symbols which have been found on pottery, jade or bone at a variety of cultural sites in China are very controversial, and there is no consensus that any of them are directly related to the Shāng oracle bone script.


Shāng oracle bone script: 虎 hǔ 'tiger'
Shāng oracle bone script: 目 mù 'eye'
oracle bone script of the late Shāng appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shāng writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period). Comparing oracle bone script to both Shāng and early Western Zhōu period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds from which the bronzes were cast. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shāng writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and it is this typical style which continued to evolve into the Zhōu period writing and then into the seal script of the Qín state in the late Zhōu period.

It is known that the Shāng people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books just like those which have been found from the late Zhōu to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) and bamboo book (冊 cè, a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shāng graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs, by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script.Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions. In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shāng dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion.

Structure and function

Despite the archaic and relatively pictorial appearance of the oracle bone script, it is in fact a fully functional and fairly mature writing system, i.e., able to record the Old Chinese language in its entirety and not just isolated kinds of meaning. This level of maturity clearly implies an earlier period of development of at least several hundred years. From their presumed origins as pictographs and signs, by the Shāng dynasty, most graphs were already conventionalized in such a simplified fashion that the meanings of many of the pictographs are not immediately apparent. Compare, for instance, the third and fourth graphs in the row below. Without careful research to compare these to later forms, one would probably not know that these represented 豕 shĭ 'swine' and 犬 quǎn 'dog' respectively. As Boltz (1994 & 2003 p.31-33) notes, most of the oracle bone graphs are not depicted realistically enough for those who do not already know the script to recognized what they stand for; although pictographic in origin they are no longer pictographs in function. Boltz instead calls them zodiographs (p.33), reminding us that functionally they represent words, and only through the words do they represent concepts, while for similar reasons Qiu labels them semantographs.

By the late Shāng oracle bone script, the graphs had already evolved into a variety of mostly non-pictographic functions , including all the major types of Chinese characters now in use. Phonetic loan graphs, semantic-phonetic compounds, and associative compounds were already common. One structural and functional analysis of the oracle bone characters found that they were 23% pictographs, 2% simple indicatives, 32% associative compounds, 11% phonetic loans, 27% phonetic-semantic compounds, and 6% uncertain.

Despite its status as a fully functional and fairly mature writing system, the oracle bone script is not actually 100% mature – the form of a very few graphs changes depending on context , and on occasion the order of the graphs does not quite match that of the language . By the early Western Zhou period, these traits had vanished, but in both periods, the script was not highly regular or standardized; variant forms of graphs abound (see the many ways to write 寅 yín, the 3rd Earthly Branch to the left), and the size and orientation of graphs is also irregular. A graph when inverted horizontally generally refers to the same word, and additional components are sometimes present without changing the meaning. Not until the standardization carried out in the Qín dynasty seal script did these irregularities end.

Oracle bone script 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 bone script, one sees that an ant-like creature is carved instead (there is, however another rarely-used character for Autumn which greatly resembles the oracle bone script form, 龝).

Of the thousands of characters found from all the bone fragments, the majority remain undeciphered. One good example is shown in the fragment shown below, labeled "oracle bone script for Spring". The top left character in this image has no known modern Chinese counterpart. 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 is the oracle bone script character for 王 wáng ("king").


Among the major Chinese scholars making significant contributions to the study of the oracle bone writings, especially early on, were: Wáng Yìróng (王懿榮; 1845-1900), who in 1899 recognized the characters as being ancient Chinese writing; Liú È (刘鶚; 1857-1909), who collected five thousand oracle bone fragments, published the first volume of examples and rubbings in 1903, and correctly identified thirty-four characters; Sūn Yíràng (孫詒讓, 1848-1908), the first serious researcher of oracle bones; Luó Zhènyù (羅振玉, 1866-1940), who collected over 30,000 oracle bones and published several volumes, identified the names of the Shang kings, and thus positively identified the oracle bones as being artifacts from the Shang reign; Wáng Gúowéi (王國維, 1877-1927), who demonstrated that the chronology of the Shang kings matched that in Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian; Dǒng Zuòbīn (董作賓, 1895-1963), who identified the diviners and established a chronology for the oracle bones as well as numerous other dating criteria; and Gūo Mòruò (郭沫若, 1892-1978).

Zhou Dynasty oracle bones

The numbers of oracle bones with inscriptions contemporaneous with the end of Shang and the beginning of Zhou is relatively few in number compared with the entire corpus of Shang inscriptions. Until 1977, only a few inscribed shell and bone artifacts. Zhou related inscriptions have been unearthed since the 1950s, with find fragments having only one or two characters. In August 1977, a large hoard of several thousand pieces was discovered in an area closely related to the heartland of the ancient Zhou. Of these, only two or three hundred items were inscribed.

