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The Chinese Shang dynasty was founded by 1700 BCE and lasted until it was replaced by the Zhou dynasty in 1050 BCE. One of the important roles of the Shang kings was religious and involved divination—the ability to see and understand the future.

Divination has been an important religious activity from ancient times through the present. In some cultures, such as those of American Indians, the future can be revealed through dreams. In other cultures, such as that of ancient Babylon, the future was seen through the movement of the planets (astrology). Among African cattle herders, an ox would be ritually slain and its entrails examined. For the ancient Chinese, oracle bones were used to understand the future.

oracle bone 2

During the Shang dynasty, the king would ask questions of the ancestors on behalf of the people. The divination ceremony would generally take place in the palace. During the ceremony, the royal musicians would play. The divining specialist or shaman would come in bringing a bone—usually the scapulae of oxen or sheep—or a turtle shell. The king would ask the question and the shaman would then write it on the bone. The shaman, or sometimes the king himself, would then take a piece of metal which had been heated until it was red-hot and touch it to the bone. The bone would crack with the heat and the cracks would run across the bone and the characters of the question. These cracks could then be interpreted by the king and/or the shaman. The interpretation would then be written on the bone and the bone taken to the palace archives.

The questions asked using the oracle bones covered a wide range of subjects: illness, death, birth, warfare, agriculture, weather, and so on. King Wu-ting, for example, asked over 170 different oracle bones about his escort Fu Hao and her role as the leader of his armies.

Two thousand years later, Chinese physicians were using these ancient oracle bones as medicine. Called Dragon Bones, the ancient oracle bones would be ground up and the powdered bones used in making various medicines.

Oracle Bone 1

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 07:38 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  I'm an Acupuncturist... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko, Ojibwa

      ...and what we use as "Dragon Bones" in herbal formulas are actually petrified bones from mostly Mastodons from at least 15,000 years ago and older.  They find them still to this day from glaciers that recede...both in China, and Russia.  In Russia, believe it or not, they find them that have been frozen with the meat still on them.  The cook and eat the meat.

      Imagine having a Mastodon steak that's been frozen for at least 15,000 years!

      "Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. The rest of us must suffer the consequences." --Paradise50

      by paradise50 on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 02:38:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I Learn At Least A Few New Things (19+ / 0-)

    every time I read one of your Diaries. I had no clue the Chinese did this. It makes sense in hindsight, but of the dozens if not hundreds of hours of shows I've watched about ancient China on the History/Discovery/et al never heard this mentioned once.

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 07:54:12 AM PDT

    •  The History channel is propaganda mostly (19+ / 0-)

      and lousy scholarship too - it's really shameful. I learned among other things from this diary the point of ancestor worship - the ancestors might be around to teach you to avoid their mistakes.

      This is us governing. Live so that 100 years from now, someone may be proud of us.

      by marthature on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 08:00:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  FAIL: shame on the History/Discovery channel then (17+ / 0-)

      Oracle bones are a big, big thing. It's where the writing system came from, where the whole phenomenon of Chinese characters originated.

      The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war.

      by lotlizard on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 08:09:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry, but that is only popular myth (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lotlizard

        Oracle bones are a big, big thing. It's where the writing system came from, where the whole phenomenon of Chinese characters originated.

        This is a lovely romantic idea, but incorrect.

        This is a popular myth that has gained popularity in the West promoted by some Western writers that jumped to the conclusion that because certain "oracle bones" (Chinese 甲骨 meaning shell bones) contain some unique Shāng era characters, that Chinese writing evolved from and is connected to this practice.

        Although some oracle bones contain these unique characters sometimes referred to as "oracle bone script" (because known examples are only found on these bones) 2 simple facts suggest that is just a use of writing, not an origin of it; these bones also contain well developed and known characters found in other sources that predate the bones, and the unique characters themselves are also well developed and of a style characteristic of the period.

        In other words, certain characters are unique but the general form of the writing is not. So it’s possible certain characters were special or unique to the practice, but not that the practice was the source of writing itself.

        Actually, Chinese is derived from a combination of several ancient systems of writing with different roots, some ideographic, some symbolic and others (more modern) systematic. Anyone literate in Chinese knows this since these different types of characters are classified separately and in certain cases, form the roots or radicals of more complex characters.  Any good primer on Chinese will provide examples because you have to learn this to understand the system (particularly to use "stroke" systems to type or text Chinese since it uses this system of organization to segregate characters into lists, something that isn’t a problem with alphabetic systems).

        One thing we can say for sure is that since the modern discovery (or should we say rediscovery) of these writings in the late 19th Century, a lot of research has been done, some significant finds in the 1980’s and 1990’s have provided a lot of materials for study, and there is lots of lively debate amongst Chinese academics about it.

        What about my Daughter's future?

        by koNko on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 05:25:15 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Oh, glad to defer to a better informed source on (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          koNko

          … the topic!

