In 1899 a Beijing doctor’s medical prescription led to one of China’s most bizarre archaeological finds. The prescription called for crushed “dragon bones,” a common ingredient collected from farmers’ fields in Henan province. The patient was a scholar named Wang I-yung, who bought some of the “bones” and saw they were actually bits of turtle shell that were strangely scratched and cracked. Closer study showed that these odd scratches were deliberately inscribed. Wang had stumbled on the so-called oracle bones, used to divine the future during the ancient Shang dynasty. Their inscriptions are the earliest known form of Chinese writing.



The Shang, once thought to be a mythical people, flourished from about the sixteenth to twelfth centuries BC near Anyang, 500 kilometers south of Beijing. Excavated ruins there have yielded more than 100,000 animal bones and shells inscribed with written questions for ancestral gods. In every aspect of their daily lives, it seems, the Shang sought guidance from the oracle bones, asking questions about weather, hunting expeditions, sacrificial rituals, building sites, politics, dreams, health, births and marriage. Around 1200 BC, King Wu Ding was particularly concerned about the fortunes of two of his wives. Would sufficient rain fall on the fields of the Lady Zi? Would she have a good harvest? Would the run of bad luck that had been disturbing the father of Woman Hao come to an end? And how should Woman Hao and her army attack the enemy?


Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Campus)


Divination by oracle bones had been practiced well before the Shang era, but the art reached its height during this dynasty. In highly elaborate rituals of preparation, the shoulder blades of cattle and the undershells of turtles were scraped, dried and polished, and hollows were scooped out of the undersides. A question was asked, usually by the king. Extreme heat was applied to the bone, using red-hot stones or a burning stick, which caused cracks to appear on the surface. A diviner would interpret the pattern formed by the cracks to find the spirit’s answer, and a record of the divination would be etched on the same oracle bone.


Oracle Bones, Stars, and Wheelbarrows: Ancient Chinese Science and Technology


After the time of the Shang, ordinary people continued to rely on the oracle bones. A poignant poem of about 800 BC tells of a couple who consulted the oracle bones before their wedding, nut did not enjoy the happy marriage the bones predicted. By the first century AD, oracle bones had been completely replaced by a method of divination using yarrow stalks and, later, coins.


Share this post :