The following is an example of a Zhou inscription.Image:Zhou-inscription.png


Image:CMOC Treasures of Ancient China exhibit - oracle bone inscription.jpg|An oracle bone (which is incomplete) with a diviner asking the Shang king if there would be misfortune over the next ten daysImage:OracleShell.JPG|Replica of ancient Chinese script on an oracle turtle shellImage:OracleDivining.JPG|Oracle script from a diviningImage:OracleSun.JPG|Oracle script script inquiry about rain: "Today, will it rain?"Image:Obi-rain.png|Oracle script script inquiry about rain (annotated)Image:OracleSpring.JPG|Oracle script for SpringImage:OracleAutumn.JPG|Oracle script for AutumnImage:OracleWinter.JPG|Oracle script for WinterImage:Chinese character Shang oracle 豕 shi3 swine.gif|graph AImage:Chinese character Shang oracle 犬 quan3 dog.gif|graph B

See also

Notes and references

  1. Qiú 2000 p.60 states that a few were written with a brush and either ink or cinnabar
  2. A few such shells and bones do not record divinations, but bear other records such as those of hunting trips, records of sacrifices, wars or other events (Xǔ Yǎhuì 許雅惠 2002, p.34), calendars (Xu Yahui p.31), or practice inscriptions; these are termed shell and bone inscriptions, rather than oracle bones, because no oracle (divination) was involved. However, they are still written in oracle bone script.
  3. Qiú Xīguī (裘錫圭 2000) Chinese Writing, p.29
  4. Xu Yahui p.4
  5. Keightley 1978 p. xiii and pp.171-176; Boltz 1994 & 2003, p.31; the dating of the end of the Shang is still a controversial topic.
  6. see also William G. Boltz, Early Chinese Writing, World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems. (Feb., 1986), pp. 420-436 (436)
  7. see also David N. Keightley, Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China, Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition. (Autumn, 1996), pp.68-95 (68)
  8. John DeFrancis: Visible Speech. The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems: Chinese
  9. Nylan, Michael (2001). The five "Confucian" classics, p. 217
  10. Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.31
  11. For example, many characters had already undergone extensive simplification and linearization; the processes of semantic extension and phonetic loan had also clearly been at work for some time, at least hundreds of years and perhaps longer.
  12. See, e.g., 裘錫圭 Qiú Xīguī (2000) Chinese Writing
  13. Qiu 2000, p.64
  14. Qiu 2000, p.63
  15. There are no such bamboo books extant before the late Zhōu, however, as the materials were not permanent enough to survive.
  16. 聿 yù depicts a hand holding a writing brush; the forerunner of the modern graph 筆 bĭ)
  17. Xu Yahui, p.12
  18. As Qiu 2000 p.62-3 notes, the Shàngshū’s Duōshì chapter also refers to use of such books by the Shāng.
  19. Identification of these graphs is based on consultation of Zhào Chéng (趙誠, 1988), Liú Xīnglóng (劉興隆, 1997), Wú, Teresa L. (1990), Keightley, David N. (1978 & 2000), and Qiú Xīguī (2000)
  20. Keightley 1978, p.50
  21. Qiu 2000, p.67; Keightley 1978, p.50
  22. Keightley 1978, p.53
  23. Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.31; Qiu Xigui 2000, p.29
  24. Boltz surmises that the Chinese script was invented around the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, i.e. very roughly ca. 1500 BCE, in the early Shang, and based on the currently available evidence declares attempts to push this date earlier "unsubstantiated speculation and wishful thinking". (1994 & 2003, p.39)
  25. Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.55
  26. Lĭ Xiàodìng (李孝定) 1968 p.95, cited in Woon 1987; the % do not add to 100 due merely to rounding error; see Chinese character classification for explanations of the various types listed here.
  27. Zhào Chéng (1988)
  28. Xu Yahui, p.16-19
  29. p. 67, Liu Xiang et al. 商周古文字读本, Yuwen Pub., ISBN 7-80006-238-4.
  30. p. 327 Gao Ming, 中国古文字学通论, Beijing University Press, ISBN 7-301-02285-9

Further reading

  • Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). 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
  • Chén Zhāoróng (陳昭容) (2003) 秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察 Research on the Qín (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊 Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph. ISBN 957-671-995-X.
  • Gao Ming (高明) (1996) 中国古文字学通论 (Zhongguo Guwenzi Xuetonglun). 北京大学出版社 Beijing University Press. ISBN 7-301-02285-9
  • Keightley, David N. (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley. Large format hardcover, ISBN 0520029690 (out of print); A 1985 ppbk 2nd edition also printed, 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, ppbk.
  • Liu Xiang et al. (刘翔,陈抗,陈初生, 董琨,编者 李学勤 审订) (1989, 3rd reprint 1996) 商周古文字读本 Reader of Shang-Zhou Ancient Characters. 语文出版社 Yuwen Publishers. ISBN 7-80006-238-4
  • Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭) Chinese Writing (2000). Translation of 文字學概要 by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Thorp, Robert L. "The Date of Tomb 5 at Yinxu, Anyang: A Review Article," Artibus Asiae (Volume 43, Number 3, 1981): 239–246.
  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利) (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution (漢字的原始和演變), originally published by the University of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN).
  • Zhào Chéng (趙誠) (1988) 甲骨文簡明詞典 – 卜辭分類讀本 jiǎgǔwén jiǎnmíng cídiǎn – bǔcí fēnlèi dúbĕn. 中華書局 Zhōnghúa Shūjú, ISBN 7-101-00254-4/H•22

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