Oracle bone script

Oracle bone script

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Oracle bone script refers to incised (or, rarely, brush-written) ancient Chinese character
Chinese character
Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...

s found on oracle bone
Oracle bone
Oracle bones are pieces of bone normally from ox scapula or turtle plastron which were used for divination chiefly during the late Shang Dynasty. The bones were first inscribed with divination in oracle bone script by using a bronze pin, and then heated until crack lines appeared in which the...

s, which are animal bones or turtle shells used in divination in Bronze Age China. The vast majority record the pyromantic
Pyromancy
Pyromancy is the art of divination by means of fire.-History of pyromancy:Due to the importance of fire in society from the earliest of times, it is quite likely that pyromancy was one of the earlier forms of divination...

 divinations of the royal house of the late Shang dynasty
Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty or Yin Dynasty was, according to traditional sources, the second Chinese dynasty, after the Xia. They ruled in the northeastern regions of the area known as "China proper" in the Yellow River valley...

 at the capital of Yin (modern Anyang
Anyang
Anyang is a prefecture-level city in Henan province, People's Republic of China. The northernmost city in Henan, Anyang borders Puyang to the east, Hebi and Xinxiang to the south, and the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei to its west and north respectively....

, Henan Province); dating of the Anyang examples of oracle bone script varies from ca. 14th -11th centuries BCE to ca. 1200 to ca. 1050 BC. Very few oracle bone writings date to the beginning of the subsequent Zhou Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou Dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang Dynasty and preceded the Qin Dynasty. Although the Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Ji family lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as...

, because pyromancy fell from favor and divining with milfoil
Yarrow
Achillea millefolium or yarrow is a flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native to the Northern Hemisphere. In New Mexico and southern Colorado, it is called plumajillo, or "little feather", for the shape of the leaves. In antiquity, yarrow was known as herbal militaris, for its use in...

 became more common. 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
Etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

, as Shang writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts
Chinese family of scripts
The Chinese family of scripts are writing systems descended from the Chinese Oracle Bone Script and used for a variety of languages in East Asia...

.

Name


Because turtle shells as well as bones were used, the oracle bone script is also sometimes called shell and bone script. As the majority of oracle bones bearing writing date to the late Shang dynasty, oracle bone script essentially refers to a Shang script.

Precursors


It is certain that Shang-lineage writing underwent a period of development before the Anyang
Anyang
Anyang is a prefecture-level city in Henan province, People's Republic of China. The northernmost city in Henan, Anyang borders Puyang to the east, Hebi and Xinxiang to the south, and the provinces of Shanxi and Hebei to its west and north respectively....

 oracle bone script, because of its mature nature 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
Neolithic signs in China
Since the second half of the 20th century, inscriptions have been found on pottery in a variety of locations in China, such as Banpo near Xi'an, as well as on bone and bone marrows at Hualouzi, Chang'an County near Xi'an...

 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.

Style


The oracle bone script of the late Shang appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shang writing on bronzes
Bronzeware script
Chinese Bronze inscriptions are writing in a variety of Chinese scripts on Chinese bronze artifacts such as zhōng bells and dǐng tripodal cauldrons from the Shāng dynasty to the Zhōu dynasty and even later...

. 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
Western Zhou
The Western Zhōu period was the first half of the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China. It began when King Wu of Zhou overthrew the Shang Dynasty at the Battle of Muye. C.H...

 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
Bronzeware script
Chinese Bronze inscriptions are writing in a variety of Chinese scripts on Chinese bronze artifacts such as zhōng bells and dǐng tripodal cauldrons from the Shāng dynasty to the Zhōu dynasty and even later...

 and then into the seal script
Seal script
Seal script is an ancient style of Chinese calligraphy. It evolved organically out of the Zhōu dynasty script , arising in the Warring State of Qin...

 of the Qin
Qin (state)
The State of Qin was a Chinese feudal state that existed during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods of Chinese history...

 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 just like those found from the late Zhou to Hàn
Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms . It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang...

 periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) 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. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus
Stylus
A stylus is a writing utensil, or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example in pottery. The word is also used for a computer accessory . It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styli are heavily curved to be held more easily...

 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, 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.

Structure and function


Despite the archaic and relatively pictorial appearance of the oracle bone script, it is in fact a fully functional and fairly mature writing system, 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. 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 recognized 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
Chinese character classification
All Chinese characters are logograms, but there are several derivative types. These include a handful which derive from pictograms and a number which are ideographic in origin, but the vast majority originated as phono-semantic compounds . In older literature, Chinese characters in general may be...

 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.

Despite its status as a fully functional and fairly mature writing system, the oracle bone script is not actually 100% mature – the form of a very few graphs changes depending on context, and on occasion the order of the graphs does not quite match that of the language. By the early Western Zhou
Western Zhou
The Western Zhōu period was the first half of the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China. It began when King Wu of Zhou overthrew the Shang Dynasty at the Battle of Muye. C.H...

 period, these traits had vanished, but in both periods, the script was not highly regular or standardized; variant forms of graphs abound (see the many ways to write yín (寅) the 3rd Earthly Branch
Sexagenary cycle
The Chinese sexagenary cycle , also known as the Stems-and-Branches , is a cycle of sixty terms used for recording days or years. It appears, as a means of recording days, in the first Chinese written texts, the Shang dynasty oracle bones from the late second millennium BC. Its use to record years...

 to the left), 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. Not until the standardization carried out in the Qín dynasty
Qin Dynasty
The Qin Dynasty was the first imperial dynasty of China, lasting from 221 to 207 BC. The Qin state derived its name from its heartland of Qin, in modern-day Shaanxi. The strength of the Qin state was greatly increased by the legalist reforms of Shang Yang in the 4th century BC, during the Warring...

 seal script did these irregularities end.

