The origin of oracle bones

The ancient kings, after achieving unity of power, often spent their days indulging in wine and sex. After each pleasure, they knew that all their enjoyment came from the “contribution” of the proletariat.

In order to strengthen their rule, they had to have fun in name only. So they came up with a brilliant plan to attach their extravagance to the sky, called the Mandate of Heaven. So how to realize this mandate and convince the world of its true legitimacy?

The king was very clever, they found a group of sorcerers who claimed to know how to communicate with the gods and the sky, and ordered them to catch some turtles and kill them. The tortoise shells were then burned on the fire, and something like “The King’s authority is granted by Heaven” was carved on the shells, which was then passed down to the people and became the Oracle Bone Writing.

Oracle Bone Writing

In the summer of 1985, when excavating the large palace building site of the famous capital of the Western Zhou Dynasty, Haojing, the archaeological team of Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology excavated the garden village of Doumen Town, Chang’an County, more than 20 kilometers southwest of Xi’an City, they accidentally discovered a primitive social tribal settlement site of the “Longshan Culture” period, and found a batch of oracle bones with inscriptions on this site. A group of oracle bones with inscriptions was found on this site. Accordingly, archaeologists and palaeographers believe that it is the earliest oracle bone inscription seen in China so far, and that the oracle bone inscriptions date back to at least 4500-5000 years ago, 1200-1700 years earlier than the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty that were identified in the past.

Oracle Bone Writing
Was there any writing in China before the oracle bone script? From the historical records, Xunzi, Lv’s Spring and Autumn Annals, Han Feizi, and Shi Ben all record the legend of Cangjie making characters. Xu Shen’s preface to “Shuowen” combines the legend of Cang Jie with that of “The Tale of the Ties” and says, “And the divine family knotted the rope for the rule and unified its affairs, the common industry its prosperity, ornaments and falsifications sprouted. The Yellow Emperor’s history of Cang Jie see birds and animals hoof navigation of the trace, know the division of the reasoning can be different, the first to create the book deed, a hundred workers to mow, ten thousand products to check.” Huangdi’s era about two thousand five hundred and sixty years BC, the earliest oracle bone inscriptions not more than 1300 BC. From the archaeological materials, in the oracle bones before, China’s territory has a lot of immature writing symbols appear. 30 years in Shandong Zhangqiu County, excavated in the Longshan culture pottery pieces found in some of the symbols. There are also written symbols on Xi’an Hanpo pottery, which are composed of incised geometric lines, most of which are relatively simple, and Guo Moruo claims that the symbols on Hanpo pottery have the nature of writing. There are also symbols found on the pottery of Dawenkou culture in Shandong, and some of them are painted with colors. These symbols are carved on the surface of the pottery in a very prominent position. Some of the symbols are like the sun or the moon rising from the mountains. In addition, symbols were found on pottery from the Majiayao culture in Qinghai, the early Shang dynasty culture in Zhengzhou, and the middle Shang dynasty culture in Hebei. Although these symbols are simple, sporadic, and without a law, they are the prototype of Chinese writing, and it can be said that the birth of Chinese writing has a history of at least 5,000 to 6,000 years. Therefore, to be precise, oracle bone script is the oldest and more mature script in China.

Early oracle bone inscriptions

The Origin of Oracle Bone Script

The oracle bone script is actually the script of the Shang Dynasty, whose capital city was built in Shangqiu at the beginning. Later, during the Pan Geng period, the capital was moved to Anyang, where it was built for 273 years, hence the name “Yin” or “Yin Shang”.

The oracle bones found so far all belong to this 273-year period, with a total of 8 lives and 12 kings. Based on his own research, Dong Zubin created a staging method, dividing the oracle bones into five periods: first, a period of majesty, second, a period of discipline, third, a period of decadence, fourth, a period of strength, and fifth, a period of rigor.

Oracle Bone Script and Modern Chinese Language
The discovery process of oracle bone inscriptions

The symbols carved on ancient oracle bones were identified as Shang Dynasty script, one of the three major discoveries of Chinese archaeology (Dunhuang Caves and Zhoukoudian Ape Remains) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the process of its discovery was both fortuitous and dramatic. In the autumn of 1899, Wang Yirong (1845-1900), who was the priest of the State Scholar’s Academy (the equivalent of the highest official of a central educational institution) at the Qing court in Beijing, was stricken with malaria. He sent someone to buy a dose of Chinese medicine from Daren Tang in Cai Shi Kou outside Xuan Wu Men. Wang Yirong overheard some symbols engraved on one of the herbs called keel bone. Dragon bones are the bones of ancient vertebrates, how could there be symbols carved on such bones hundreds of thousands of years ago? This aroused his curiosity. Wang Yirong, who has studied ancient jinshi script, carefully examined them and found that they were not ordinary carvings, but resembled ancient writing, but their shape was not seal script (Big Seal) or seal script (Small Seal). In order to find more oracle bones for further study, he sent his men to Daren Hall and bought all the oracle bones with symbols in the pharmacy at a high price of two taels of silver per piece, and later searched for them through antique dealer Fan Weiqing and others, and collected more than 1,500 pieces in total.

The “Four Chambers of Oracle Bone”

The Chinese masters Qian Xuan Tong and Chen Zizhan are known as the “four halls of oracle bones”: Luo Zhenyu (the word Xue Tang), Wang Guowei (the word Guan Tang), Dong Zuobin (the word Yan Tang), and Guo Moruo (the word Ding Tang), and these “four halls” made great contributions to oracle bones.

He was the founder of oracle bone studies and the first scholar to make major progress in the study of oracle bones! Through his personal visits, he found that the oracle bones were found in Xiaotun, the site of Yin Xu, the capital of the Yin Dynasty. His book “Huan Luo Visiting Ancient Travels” became the first work on the field study of Anyang Yinxu, which played a role in the formation and development of the entire oracle bone research discipline.

Wang Guowei further explored the political system of the Yin and Zhou dynasties through a comparative study of oracle bones and ancient Chinese historical texts. He was the first person to evolve oracle bone learning from philology to history! Together with Luo Zhenyu, he corroborated the phenomenon of haplographies in oracle bones.

Guo Moruo made a remarkable contribution to the study of oracle bones! He did not participate in the archaeological excavation of the Yin Market! But he was always mindful of the achievements of the archaeological group at the Institute of History and Language. He was concerned about the research and development of oracle bone science. It’s really good!

Luo Zhenyu, Wang Guowei, and Guo Moruo had no experience in field archaeological excavations, so they could not use their stratigraphic knowledge to determine generations, and they could only be considered “indoor archaeologists”. Dong Zubin, on the other hand, was a scholar of oracle bones who had personally participated in eight excavations at the Yin ruins in Xiaotun Village, Anyang, so his achievements were above those of the other three.

Wang Yirong
Every Chinese knows about the oracle bone script, which is the earliest known script. But that’s about it. Very few people have a little more knowledge about oracle bones.

On November 24, 2017, the oracle bone script passed the evaluation of the International Advisory Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Project and was successfully selected for the Memory of the World Register.

It is an honorable thing for us, lest the one next door who won’t even let go of the kimchi shout “the oracle is ‘ours'” again. Brother usually like to read, like to learn more about the traditional culture of the motherland, thinking to constantly improve their own literacy, in order to better discover the beauty of traditional culture.

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