Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文) was the form of Chinese characters used on oracle bones—animal bones or turtle plastrons used in pyromantic divination—in the late 2nd millennium BCE, and is the earliest known form of Chinese writing. The vast majority[a] were found at the Yinxu site (in modern Anyang, Henan Province). They record pyromantic divinations of the last nine kings of the Shang dynasty, beginning with Wu Ding, whose accession is dated by different scholars at 1250 BCE or 1200 BCE. After the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou dynasty in c. 1046 BCE, divining with milfoil became more common, and very few oracle bone writings date from the early Zhou.
The late Shang oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest 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 known member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts, preceding the bronzeware script.
The common Chinese term for the script is jiǎgǔwén (甲骨文 "shell and bone script"). It is an abbreviation of guījiǎ shòugǔ wénzì (龜甲獸骨文字 "tortoise-shell and animal-bone script"), which appeared in the 1930s as a translation of the English term "inscriptions upon bone and tortoise shell" first used by the American missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862–1914) in his 1906 book Early Chinese Writing. In earlier decades, Chinese authors used a variety of names for the inscriptions and the script, based on the place they were found (Yinxu), their purpose (bǔ 卜 "to divine") or the method of writing (qì 契 "to engrave").
As the majority of oracle bones bearing writing date from 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.[b] 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, and there is no consensus that any of them are directly related to the Shang oracle bone script.
The oracle bone script of the late Shang appears pictographic, 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). 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, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books[c] just like those found from the late Zhou to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù, depicting a hand holding a writing brush[d]) and bamboo book (冊 cè, 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.[e] 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 of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs,[f] 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. 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, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. 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.
Despite the pictorial nature of the oracle bone script, it was a fully functional and mature writing system by the time of the Shang dynasty, i.e., able to record the Old Chinese language in its entirety and not just isolated kinds of meaning. This level of maturity clearly implies an earlier period of development of at least several hundred years.[g] From their presumed origins as pictographs and signs, by the Shang dynasty, most graphs were already conventionalized 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 recognize 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, 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.[h]
Although it was a fully functional writing system, the oracle bone script was not fully standardized. 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, 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. These irregularities persisted until the standardization of the seal script in the Qin dynasty.
Of the thousands of characters found from all the bone fragments so far, the majority still remain undeciphered. One reason for this is that components of certain oracle bone script characters may differ in later script forms. Such differences may be accounted for by character simplification and/or by later generations misunderstanding the original graph, which had evolved beyond recognition. For instance, the standard character for ‘autumn’ (秋) now appears with 禾 ('plant stalk') as one component and 火 ('fire') as another component, whereas the oracle bone script form of the character depicts an insect-like figure with antennae - either a cricket or a locust - with a variant depicting fire below said figure. In this case, the modern character is a simplification of an archaic variant 𪛁 (or 𥤚) which is closer to the oracle bone script form - albeit with the insect figure being confused with the similar-looking character for 'turtle' (龜) and the addition of the 禾 component. (Another rarer simplification of 𪛁 is 龝, with 龜 instead of 火).
Another reason is that some characters exist only in oracle bone script, dropping out of later usage (usually being replaced in their duties by other, newer characters). In such cases, context - when available - may be used to determine the possible meaning of the character. One good example is shown in the fragment 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 is the oracle bone script character for 王 wáng ("king").
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 were known. 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.
Among the major scholars making significant contributions to the study of the oracle bone writings, especially early on, were:
Tortoise plastron with divination inscription dating to the reign of King Wu Ding
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