Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones

Question and Answer
By: J

At first, people weren’t even sure if the Shang Dynasty had ever existed. But then they found oracle bones, in 1899. Oracle bones weren’t found how you might think they were, they weren’t found by archaeologists. They were discovered being sold in drug stores, which prescribed them as dragon bones! After studying them, scholars were sure that these “dragon bones” were actually ancient writings.

Q: What are oracle bones?
A: Oracle bones were a sort of fortune- telling device that were used during the Shang Dynasty. A question was written on a animal bone, usually a tortoise shell. Then they would make a hole on the inside and put the bone over a fire. When the bone cracked, a soothsayer would look for answers in the outside T-shaped cracks. However no one seems to know quite how they interpreted the cracks.

Q: Did the majority of the Shang people actually believe in the oracle bones?
A: Yes, nearly all Shang people believed in the bones. The Shang people were very superstitious. They would always ask God their questions, whether they be “Will it be sunny tomorrow?” or “Will we win this oncoming war?”

Q: Did oracle bones really work?
A: Do horoscopes work? Some people say yes and some say no. If you asked the Shang people, they would all pretty much tell you that oracle bones worked. However, what do you think would happen if people made oracle bones today? Some people wouldn’t believe in them, while others would.

Q: What about the writing the Shang used on their oracle bones (and on other things)?
A: The Shang writing is some of the oldest Chinese writing that we know of. The Shang people wrote with pictographs, in which the symbol for a something would look like a simple picture of what the symbol stood for. For example, the pictograph for oxen would look like a crude picture of an ox.

Q: Did the Shang only write on oracle bones?
A: No. The Shang are supposed to have written on lots of other materials, such as bamboo strips, bronze, stone, and maybe silk. However, because mostly the Shang wrote on bamboo strips and oracle bones, most of their writing has decayed. This is why you hear so much about the Shang oracle bones.

So, as you can see, the oracle bones were very important to the Shang Dynasty. Did you know that modern Chinese writing is one of the few manuscripts left today that can be easily traced by to its beginnings? In this case, the Shang were the first to start the long line of evolution of the Chinese writing.


An oracle bone from the Shang Dynasty.
Picture from core9/phalsall/

Now, some questions for you:
1. What type of animal bone was most commonly used for oracle bones?
2. What was the crude, early form of writing that the Shang used called?
3. What shape crack developed when the Shang people heated the bone over the fire?

Bamboo Books
Chines Writing