Shang Dynasty Inscription: What is it and what was it for?

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Inscription is one the earliest extant forms of wrting in China, which was used to record important national events, history and the life of the royal household (e.g. finance) in the late Shang Dynasty (商朝) about 3300 years ago.

The first discovery of oracle bones was in 1899. From the year1928 to 1937, about 25,000 tortoise shells and animal bones were excavated in Henan province, China.

Before the invention of characters, people used loops to record events. If it was a bit event, then a big knot was tied on the loop and if it was small, then a small knot would be made. But this method is not accurate and easily forgotten. People also relied on telling stories and tales to their next generation to pass them on, which is still being used in some isolated ethic minorities in the world.

It is said that the characters were created by a man called Cang Jie (仓颉) about 4,000 years ago. He was ordered by his emperor (called Xuan Yuan Huang Di, 轩辕黄帝) to create characters so that people can use them. He stayed home and thought for many days without results. One day, he decided to go out for a walk. When he got to the sand beach, he could clearly see the fish print, which inspired him to create a symbol like fish. From then on, Cang Jie created many characters according to the outline (shape) of things.

After the invention of character (pictograph), people used turtle shells and animal bones to record events. From the excavated oracle bones of Shang dynasty, archaeologist deciphered lots of useful information. Some of the oracle bones recorded the war, crop harvest, rainfall, astrology, and other oracle bones even recorded when the queen would give birth to baby. All these inscription are very valuable for historical research. The oracle bones are also called dragon or tortoise bones. In early Shang dynasty, people believed some stars were lucky while others were unlucky. The oracle bones were associated with two of the four ancient arrangement of constellations in China. The Dark Warrior, winter, includes parts of the constellation known as Aquarius, Capricorn and Sagittarius in the west and the Azure Dragon, spring, includes parts of the constellations known as Scorpio, Libra and Virgo in the west. Each arrangement had a determining start, in the Azure Dragon it is Antares, and in the Dark Warrior, the beta star in Aquarius is the determining star.

Afterwards, people found it very unconvenient and more expensive to write on bones/shells, so the spatulate bamboo was used to displace oracle bones, which was relatively cheaper and more convenient than animal bones and shells. However, spatulate bamboo has a drawback which makes them very heavy and hard to read. So, people tried to find a better alternate and paper was eventually invented by a man called Cai Lun in Han Dynasty (East Han) and printing technique was created in Song Dynasty in China.

For more pictures of the oracle bone inscriptions, Click here to go to the oracle bone gallery

source &copyrite:

It’s nice to see folks setting up websites to share information on such interesting topics. Thanks! Nice gallery of OB’s, too! Especially this one:

That’s not common. But since the inscriptions are the main thing of interest, it’d be nice to have higher resolution images. They could cut out the repeat pics and up the resolution of the most legible images, and the interest of the site would be greatly improved, as it would be by the addition of transcription of the OB inscrips, or at least a general idea of what a particular inscript was about,

e.g., , which folks here will probably recognize as having been on display for years as the primary piece in the NPM’s gallery on loan from the Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology (among other places :wink: ). Why not add a transcription and interpretation. That would be cool.

I’m no expert, but sure looks like a fake to me.

I’d also like to see a bit more thoughtful analysis and less repetition of myth, though, e.g.,

(yeah, right)

This makes it sound like the OB were for making records in general. They were not. They were for pyromancy, and often had a record of the event inscribed thereupon, sometimes with resultant prognostications annd/or verifications. The OB weren’t the main medium for writing. It is reasonable to infer that bamboo and/or wood slat books, as in the Zhou to Han dyn., were already in use, as evidenced by the 冊 ce4 character in the OB, which shows such a book, made of slats and bound like venetian blinds.

Thanks for that. Rings a bell.

No. Writing on OB was always more expensive and inconvenient, which is why it was not the main medium. Bamboo books existed at least as early as the late Shang. OB writing fell out of favor when scapulimancy fell into decline and milfoil / bagua / Iching Yijing and other divinatory methods gained importance, in the early Zhou AFAIK.

Probably not; archaeologists have found earlier samples, but this eunuch may have had the balls to claim so. :laughing:
No, seriously, he may have improved the product and process, hence the fame.