Components of Oracle bone script characters may differ in later characters, for instance the character for Autumn 秋 now appears with 禾 as one component and fire 火 as another component. From the oracle bone script, one sees that an ant-like creature is carved instead (there is, however another rarely-used character for Autumn that greatly resembles the oracle bone script form, 龝).

Of the thousands of characters found from all the bone fragments, the majority remain undeciphered. One good example is shown in the fragment shown 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").

Scholarship



Among the major Chinese scholars making significant contributions to the study of the oracle bone writings, especially early on, were: Wang Yirong (王懿榮; 1845–1900), who in 1899 recognized the characters as being ancient Chinese writing; Liu E
Liu E
Liu E , courtesy name/"zì": "Tieyun" , was a Chinese scholar, entrepreneur, and writer.-Government and politics:...

 (刘鶚; 1857–1909), who collected five thousand oracle bone fragments, published the first volume of examples and rubbings in 1903, and correctly identified thirty-four characters; Sūn Yíràng
Sun Yirang
Sun Yirang was a Chinese philologist. A native of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, he retired from official employment early in his life to devote himself to scholarship. His most important works are Mozi Jiangu , a corrected, definitive edition of Mozi, and Zhouli Zhengyi , an important commentary on...

 (孫詒讓, 1848–1908), the first serious researcher of oracle bones; Luó Zhènyù
Luo Zhenyu
Luo Zhenyu , courtesy name: Shuyun was a Chinese classical scholar, philologist, epigrapher, antiquarian and Qing loyalist.-Biography:...

 (羅振玉, 1866–1940), who collected over 30,000 oracle bones and published several volumes, identified the names of the Shang kings, and thus positively identified the oracle bones as being artifacts from the Shang reign; Wáng Gúowéi
Wang Guowei
Wang Guowei , courtesy name Jing'an or Baiyu , was a Chinese scholar, writer and poet...

 (王國維, 1877–1927), who demonstrated that the chronology of the Shang kings matched that in Sima Qian
Sima Qian
Sima Qian was a Prefect of the Grand Scribes of the Han Dynasty. He is regarded as the father of Chinese historiography for his highly praised work, Records of the Grand Historian , a "Jizhuanti"-style general history of China, covering more than two thousand years from the Yellow Emperor to...

’s Records of the Historian; Dong Zuobin (董作賓, 1895–1963), who identified the diviners and established a chronology for the oracle bones as well as numerous other dating criteria; and Guo Moruo
Guo Moruo
Guo Moruo , courtesy name Dingtang , was a Chinese author, poet, historian, archaeologist, and government official from Sichuan, China.-Family history:Guo, originally named Guo Kaizhen, was born on November 10 or 16, in the small town of Shawan...

 (郭沫若, 1892–1978).

Zhou Dynasty oracle bones


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. 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.

The following is an example of a Zhou inscription.

See also

  • Mojikyo
    Mojikyo
    is a set of computer software and fonts for enhanced logogram word-processing. , it collected 126,560/142,228 characters . Among them, 101,936/128,573 characters belong to the extended CJKV family...

     – Software developed by Mojikyo researchers that includes a set of oracle bone characters.
  • Banpo symbols
    Banpo Symbols
    The Banpo Symbols is a name sometimes given to the 27 markings on prehistoric artifacts found in Banpo in Shaanxi, related to the Yangshao culture...

  • Jiahu symbols
    Jiahu symbols
    Jiahu symbols refer to the 16 distinct markings on prehistoric artifacts found in Jiahu, a neolithic Peiligang culture site found in Henan, China, and excavated in 1999 C.E...

  • Bronzeware script
    Bronzeware script
    Chinese Bronze inscriptions are writing in a variety of Chinese scripts on Chinese bronze artifacts such as zhōng bells and dǐng tripodal cauldrons from the Shāng dynasty to the Zhōu dynasty and even later...

  • Chinese family of scripts
    Chinese family of scripts
    The Chinese family of scripts are writing systems descended from the Chinese Oracle Bone Script and used for a variety of languages in East Asia...


Further reading

  • Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8
  • Chen Zhaorong (陳昭容) (2003) 秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察 Research on the Qin (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊 Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph. ISBN 957-671-995-X.
  • Gao Ming (高明) (1996) 中国古文字学通论 (Zhongguo Guwenzi Xuetonglun). 北京大学出版社 Beijing University Press. ISBN 7-301-02285-9
  • 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 0520029690 (out of print); A 1985 ppbk 2nd edition also printed, ISBN 0-520-05455-5.
  • Keightley, David N. (2000). The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.). China Research Monograph 53, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California – Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-070-9, ppbk.
  • Liu Xiang et al. (刘翔,陈抗,陈初生, 董琨,编者 李学勤 审订) (1989, 3rd reprint 1996) 商周古文字读本 Reader of Shang-Zhou Ancient Characters. 语文出版社 Yuwen Publishers. ISBN 7-80006-238-4
  • Qiu Xigui (裘錫圭) Chinese Writing (2000). Translation of 文字學概要 by Gilbert L. Mattos and Jerry Norman. 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.
  • Thorp, Robert L. "The Date of Tomb 5 at Yinxu, Anyang: A Review Article," Artibus Asiae (Volume 43, Number 3, 1981): 239–246.
  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利) (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution (漢字的原始和演變), originally published by the University of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN).
  • Zhao Cheng (趙誠) (1988) 甲骨文簡明詞典 – 卜辭分類讀本 Jiǎgǔwén Jiǎnmíng Cídiǎn – Bǔcí Fēnlèi Dúbĕn. 中華書局 Zhōnghúa Shūjú, ISBN 7-101-00254-4/H•22

External links