Introduction_Research on Oracle Bone Inscriptions


 Liu Eh
Liu Eh (1857-1909)

Sun Yi-jang
Sun Yi-jang (1848-1908)

Lo Chen-yu
Lo Chen-yu (1866-1940)

Wang Kuo-wei
Wang Kuo-wei (1877-1927)

Tung Tso-pin
Tung Tso-pin (1895-1963)


Kuo Mo-jo
Kuo Mo-jo (1892-1978)

          As mentioned previously, the first person to note the importance of oracle bones was Wang Yi-jung (1845-1900). With the help of his friend Liu Eh, oracle bone inscriptions were discovered in 1899. In 1900, however, Wang died during the Boxer rebellion, and his collection of oracle bones came into Liu's hands. The first book published with rubbings of oracle bones was "T'ieh-yun ts'ang kui" (T'ieh-yun's Turtle Collection), completed in 1903 by Liu Eh (1857-1909). In his book, representing rubbings of more than a thousand oracle bones from his collection of five thousand, Liu Eh correctly identified the inscription as "knife-inscribed" writing of the Yin (late Shang dynasty, 14th-11th c. BC) and was even able to recognize a number of characters (including those for the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches as well as numerals). The first person to undertake the systematic research of oracle bone inscriptions was the late Ch'ing scholar Sun Yi-jang (1848-1908). His work "Ch'i-wen chu-li" (Examples of Oracle Bone Inscriptions), though containing some misinterpretations of Shang culture, laid the foundations for future studies of oracle bone inscriptions.

          Although the latter two recognized that oracle bones represented Shang divinatory writings, it was only with Lo Chen-yu (1866-1940) and Wang Kuo-wei (1877-1927), that the contents of the inscriptions became clear as the divinations by the late Shang royal house. Lo Chen-yu purchased more than 30,000 pieces of oracle bone inscriptions and, between 1913 and 1916, published four important books based on his studies. Wang Kuo-wei, a major scholar of Western and Chinese subjects, published in 1917 "Yin pu-ts'u chung so chien hsien-kung hsien-wang k'ao" (An Investigation of Ancestors and Kings as Seen in Yin Divinatory Inscriptions), which used oracle bone inscriptions to confirm the written histories of the late Shang.

          Although the succession of Shang kings was identified, their dates and information about Shang culture remained unclear until the arrival of Tung Tso-pin (1895-1963). Between 1928 and 1937, the era of scientific excavation of oracle bones began. Academia Sinica's Institute of History and Philology carried out scientific archaeology at the Yin Ruins, unearthing thousands of pieces of shell and bone. Tung Tso-pin, specializing in oracle bone inscriptions, personally presided over the excavations. Studying the finds extensively, he established dating criteria for oracle bones in 1933. His "Yin li p'u" (Yin Calendar Table) remains a great contribution to the field.

          In 1933, the scholar Kuo Mo-jo (1892-1978) published "Pu-ts'u t'ung tsuan" (Compilation of Oracle Bone Inscriptions), the first book to bring together all the data relating to oracle bones. He later went on to apply the information in oracle bone inscriptions to aspects of feudal society in ancient China.

         These last four scholars strengthened and built up the foundations for the academic study of oracle bones. Later students have taken the field to even greater heights through the efforts of earlier scholars. Current information is the result of continued excavation and research, which continuously replenishes our understanding of Shang history.