          The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war.

          by lotlizard on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 07:09:32 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  See my additional comment below. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            lotlizard

            In my original reply I failed to justify my claim of older sources and then realized this, so have added something.

            Well, that is what make archeology so interesting, you get to re-write history everytime there is a good find.

            It seems the past is just as much an unknown and moving target as the future! Go in either direction and we get a better perspective on the present.

            What about my Daughter's future?

            by koNko on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 10:25:41 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  Sorry! Forgot one importiant point. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ojibwa

          I said there were older examples from "other sources" but neglected to mention what is that.

          The question will arise, "What is the earliest known example of Chinese writting?"

          I think this is a fundamental fact related to the discusssion because if you read many books or websites, you will find oracle bones claimed to be the earliest, so is this true or false?

          It used to be true! Or was for awhile. The problem with Chinese history is that our civilization is so old, our knowledge of it is a work in progress because there is how much buried under ground? We don't know. Just as US keeps fining more Native American artifacts that push back the dates.

          So for a time, oracle bones and early bronze objects were the definitive record, but that no longer stands.

          Now, the earliest known Chinese writting is found on Yanghe pottery from Luxian County, Shandong Province, which is beyond 4,500 BCE. This area is quite a distance from  Anyang, Henen Province (the largest concentration of oracle bones) and it was the Dawenkou culture, which preceeded but overlapped the Yangshao culture that produced the oracle bones.

          The Yanghe pottery characters are more biased toward pictograms, but many are the unmistakeable prototypes for the early Hanzi on Shang era oracle bones and bronze articles and were easily decoded for that reason.

          Although Dawenkou culture was originally considered to be neolithic and is still generally classified as such, the more recent pottery finds (which were very large and with many vessels perfectly intact in toumbs) proved they had sophisticated writting of several thousand characters so maybe "neolithic" is a poor description now.

          But I have to add, now there is another controversy in China whether Jiahu symbols, which dated back to about 6600BCE and also happen to have been incribed on turtle shells, are actually another branch of development but to add to the mystery, Jiahu is more abstract and symbolic and so the question is whether is was a prototype or entirely different string of development. This would definately be considered a neolithic system and culture.

          Oh, I digress - interesting subject close to my heart.

          But to reiterate my basic arguement (I thought of a better way to explain) saying Chinese writting came from oracle bones is like saying the cart pushed the horse. The writing on oracle bones is already a highly developed system, so logically, it has a history that preceeded it's use incribing bones.

          Sorry to go on so long, but written language is very importiant to Chinese culture and we will debate a lot about the facts and implications.

          What about my Daughter's future?

          by koNko on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 09:16:15 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I always chuckle at this (14+ / 0-)

    Two thousand years later, Chinese physicians were using these ancient oracle bones as medicine. Called Dragon Bones, the ancient oracle bones would be ground up and the powdered bones used in making various medicines.

    It's amazing what the Chinese call "dragon". Nowadays the word for 'dinosaur' is dragon. There is a popular dish called "The Phoenix and the Dragon Dancing" which is chicken and lobster (the dragon).

    Thanks again for a fun and informative read Ojibwa!

    Those who forget the lessons of history are probably watching Glenn Beck.

    by ontheleftcoast on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 07:57:10 AM PDT

    •  Our sixth grade reader had a story in it called, (10+ / 0-)

      … "For Sale, Dragon's Breath, Cheap" or some such.

      It's about a young man who is cheated by a crooked merchant selling inferior goods, and finally manages to pay off his debt when he finds that he and his friends can sell snow in the marketplace that they bring from the mountains.

      The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war.

      by lotlizard on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 08:14:53 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's from Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lotlizard, koNko, Ojibwa

        a newbury award winning book depicting Chongqing city back in the 1920's. No relation to dragon bones, really. I have a chongqing friend who recently read it, and I'll ask him about the dragon's breath. However, I think the point was that the young man in the story made up the term.

        None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

        by Toddlerbob on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 11:18:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Interesting. I didn't think there was a relation, (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          koNko, Ojibwa

          … actually—other than the "marketing" type association that attaching "dragon" to something in that culture makes it seem more "magic." The young man in the book presumably had a grandson who is now in Shanghai working for Dentsu, Leo Burnett, or Saatchi.

          The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war.

          by lotlizard on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 12:35:30 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Dragons are very importiant in Chinese culture (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa

      Although we have many mythical beasts, the Dragon is the most importiant and the most common symbol of China/Chinese.

      So we have Dragon everything.

      What is the most popular trans-Asian Rock band of the last 20 years or so?

      The Japanese Hip-Hop band Dragon Ash.

      What about my Daughter's future?

      by koNko on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 10:10:55 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting. (11+ / 0-)

    Are the photographs from a recent exhibit?

