Chinese Oracle Bone Inscriptions

Oracle Bones are the earliest example of Chinese writing we have. Oracle Bones date from the late Shang Period (c. 1200 B.C.). They are called oracle bones because the writing deals with divination and is carved on bone. They have taught scholars much about the Shang Dynasty.

Oracle bone inscriptions ( 甲骨文 Jia Gu Wen in Chinese Pinyin), the earliest Chinese writing scripts, are the ancient Chinese characters carved on tortoise shells and animal scapulas. The oracle bone inscriptions were mainly used for divination and keeping records of events happened in the late Shang Dynasty (商代)1300 BC - 1046 BC). The bones are invaluable for us to understand the Shang Dynasty.

A scholar, Wang Yirong (王懿榮)  first found the oracle bone inscriptions in 1899. Some unknown characters on the 'dragon bones,' one of the ingredients of his medicine, caught his attention. The bones were then traced to Anyang in Henan (河南) province, the capital of the late Shang Dynasty, where there have been over 150,000 oracle bone inscriptions excavated till today.

A great deal of knowledge of the Shang Dynasty has been learned from the studies of the oracle bone inscriptions. Many books about the inscriptions were published. The first book by Liu E (劉鶚) was published in 1903. A good collection of the inscriptions was published in a book called 'Jiaguwen Heji' by Guo Moruo et al. It includes 41,956 inscriptions selected from the oracle bone inscriptions found before 1973. The total 13 volumes of the book were published during 1978 and 1982. From the studies of many scholars, about 2,000 characters among the more than 4,500 different characters found on the bones have been identified. The remaining unidentified characters are mainly places, names, etc. So experts can basically read the inscriptions now.

Contents of the inscriptions
The inscriptions were mainly used for divination during the Shang Dynasty. The rulers of the Shang Dynasty were very superstitious so divination was basically a daily activity for almost everything, such as weather, health, farming and fortune. The bones not only were used in divination as a tool, but also in recording the activities and results on them. The inscriptions were classified into four categories in the book 'Jiaguwen Heji,' i.e., classes and country, society and production, cultures, and other. The oracle bone inscriptions are the earliest written records discovered in China.

Pictures of Chinese Oracle Bone Inscriptions

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