Overall, I’d say the site administrator, who clearly has an interest in such topics, might want to do a little more scholarly reading in these areas and then revise the descriptions.

yes, thanks for your review :slight_smile:

can we use your comment to polish that article on OB?
you seem to be an expert on OB, would you mind working as our reviewer? :smiley:


[quote=“usmaster81”]yes, thanks for your review :slight_smile:

can we use your comment to polish that article on OB?
you seem to be an expert on OB, would you mind working as our reviewer? :smiley:


Again, I’m no expert. Just a hobby. Yes, you’re welcome to incorporate my comments.

For you, and for any other Forumosans interested in learning more about the OB, see … nes#144144

I’d suggest reading:

  1. Keightley, David N. (1978). Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. University of California Press, Berkeley. Large format hardcover, ISBN 0-520-02969 (out of print but still available used online); A 1985 ppbk 2nd edition is still in print, ISBN 0520054555.

  2. 裘錫圭 Qiu2 Xi1gui1 (1993) 文字學概要. There are English and Chinese versions. The English is Qiu Xigui (2000). Chinese Writing. [Translation by the late Gilbert L. Mattos (Chairman, Dept. of Asian Studies, Seton Hall University) and Jerry Norman (Professor Emeritus, Asian Languages & Literature Dept., Univ. of Washington)]. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.

  3. Woon, Wee Lee (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. University of East Asia, Macau, no ISBN ; still available as of Spr

There are some interpretations on this page.

Cool, zeugmite! Thanks for that. Didn’t realize you were into this!

Yes, that’s the kind of thing that would add value to the above site, although it could be slimmed down a bit. It’s not so hard to do; if you know the catalog number for a given piece, you can look it up in various compendia and use the OB transcription (into handwritten standard OB), modern char-by-char transcription (aka 隸定l

Oh, well, I got interested just now… does that count?

So what’s your take on this tortoise piece then? This is what I could get out of it:
(top to bottom, right to left; don’t have/don’t know characters in bracket.)

衆 吉

As the note says, the message is repeated, so one copy is:

Cast in the year 辛酉 by some guy named [宗]… asks should he not go conquer the 众. The answer that comes back is fortuitous (吉).

Hey, you got a lot of it right! Not too shabby, dude. :slight_smile:

This piece (for anyone not following this, my avatar and the large pic I pasted earlier above, which is one of my favorite OB’s) is ordered top to bottom in an odd (for us) fashion: labelling the columns ABCD from left to right, the order of writing is top to bottom down the columns CDBA, i.e., it’s read vertically, but starting at the centerline and moving away in either direction. So converting that order to English order, the first two columns (CD) become:
辛酉卜bin[宀 + 方] 貞(X [冖 + 止] 化) [哉 - 口]Y

So it records a scapulimancy done on the day 辛酉 xin1you3 (not year, although you’ve got the hexadecimal system right) by a particularly well known Period I diviner, Bin [宀 + 方], asking the auspiciousness of a general by the name of X (or maybe named (X [冖 + 止] 化) going to bring harm upon, i.e., attack, the Y state.

And you’re right, it then asks again with the addition of the 弗 fu negative. It looks like crack 3 for the negative question is fortuitous (rather than the whole divination), and it says 上吉 shang4ji2 (the 二 is 上), i.e., ‘very auspicious’.

You got the 其 qi2 right too! Now, how’d you get this far if you’ve only just now taken interest? :wink:

And zai [哉 - 口] is very close to your 我 wo3, but the latter would have not a vertical trident-like head or 山-like structure at its upper left, but rather a left-facing one.

