Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Ancient Inscriptions on Bones and Tortoise Shells

There is recorded in Chinese history books the following story about the discovery of ancient inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. In the year of 1899, a well-known philologist and archaeologist in Beijing named Wang Yirong was taken ill. In the medicines prescribed for him by a traditional Chinese medicine man there was something called "dragon bones" which were fragments of the bones and shells of ancient animals. On the bone and shell fragments he discerned some inscribed figures which looked very much like ancient writing. Curiosity set him thinking, " how come that ancient animal bones and shells that had been buried underground could bear such designs? What do they signify?" He made inquires at the shop selling the herb medicines and was told that the bone and shell fragments were purchased from Henan. Getting in touch with the merchant that had sold the fragments to the shop, he bought at a considerable price the whole lot of bones and shells that bore inscribed figures and designs. A thorough study of them finally led Wang to the conclusion that they were actually a form of ancient Chinese script.

This discovery aroused tremendous interest and attention among many scholars who then found a large amount of inscribed shells and bones at a village called Xiao Tun in Anyang County of Henan Province which happened to be the state capital of the late Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 to 1100 BC). Our ancestor not only inscribed characters on tortoise shells but also on cattle and deer bones. Hence the name "ancient writing on tortoise shells and bones" which was the form of script prevalent in the Shang Dynasty.

In those days, people were very superstitious, believing that everything in life was preordained by God in heaven. No matter what they did, they would first ask for advice from the gods and spirits by practicing divination which they believed was able to foretell whether they would win or lose in a war, whether a hunting trip would be worthwhile, whether the weather would turn out favorable and of course whether the signs augured ill or well for a person at various stages of his life. Our ancestors did something like this: they would first make a small hole in a polished and trimmed tortoise shell or simply make a dent on it. They would then apply fire to the hole or dent. This would then foretell things on the basis of the shapes of the cracks and make decisions for or against doing something. All this was then recorded on tortoise shells or bone fragments. In other words, the inscriptions were a kind of "oracular writing."

Apart from oracular writing, shells and bones were also used to record major events of the time such as the number of prisoners of war, the gains of hunting trip, the dates of floods and the tributes presented by the vassal princes.

The ancient writing discovered so far consists of some 3,500 characters of which about 1,700 have been identified. From these characters we have gained some idea of the development and change of written Chinese. These inscribed figures and signs already bore some of the basic structural characteristics of   today's Chinese words which are believed to have derived from primitive figures and signs. However, the characters in the ancient inscriptions on shell and bones, although pictographic or iconic, had already got beyond the stage of primitive figures and signs. They had the function of representing the main characteristics of something and led people to see at a glance what they signified. There had also been formed a number of pictophonetic words, i,e, combinations of two elements, one indicating meaning and the other, sound. This method of creating new words through a combination of sound and form had broght forth an increasing number of Chinese words with richer and richer significations.

In short, the ancient inscriptions on tortoise shells and bones are record of the sociopolitical, economic and cultural life of the times. Hence their immense significance for the study of that period of Chinese history which is known as slave society. 


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