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Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Dawn of History

The earliest writing began to take shape in China way back in Neolithic times. The very first rudimentary symbols appeared on the earthenware of the Longshan Culture. These late Neolithic people are known for their burnished black pottery first excavated in Longshan, Shandong Province in 1928.

Earthenware artifacts from sites attributed to the Erlitou Culture that came later were already carrying symbols that would be the precursors of the written language of the famous oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (about 16th-11th centuries BC).

The Erlitou was an early bronze-age culture usually associated with the Xia Dynasty (about 21st-16th centuries BC). The name derives from discoveries at Erlitou in Yanshi County, Henan Province.

Oracle bone inscriptions were first discovered in the autumn of 1899. They came to light in Yinxu, near Xiaotun village, Anyang city, Henan Province. This was the site of the capital city of the Yin Dynasty, which is the name given to the later period of the Shang.

The ancient custom of divination was born out of the mystical and religious practices of the day. The Historical Records of Sima Qian who lived in the days of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 25) brings us an account. In ancient times the king would seek inspiration through divination. A hot instrument was applied to the back of tortoise shell or animal bone and the hidden meaning in the cracks produced was then interpreted. The practice went on to be refined with a written record of the divination being incised on the 'oracle bone'. And so oracle bone inscriptions came into being.

Divination was a widespread practice in the Shang Dynasty that saw oracle bone inscription develop into a mature and comprehensive writing system.

The discovery a century ago in Yinxu of these remarkable inscriptions added a 1,000 years to the span of China's recorded history. In his Origin of Chinese Civilization, the late renowned archaeologist Xia Nai wrote of the Yinxu culture of the Shang as a truly glorious ancient civilization, which was significant for three distinctive features. These were its imperial capital, its bronze-ware and the actual words of the people of these days handed down to us over these many years, inscribed in ancient Chinese characters.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, more and more Shang Dynasty oracle bone inscriptions have been uncovered. Major finds include: 

  • over 4,000 pieces of inscribed oracle bone unearthed in Xiaotun, in the south of Yinxu in 1973.
  •  another 1,583 pieces from Huayuanzhuang, in the east of Yinxu in 1991. 
  •  70 pieces of tortoise shell and ox shoulder blade together with a few pottery relics recently excavated in two sacrificial pits in Xiaotun, Anyang city, Henan Province. 
  •  a find of over 200 pieces of inscribed oracle bone deposited in five layers with a piece of bronze-ware, five pieces of rare timber, a shell necklace and a frog-headed bone knife in a sacrificial pit also in Xiaotun, Yinxu in 2002. These added much to what had been discovered at the same location in 1973. 
  •  eight pieces of inscribed oracle bone at Daxinzhuang in Jinan city, Shandong Province. This find is all the more important for being an example of a Shang site located away from the main locus of such discoveries around Yinxu.

Starting with finds in Hongdong, Shanxi Province in 1954, more and more oracle bone inscriptions of the Western Zhou Dynasty (about 1,100 - 771 BC) have been brought to light successively in Beijing, Shaanxi and Hebei provinces.

The body of knowledge now available to researchers tells of a written language with over 4,600 known characters. Of these some 1,000 have already been deciphered.

And what's more, scholars have succeeded in gaining a real insight into this ancient script. They have mastered the secrets of how its words, phrases and sentences are constructed. Their scholarly research has identified various ways in which words were represented. Some were onomatopoeic seeking to directly represent a particular sound or action. There were those which were pictophonetic, with one element of the character conveying a meaning and another a sound. Good use was also made of 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.

The superstitious kings of the Shang turned to divination to guide them in those aspects of life that mattered most to them. This is fortunate for the history of the Shang for it led them to leave us oracle bone inscriptions dealing with such diverse topics as the politics, economics, culture and even the norms of etiquette of these far off times.

These ancient writings also embrace matters of geography and astronomical phenomena. They include comprehensive written records of solar and lunar eclipses, which can be used to confirm the accuracy of modern astronomical calculations.

Some 150,000 inscribed oracle bones are held in collections around the world. Of these some 80,000 to 90,000 are in China's mainland with a further 20,000 in Taiwan.

The origins of archaeology in China go hand in hand with the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions. Following on the heels of the centenary of the famous discovery in Yinxu, have come a growing number of symposia both at home and abroad. Today, ancient Chinese writing is attracting worldwide attention.

(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, May 27, 2003)

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