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1.10: Oracle Bone Divination

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    Offerings to the ancestors went along with asking for their advice and help. These divination rituals guided every Shang royal action and required a lot of work. Historian David Keightley roughly calculated the number of hours of labor that went into one set of turtle plastrons that were used to figure out King Wu Ding’s military strategy for one season, and then re-used ten days later to ascertain who was causing his toothache. Oxen had to be raised (cattle had come to the Yellow River Valley from the Middle East in about 2,300 BC), and turtles caught or farmed and transported to Anyang, from as far south as the Yangzi river. The bones or plastrons had to be cleaned of flesh, dried, and polished (10 hours of labor). It took 80 hours to make hollows in them so they would be ready for heat-cracking. If producing each crack took only one minute (which seems too fast), counting the cracks for the divinations recorded on these bones would have taken two full hours. After the divination ritual was over, it would have taken five hours to carve and color the inscriptions. So, this one plastron set cost at least 100 hours of labor, about 20 hours per plastron. On average, Shang royalty used at least one shell every day and Keightley estimates that at least fifty hours of work per day were spent on preparing for, doing, and recording royal bone divinations during the last century and a half of the Shang period.

    Routine divinations occurred every other day. In order to keep track of the ancestors and not leave anyone out, the Shang developed a system of “ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches” – which combined into sixty pairs. (The same pairs later counted hours, months, and years, as well. The 1911 revolution is called “the Xinhai Revolution,” because it occurred in a xinhai year.) Unscheduled divinations asked the ancestors about military campaigns, illness, childbirth, the harvest, and other concerns. Diviners kept their exact process secret, Li Feng has concluded, for the approximately 2,500 divinations done for a prince (zi 子) south of Anyang, with the same ancestors as the King, the style was quite different.19 That suggests that the king really was consulting ancestors about decisions. He was not just doing ritual theatre, nor was he doing political theatre for any public wider than very close family members.

    Figure 1.7. Oracle Bone Fragments. Left: each measures roughly 1.5” x 1”. Right: measures 3” x 7”. Can you recognize any words? Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

    For us to read the inscriptions on oracle bones also requires a lot of scholarly work. After scribes wrote the questions on the bones, Shang people buried them. Since the early twentieth century, archaeologists have been excavating them, and universities and museums collecting them. Specialists clean them and fit broken fragments together. Scholars make rubbings so that they can copy and study the glyphs on the bones. Slowly, they have figured out how the glyphs relate to modern Chinese characters; slowly they have figured out the grammar and translated the inscriptions into modern Chinese, Japanese, English, and other languages. These translations are collected and published, and scholars use them to understand Shang society, along with other archaeological evidence.

    In this process, as in all historical and other intellectual work, scholars made decisions about how to understand the data. Later, with more evidence and different questions, other scholars may revise that knowledge. An assumption is an idea that has not yet been proven but that scholars accept; a hypothesis is an idea that someone proposes and tests against the evidence. For instance, the Shang bones include a figure called “Di.”

    On the bones, Di looks like this: clipboard_e7519648a1d51f8fb7afc3f0bb07b7e43.png20

    Scholars figured out that this is the word that came to be written 帝 and pronounced in Mandarin “di,” (fourth tone). Scholars knew that later, in the Zhou period, there was a top god and that this word was one way to refer to it. They capitalized “Di” in English to express the assumption that “Di” was a single, top god. But there are no capital letters in bone-writing or in modern Chinese characters, and no difference between plural and singular in the inscriptions. A historian named

    Robert Eno questioned the assumption that “Di” referred to one being. He noticed that everywhere the term occurs, it could refer to a group of beings. He hypothesized that it referred to a group of royal ancestors, not necessarily the same group every time. He found additional evidence for this hypothesis in the inscriptions:

    Di commands natural forces, but no chain of command.

    Di’s powers are like ancestral powers.

    Ancestors received scheduled sacrifices. Di did not.

    Di appears in parallel with other plurals.

    Di is added to some ancestors’ names.21

    Shang was not highly organized – each aristocratic family had its own land and its own soldiers, and Shang had many independent allies and rivals. So this interpretation of Di as a group makes more sense. There is no reason to think that Shang had a high god.

    The Shang royal family thought of their ancestors as powerful, able to help or harm their descendants. More: it seems likely that although other aristocratic clans worshipped their own ancestors, they agreed that the Shang royal ancestors held great power. To openly challenge a royal family that had lasted 500 years, through twenty-three generations, would take courage and a strong coalition. Like the bronze and chariots that had strengthened Shang, both the courage and the persuasive argument needed to put together such a coalition came from Central Asia, as the next chapter will explain.

    This page titled 1.10: Oracle Bone Divination is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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