Oracle bone script

Oracle bone script
Oracle bone script
Type Logographic
Languages Old Chinese
Time period Bronze Age China
Parent systems
  • Oracle bone script
Child systems Bronze script
Seal script
Clerical script
Simplified Chinese
Chu Nom
Khitan script
Jurchen script
Tangut script
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.
Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone Script on Ox Scapula, Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, Germany. Photo by Dr. Meierhofer
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Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally "shell bone writing") refers to incised (or, rarely, brush-written[1]) ancient Chinese characters found on oracle bones, which are animal bones or turtle shells used in divination in Bronze Age China. The vast majority[2] record the pyromantic divinations of the royal house of the late Shang dynasty at the capital of Yin (modern Anyang, Henan Province); dating of the Anyang examples of oracle bone script varies from ca. 14th -11th centuries BCE[3][4] to ca. 1200 to ca. 1050 BC.[5][6][7][8] Very few oracle bone writings date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhou Dynasty, because pyromancy fell from favor and divining with milfoil became more common.[9] The late Shang oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest[10] significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shang writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.



Because turtle shells as well as bones were used, the oracle bone script is also sometimes called shell and bone script. As the majority of oracle bones bearing writing date to the late Shang dynasty, oracle bone script essentially refers to a Shang script.


It is certain that Shang-lineage writing underwent a period of development before the Anyang oracle bone script, because of its mature nature[11] however, no significant quantity of clearly identifiable writing from before or during the early to middle Shang cultural period has been discovered. The few Neolithic symbols found on pottery, jade, or bone at a variety of cultural sites in China are very controversial,[12] and there is no consensus that any of them are directly related to the Shang oracle bone script.


Shang oracle bone script: 虎 'tiger'
Shang oracle bone script: 目 'eye'

The oracle bone script of the late Shang appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shang writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period).[13] Comparing oracle bone script to both Shang and early Western Zhou period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds the bronzes were cast from. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shang writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and this typical style continued to evolve into the Zhou period writing and then into the seal script of the Qin in the late Zhou period.

It is known that the Shang people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items,[14] and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books[15] just like those found from the late Zhou to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 [16]) and bamboo book (冊 , a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script.[14][17][18] Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shang graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority[14][17] of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs,[19] by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions.[20] In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing,[21] and inscriptions were never read bottom to top.[22] The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shang dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion.[20]

Structure and function

Various ways to write 寅, the 3rd Earthly Branch, in oracle bone script

Despite the archaic and relatively pictorial appearance of the oracle bone script, it is in fact a fully functional and fairly mature[23] writing system, i.e., able to record the Old Chinese language in its entirety and not just isolated kinds of meaning.[citation needed] This level of maturity clearly implies an earlier period of development of at least several hundred years.[24] From their presumed origins as pictographs and signs, by the Shang dynasty, most graphs were already conventionalized[25] in such a simplified fashion that the meanings of many of the pictographs are not immediately apparent. Compare, for instance, the third and fourth graphs in the row below. Without careful research to compare these to later forms, one would probably not know that these represented 豕 shĭ 'swine' and 犬 quǎn 'dog' respectively. As Boltz (1994 & 2003 p. 31-33) notes, most of the oracle bone graphs are not depicted realistically enough for those who do not already know the script to recognized what they stand for; although pictographic in origin they are no longer pictographs in function. Boltz instead calls them zodiographs (p. 33), reminding us that functionally they represent words, and only through the words do they represent concepts, while for similar reasons Qiu labels them semantographs.

By the late Shang oracle bone script, the graphs had already evolved into a variety of mostly non-pictographic functions[citation needed], including all the major types of Chinese characters now in use. Phonetic loan graphs, semantic-phonetic compounds, and associative compounds were already common. One structural and functional analysis of the oracle bone characters found that they were 23% pictographs, 2% simple indicatives, 32% associative compounds, 11% phonetic loans, 27% phonetic-semantic compounds, and 6% uncertain.[26]

Despite its status as a fully functional and fairly mature writing system, the oracle bone script is not actually 100% mature – the form of a very few graphs changes depending on context[citation needed], and on occasion the order of the graphs does not quite match that of the language[citation needed]. By the early Western Zhou period, these traits had vanished, but in both periods, the script was not highly regular or standardized; variant forms of graphs abound (see the many ways to write yín (寅)[27] the 3rd Earthly Branch to the left), and the size and orientation of graphs is also irregular. A graph when inverted horizontally generally refers to the same word, and additional components are sometimes present without changing the meaning. Not until the standardization carried out in the Qín dynasty seal script did these irregularities end.

