The Shang dynasty (1600–1050 B.C.E.) saw advancements made in mathematics, astronomy, and bronze casting technology. It is considered the first historical dynasty of China, meaning it left behind written records. These records are preserved as engravings cut into the so-called oracle bones.
The term “oracle bone” refers to ox scapulae (or shoulder blade bones) and tortoiseshells used by Shang rulers for divination. Oracle bones were said to offer a conduit to the spirits of royal ancestors, legendary figures from the past, nature deities, and other powerful spirits. Shang kings asked about natural events, illnesses, dreams, and forecasts for hunting and military endeavors.
Under the direction of the king and his diviner, the bones of cattle and water buffalo and the shells of tortoises were scraped clean, polished, and perhaps soaked. When dry, the bones or shells were chiseled to produce rows of grooves and pits. During the ritual, a diviner would insert a heated rod into the bottom of the grooves and pits to produce hairline cracks on the opposite side of the bone or shell. The diviner requested information and guidance from the spirit of a royal ancestor and then interpreted the direction of the cracks to provide answers to the king’s question. To record the king’s question, a scribe would then carve it onto the bone or shell surface relative to the cracks.
Later, the scribe would carve the outcome onto the surface of the bones or shells. The tortoiseshell fragment from the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, for instance, has three groups of finely engraved inscriptions. Two of them relate to the question of rain; the third reports on the outcome of a successful deer hunt. Most oracle bone inscriptions contain four parts: an introduction, a charge (the topic of the oracle-bone inscription), the prognostication (interpretation of cracks), and verification (the actual outcome of the oracle bone inscription topic). For example, one oracle bone outside the museum collection reads:
Introduction: “On renzi (day 49), [the king] made cracks and divined:
Charge: ‘We will hunt at Wu; going and coming back there will be no disasters.’”
Prognostication: The king read the crack and said: “Auspicious.” This was inscribed.
Verification: “[We] caught one wild buffalo, one tiger, seven foxes.”
This resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation
Read about an oracle bone on the Teaching China resource from the National Museum of Asian art
The Art and Archeology of Ancient China. A Teacher’s Guide. Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2003, pp. 7–9, 41, 90–93. http://archive.asia.si.edu/explore/teacherResources/chinapacket/chinacover.pdf
de Bary, W. T., and I. Bloom. Sources of Chinese Tradition: From Earliest Time to 1600. Vol 1, p. 17. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Smithsonian Learning Lab—Emergence of Civilization in China: Oracle Bones https://learninglab.si.edu/collections/emergence-of-civilization-in-china-oracle-bones/GK8HqcjPNomKgwJx
Eno, R. “Deities and Ancestors in Early Oracle Inscriptions.” In Religions of China in Practice, 41–51. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s5804.pdf
For the classroom
- What can oracle bones teach us about life in the Shang dynasty?
- What are some tools that we use today to predict the future?
- If you could ask an oracle reader a question, what would it be?