As for the general’s name, some have interpreted it as a 3-char. name, but since I’ve never seen such a long name (yet), I remain skeptical. Plus, [冖 + 止] looks to me like a meaning of ‘enter’ or something similar, even though elsewhere it’s an official’s name or title; one-char. names are more common, so X entering [a placename] would be just as rational a reading, although I haven’t yet found support for this hypothesis. Note that it is the vertical inversion of 各 ge4, which originally showed a foot entering 凵 rather than &#21475, and meant ‘to arrive’. But since the place name and Fang state name would probably be the same, it’s unlikely he or she (yes, there was at least one female Shang general, the famed Fu Hao) would have had to enter one placename to attack another state name. I imagine that this is the logic behind the assumption that it’s a 3-char. personal name. [EDIT - Plus the fact that these graphs don’t make sense as anything else; it also might be the case that they occur jointly in this fashion multiple times, indicating they are a fixed unit, implying perhaps a compound name. Oh, and I just saw elsewhere a reference to a graph [內 + 止], with nei4 phonetic, and being an ancient form of 退 tui. If the 冖 in [冖 + 止] is a typical OB simplification of 內 nei, then it might be a variant of this graph.] Another thought is that it might be the OB for 處 chu3. Hmm. More reading needed.

Oh, and the structure of X is 八 astride | which pierces 臼 jiu; as far as I know it only occurs as a part of this name; while Y is 貝 bei4 above two hands, and the name of a Fang state.

Ah, excellent, herher… I was just recognizing some stuff I heard about earlier (like 其 was borrowed from the concrete meaning of ‘basket,’ etc.) and doing the rest by components gleaned from that page I found and linked to. But you are obviously more versed in this.

Very good to know where these things came from, especially that 止 was actually a foot, which got borrowed (for its sound) for the abstract meaning, and 足 was then used to replace the original meaning of foot, probably.

This really makes me wonder about the relationship between 止 此(人+止) 足 脚 趾. The etymological study of characters, speech, and grammar really ought to be one at this point. Something tells me computers could help a lot here. Are they being put to good use?

You’d definitely enjoy reading Woon, Wee Lee (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. Also there are two good, very easy to read and inexpensive dictionaries for folks at our amateur level, 劉興隆 Li

Thanks for sharing. This should help all interested.

Dragon Bones, what are these books like? I have seen a lot of books in Taiwan and more now in China that while entertaining to read are just regurgitations of what’s in dictionaries such as 形音義綜合大字典 or 漢語大字典. I can look up words in the dictionary myself. I am looking for something that will go beyond the play by play of what’s in the aforementioned dictionaries. I want something that will fill in the blanks, assuming they’re known. I want the bigger picture. I want a historical take. Are any of these like that? Thanks.

Also, do you have an opinion on 甲骨文字典 from 四川辭書出版社?

Unfortunately, most of them are well below that standard, and are instead regurgitations of Shuowen and/or Weiger.

No, don’t worry, Woon, Li


Here’s a link to a web site with it for sale.
Unfortunately, Sichuan Cishu doesn’t have a website of their own.

Is "劉興隆 Li

[quote=“yonglan”]Is "劉興隆 Li

[quote=“Dragonbones”]3) Woon, Wee Lee (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. University of East Asia, Macau, no ISBN ; still available as of Spr

Here’s what my mentor at the AcSin had to say: “甲骨文字典不新,第一版是1988出版。由於徐先生(1898–1991)已去世多年,大概沒有作修訂。徐先生原是史語所的前輩,1949年後一直在四川大學教書,培養很多學生,是很令人敬佩的學者。但這本字典出版這麼久了,目前來看,如果沒有修訂,這本書的資料有些過時了。”

Sorry to hear about the Woon book. It’s a good one.

Thanks, Dragon Bones. What would your mentor recommend? Is 1998 really that old?!! Would she say something has been found different, or just added to?

Basically what I am looking for is . . .
Hmm. Well, the number varies depending on the source I read, but there seem to be about 4,500 characters in the Shang oracle bone heap. There seem to be more than 1,000 and less than 1,500 characters that scholars have identified, or dare I say defined. Of course, I have no idea what percentage of that latter number are in fact the ancestors of particular modern characters.

It sounds like you’re saying that there are some dictionaries that will take me back further or more in depth than say 漢語大字典 et al? What might they be?

My main interest is knowing more about the origins of individual modern characters and also knowing more about the evolution of characters before 小篆 (ie 甲骨文, 金文, 籀文, 石鼓文, and the like).

It sounds like my local bookstore is going to be able order 裘錫圭’s 文字學概論 after all.