Components of Oracle bone script characters may differ in later characters, for instance the character for Autumn 秋 now appears with 禾 as one component and fire 火 as another component. From the oracle bone script, one sees that an ant-like creature is carved instead (there is, however another rarely-used character for Autumn that greatly resembles the oracle bone script form, 龝).

Of the thousands of characters found from all the bone fragments, the majority remain undeciphered. One good example is shown in the fragment shown below, labeled "oracle bone script for Spring". The top left character in this image has no known modern Chinese counterpart. One of the better known characters however is shown directly beneath it looking like an upright isosceles triangle with a line cutting through the upper portion. This Wang2 king OB gif.gif is the oracle bone script character for 王 wáng ("king").

Oracle bone script graphs turned 90 degrees: From left, 馬/马 mǎ ‘horse’, 虎 hǔ ‘tiger’, 豕 shĭ ‘swine’, 犬 quǎn ‘dog’, 鼠 shǔ ‘rat and mouse’, 象 xiàng ‘elephant’, 豸 zhì ‘beasts of prey’, 龜 guī ‘turtle’, 爿qiáng ‘bed’ (now 床 chuáng), 為/为 wèi ‘to lead’ (now ‘do or for’), and 疾 jí ‘illness.


Wang Yirong, Chinese politician and scholar

Among the major Chinese scholars making significant contributions to the study of the oracle bone writings, especially early on, were: Wang Yirong (王懿榮; 1845–1900), who in 1899 recognized the characters as being ancient Chinese writing; Liu E (刘鶚; 1857–1909), who collected five thousand oracle bone fragments, published the first volume of examples and rubbings in 1903, and correctly identified thirty-four characters; Sūn Yíràng (孫詒讓, 1848–1908), the first serious researcher of oracle bones; Luó Zhènyù (羅振玉, 1866–1940), who collected over 30,000 oracle bones and published several volumes, identified the names of the Shang kings, and thus positively identified the oracle bones as being artifacts from the Shang reign; Wáng Gúowéi (王國維, 1877–1927), who demonstrated that the chronology of the Shang kings matched that in Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian; Dong Zuobin (董作賓, 1895–1963), who identified the diviners and established a chronology for the oracle bones as well as numerous other dating criteria; and Guo Moruo (郭沫若, 1892–1978).[28]

Zhou Dynasty oracle bones

The numbers of oracle bones with inscriptions contemporaneous with the end of Shang and the beginning of Zhou is relatively few in number compared with the entire corpus of Shang inscriptions. Until 1977, only a few inscribed shell and bone artifacts. Zhou related inscriptions have been unearthed since the 1950s, with find fragments having only one or two characters. In August 1977, a large hoard of several thousand pieces was discovered in an area closely related to the heartland of the ancient Zhou. Of these, only two or three hundred items were inscribed.

The following is an example of a Zhou inscription.[29][30]


