The Beauty of Early Chinese Writing and Pictures (I)
Chinese writing originated with pictures, as plainly seen on oracle bones and shells. This bone (A2624) is engraved with a rare pictograph character of a bird, describing features from its head down to the tail.

The Beauty of Early Chinese Writing and Pictures (II)
This turtle plastron (A2336) is engraved with images of a macaque, a horse above fire, a tiger, and what is perhaps a pheasant. Though a practice piece, it demonstrates the relation between Chinese writing and pictorial art.

turtle plastron

oval plastron piece

This oval plastron piece (B4747) was cut from the dorsal side of a turtle. The hole suggests that it was once bound together. The inscription gives the date as well as the name of the diviner, and the divination asks whether three or five oxen are appropriate for a certain sacrifice.

Relationships with Other States
The relation between Shang rulers and neighboring states was often complex. Whether good or bad, it often included tribute, negotiations, or even war. The long inscription of 62 characters on this piece (A2416) records that King Hsin will go on a punitive expedition with his nobles against the state of Yu and records his prayers for victory.

The long inscription of 62 characters on this piece

oracle bone inscriptions deal with war

Military Campaigns
Many oracle bone inscriptions deal with war. Divination inquires into the time, place, and leadership for battle as well as omens for victory or defeat. In one set of inscriptions on this piece (C16), the king asked which officer should lead a punitive expedition.

Settlement Building
Few oracle bone inscriptions deal with the foundations for building. The king in the inscription on this plastron (B3212) asked whether to establish a new walled settlement.

Settlement Building

oracle bone inscriptions deal with the weather

Many oracle bone inscriptions deal with the weather, which is intimately related to agriculture, royal inspection tours, and hunting conditions. The inscriptions on this plastron (C63) inquire as to whether it will rain on that or the following day, but no reasons are given.

In modern and especially in ancient times, food is of paramount importance for survival. The Shang was an agrarian state, and a good or poor harvest had a great impact. Agriculture was therefore naturally of great concern to the Shang kings. This plastron (B3287) asks whether the "eastern lands" will have the favor of the heavens for a good harvest.


Bone with Hunting Expeditions

Hunting Expeditions
The Shang kings often made royal tours and hunting trips. These were events of political and military importance as well as leisure. This piece (A3350) prays for good luck on the dates and at the places for hunting.

In ancient times, two activities were of paramount importance to Shang leaders; sacrifices and military affairs. The contents of oracle bone inscriptions reveal Shang ideas about the spirits and cosmos. Of the six inscriptions on this plastron (C73), four of them inquire as to whether the spirits will bring poverty to the capital.

Bone with Religion

Bone with Ailments

Illness to the Shang kings was thought to be caused by ancestors, and the cure usually involved ceremonies. The inscriptions on this plastron (B5405) refer to the king's ringing in the ears and the method divined to cure it.

The day on which a royal consort would give birth and the sex of the baby were matters of great interest to the Shang king. Among the inscriptions on this plastron (B1052), some inquire as to the month of a baby's birth.

Bone with Childbirth