Again, many thanks for your help :notworthy:

NB: 1988出版, not 1998. Seven years, no biggie. 17 years, significant, in this field. To academics, anyway. She’s a scholar at one of the most prestigious centers of jiaguology in the world, so it’s not surprising that she reacts to developments at this level.

"It sounds like you’re saying that there are some dictionaries that will take me back further or more in depth than say 漢語大字典 et al? What might they be? "

Definitely; 漢語大字典 is a convenient but non-academic summary; sounds funny to say that, given how obscenely “academic” it seems. But real paleographers turn to much more difficult and obscure sources than that for their primary info! Let’s put it this way: I introduced this tome to my mentor. That should speak volumes.

Not having read that dict., I cannot say. My mentor reads ultraprofessional sources that are beyond my (and I dare say our) grasp. I don’t think either of us would be doing too badly if we could read a quarter of the out-of-date sources she spurns. Reminds me of eons ago when I reached brown-belt level in karate, only to realize how little I had actually learned in comparison to all those ahead of me, and how far I truly had to go.

“My main interest is knowing more about the origins of individual modern characters and also knowing more about the evolution of characters before 小篆 (ie 甲骨文, 金文, 籀文, 石鼓文, and the like).”

In which case our interests are identical; I’m not really so interested in obscure characters which have no bearing upon the modern, although as I’ve begun reading the actual OB inscriptions, some of them quickly become relevant.

You’ve got the right approach to etymology, IMHO, i.e., trying to move beyond SW. And you’re probably pretty close on my tail, to be honest.
It takes an understanding of the evolution through the 甲骨文, 金文, 籀文, 石鼓文 range to grasp the history of the modern script. For 甲骨文, Liu Xinglong (LXL hence) and Zhao Cheng (ZC) are ideal; both give you a good bit on the 金文, too. For the 籀文, it’s good to read both CZR (my mentor) and SW; For 石鼓文, read Mattos.

Definitely read the both the Keightley and Qiu sources; skip Harbaugh, Wieger, and Wilder… Pick up Xie Guanghui. Consider Mattos’s Stone Drums, and Boltz; and definitely get the Liu Xinglong and Zhao Cheng dicts. If you can actually digest all that info, with healthy skepticism, and want more, but are struggling with where to turn next, then you’ll be where I was very recently, and I can give you detailed info on more scholarly sources; if you reach that point, you’ll be ready to pick up sets of OB rubbings like the AcSin’s Xiaotun, and to photocopy sections of the Heji; at that point, the Zonglan, Moshi etc. compendia wil begin to be relevant, but if you don’t even know what these are yet, you’re not ready for them; Keightley introduces them, and I can further elaborate later for you. It was quite a struggle for me to even figure out that they existed, and what they were, etc., and since I’ve acquired them, within the last year, I can’t say that I’ve had time to really put them to good use, but they’re pretty high on my priority list. I really love cracking open real rubbings of OB and trying to read them, and have purchased magnifying glasses, and sets of reference works in triplicate for my three study locations, home and two offices. No wonder I don’t have a girlfriend… :laughing:

“It sounds like my local bookstore is going to be able order 裘錫圭’s 文字學概論 after all.”

Get a copy in Chinese and a copy in English. Read both. Then we can meet to discuss it. After that, I’ll give you the purchase info for my mentor’s book, on the Qin (Ch’in) System of Writing, which I’m digesting now.

Jia1 you2 !!!

:blush: Thanks for catching my 1988/1998 mistake. Makes more sense now.

You’ve given title/publisher/ISBN,etc. on this thread for Zhao Cheng and Liu Xinglong. Could you give us similar info for CZR, Matthews, and Xie Guanghui, please (and the Mattos work to which you refer if it is something different from his co-translation of Qiu)? Who is ‘SW’ in the above quote?

If any of these are available in China, I figure I ought to get’em now while I am here. Though If they are also available in Taiwan I can get them there eventually (with lovely traditional characters). Please let me know.

Edit: It appears that there is a mainland publisher for 劉興隆’s《新編甲骨文字典》. It’s 国际文化出版公司 They want 210 RMB for it! Is this a large dictionary?