FAQs about Oracle Bone Inscriptions

กท What are "oracle bone" inscriptions?

"Chia-ku" (oracle bones) refers to tortoise shells (chia) and animal bones (ku)--in particular ox scapulae. The script inscribed or written on these shells and bones is known as "chia-ku wen"--oracle bone inscriptions.

กท What do oracle bone inscriptions deal with?

There are two categories of subject matter for oracle bone inscriptions: divinations and event records. The Shang royal household at the Yin capital used tortoise shells and animal bones in their divination practices and, after completing the divination, related records were then inscribed or written on them. These are known as divination inscriptions and cover a wide range of topics including weather, sacrifices to gods and ancestors, warfare, childbirth, illness, and dreams. There are also a number of oracle bone inscriptions unrelated to divination which mostly record events such as hunting trips.

กท How old are oracle bones and where were they discovered?

Inscribed oracle bones are mainly from the Yin Ruins of the late Shang; that is, the period roughly from the end of the 14th to the middle of the 11th century BC. Over recent years, a small number of early Chou dynasty oracle bones have also been found at Fu-feng, Chi-shan, and Feng-hsiang in Shensi Province.

กท Is the custom of oracle bone divination peculiar to the Shang dynasty?

Evidence of ox scapula divination, with traces of drilling, boring and burning, have been found at many Neolithic sites in China. There are no divinatory records, however. Only with the Yin Ruins of the late Shang (late 14th century BC) were records of divination added to the tortoise plastrons and animal bones to create the oracle bone inscriptions that we see today. At present, such minority groups in southwestern China as the Yi-tsu, Mo-hsieh and Na-hsi still retain the custom of using animal bones for divination.