See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Qiú 2000 p. 60 states that a few were written with a brush and either ink or cinnabar.
  2. ^ A few such shells and bones do not record divinations, but bear other records such as those of hunting trips, records of sacrifices, wars or other events (Xu Yahui. 許雅惠. 2002, p. 34. (Chinese)), calendars (Xu Yahui p. 31), or practice inscriptions; these are termed shell and bone inscriptions, rather than oracle bones, because no oracle (divination) was involved. However, they are still written in oracle bone script.
  3. ^ Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭 2000) Chinese Writing, p. 29.
  4. ^ Xu Yahui p. 4.
  5. ^ William G. Boltz: "Early Chinese Writing", World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 3, Early Writing Systems (1986), pp. 420–36 (436):
    The earliest known form of Chinese writing are the so-called 'oracle bone inscriptions' of the late Shang, divinatory inscriptions incised on turtle plastrons and ox scapulae, dating from about 1200–050 B.C. Shang bronze inscriptions from about 1100 B.C. constitute the second carliest source of evidence for archaic Chinese writing.
  6. ^ David N. Keightley: "Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China", Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition (1996), pp. 68–95 (68):
    The oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang dynasty (c. 1200–1050 B.C.), the earliest body of writing we yet possess for East Asia, were written in a script ancestral to all subsequent forms of Chinese writing.
  7. ^ Keightley 1978 pp. xiii, 171–6; Boltz 1994 & 2003, p. 31; the dating of the end of the Shang is still a controversial topic.
  8. ^ John DeFrancis: Visible Speech. The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems: Chinese
  9. ^ Nylan, Michael (2001). The five "Confucian" classics, p. 217
  10. ^ Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.31
  11. ^ For example, many characters had already undergone extensive simplification and linearization; the processes of semantic extension and phonetic loan had also clearly been at work for some time, at least hundreds of years and perhaps longer;
  12. ^ See, e.g., 裘錫圭 Qiu Xigui (2000) Chinese Writing
  13. ^ Qiu 2000, p.64
  14. ^ a b c Qiu 2000, p.63
  15. ^ There are no such bamboo books extant before the late Zhou, however, as the materials were not permanent enough to survive.
  16. ^ depicts a hand holding a writing brush; the forerunner of the modern graph 筆 )
  17. ^ a b Xu Yahui, p.12
  18. ^ As Qiu 2000 p.62–3 notes, the Shàngshū’s Duōshì chapter also refers to use of such books by the Shang.
  19. ^ Identification of these graphs is based on consultation of Zhao Cheng (趙誠, 1988), Liu Xinglong (劉興隆, 1997), Wu, Teresa L. (1990), Keightley, David N. (1978 & 2000), and Qiu Xigui (2000)
  20. ^ a b Keightley 1978, p.50
  21. ^ Qiu 2000, p.67; Keightley 1978, p.50
  22. ^ Keightley 1978, p.53
  23. ^ Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.31; Qiu Xigui 2000, p.29
  24. ^ Boltz surmises that the Chinese script was invented around the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, i.e. very roughly ca. 1500 BCE, in the early Shang, and based on the currently available evidence declares attempts to push this date earlier "unsubstantiated speculation and wishful thinking". (1994 & 2003, p.39)
  25. ^ Boltz (1994 & 2003), p.55
  26. ^ Li Xiaoding (李孝定) 1968 p.95, cited in Woon 1987; the % do not add to 100 due merely to rounding error; see Chinese character classification for explanations of the various types listed here.
  27. ^ Zhao Cheng (1988)
  28. ^ Xu Yahui, p.16–19
  29. ^ p. 67, Liu Xiang et al. 商周古文字读本, Yuwen Pub., ISBN 7-80006-238-4.
  30. ^ p. 327 Gao Ming, 中国古文字学通论, Beijing University Press, ISBN 7-301-02285-9

Further reading

  • Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8
  • Chen Zhaorong (陳昭容) (2003) 秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察 Research on the Qin (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊 Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph. ISBN 957-671-995-X.
  • Gao Ming (高明) (1996) 中国古文字学通论 (Zhongguo Guwenzi Xuetonglun). 北京大学出版社 Beijing University Press. ISBN 7-301-02285-9
  • Keightley, David N. (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley. Large format hardcover, ISBN 0520029690 (out of print); A 1985 ppbk 2nd edition also printed, ISBN 0-520-05455-5.
  • Keightley, David N. (2000). The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.). China Research Monograph 53, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California – Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-070-9, ppbk.
  • Liu Xiang et al. (刘翔,陈抗,陈初生, 董琨,编者 李学勤 审订) (1989, 3rd reprint 1996) 商周古文字读本 Reader of Shang-Zhou Ancient Characters. 语文出版社 Yuwen Publishers. ISBN 7-80006-238-4
  • Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭) Chinese Writing (2000). Translation of 文字學概要 by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Thorp, Robert L. "The Date of Tomb 5 at Yinxu, Anyang: A Review Article," Artibus Asiae (Volume 43, Number 3, 1981): 239–246.
  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利) (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution (漢字的原始和演變), originally published by the University of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN).
  • Zhao Cheng (趙誠) (1988) 甲骨文簡明詞典 – 卜辭分類讀本 Jiǎgǔwén Jiǎnmíng Cídiǎn – Bǔcí Fēnlèi Dúbĕn. 中華書局 Zhōnghúa Shūjú, ISBN 7-101-00254-4/H•22 (Chinese)

External links

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