    There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. -- Robert Hass

    by srkp23 on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 07:59:00 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for the information (10+ / 0-)

    Another Chinese method of divination - tossing the yarrow sticks and picking them up in a specified count, deriving thus an oracle out of the I Ching, a fine book of understanding of human behavior.

    This is us governing. Live so that 100 years from now, someone may be proud of us.

    by marthature on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 07:59:18 AM PDT

  •  I first learned of scapulimancy (8+ / 0-)

    in Barry Hughart's wonderful "Bridge of Birds" which used Chinese mythology to create an award-winning fantasy novel. You can still find used copies and I highly recommend it.

    Never despise any source for learning.

  •  Shamanism is so interesting to me. (5+ / 0-)

    Thank you for your dedication in diary form to the history of ancient cultures and traditions. Such a valuable legacy of very ancient religions.

    After all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.

    by Brahman Colorado on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 08:49:00 AM PDT

  •  What Is It about Humans (5+ / 0-)

    this universal drive to divine the future, employing all kinds of bizarre rituals in order to do so?

    Is it because we're fear-riddled in a world of uncertainty, or because we have an equally strong drive to make plans based on information, or is it a competitive urge along the lines of wanting to feel that we know something before the other guy knows it -- the desire for profit, as it were?

    "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

    by Limelite on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 08:57:23 AM PDT

    •  Actually... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      opinionated, ybruti, Spoc42, koNko

      ...it is because one of the major changes in the evolution of hominids (if you believe in evolution that is), is that homo sapiens, for the first time, realized that they could influence future events mentally.  They realized their minds weren't simply limited to responding to events, but rather could actually time travel into the future and have an effect as well.  It was a quantum leap in consciousness!

      But, of course, as with everything...humans have a tendency to politicize everything and then screw up the original intent...thus humans started using this "insight" as power over others that didn't quite have the same level of that consciousness.  So yeah, lots of dogma and fear got infused into divination.

      That is one of two things that differentiated them from Neanderthals, whom live beside them for about 30,000 years at least. (The second reason is that home sapiens were "born to run."  Go get that book...it will amaze you.  That's the title, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall_

      Homo Sapiens  realized that if they "divined" or "pre-paved" a future outcome, it did have a real influence on the future outcome.  Like an athlete will do a self-hypnosis thing seeing themselves in a future competition.  It influences how they will perform by mentally rehearsing it in advance.

      So, that is why you see cave drawings about animals.  And why home sapiens did dancing rituals the night before a hunt.  It was all to influence the outcome of the future event instead of leaving it totally up to default chance.

      And it is true you can influence future events, to an extent.

      "Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. The rest of us must suffer the consequences." --Paradise50

      by paradise50 on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 02:51:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  tonight there will be no disasters (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko, Larsstephens, Ojibwa

    !

  •  Drill (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koNko, Ojibwa

    They drilled small pits into the bones part-way through first, so that the bone was thin enough in those areas to crack. It was the direction of the small crack that determined the answer. They usually also wrote the answer to the question on the bone.

    There were a lot of questions asked, but most of them had to do with if anything bad would happen to the king that day, or how his ancestors were getting on in the spirit world.

    The tale of how scholar Liu E "discovered" these oracle bones being used as dragon bones in medicine obtained for his friend Wang Irong is as fun to read as it is thought to be legendary. That was in 1889. Prior to that discovery, the entire Shang Dynasty was thought to be merely a legend. Turns out that it truly existed after all, and that its last major capital, Yin, was located at the small village near Anyang in Henan where these particular "dragon bones" had been harvested.

    See the following Wikipedia link for more info:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

    by Toddlerbob on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 11:33:49 PM PDT

    •  ack! 1899. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko, Ojibwa

      discovered in 1899

      None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

      by Toddlerbob on Mon Oct 04, 2010 at 11:40:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Found a great link to a story on CCTV (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko, Ojibwa

      It's a video. Located here:
      mms://winmedia.cctv.com.cn/engchannel/column/100K/101130anyangfinall.wmv

      There's actually a blog entry using the script of this video:
      http://www.cctv.com/...

      An additional point of interest (to me, at least) comes at the end of the blog entry, where the author apologizes for ignoring the religious aspects to the I Ching (which was part of the story because it was written in the same city that produced the first-discovered oracle bones). This  action was taken to avoid censorship of the story.

      None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

      by Toddlerbob on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 12:32:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Small correction (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa

      I think you mean Wáng Yi-róng? It was Wáng and Liú who made this discovery in modern times.

      If you visit Shanghai, the Shanghai Museum in People's Square (off the No.1 and No.2 Metro lines) has a collection of these artifacts and books although I'm afraid the latter are only in Chinese.

      Most of these bones and shells are actually quite small and when you see them it's not surprising the purpose went unnoticed to casual observers.

      What about my Daughter's future?

      by koNko on Tue Oct 05, 2010 at 03:56:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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