The earliest surviving Chinese texts are inscribed on the shoulder blades of cattle and turtle shells. These “oracle bones” date back more than 3,000 years, to the time of the Shang Dynasty, in the late Bronze Age. In traditional Chinese historiography, the Shang were the second dynasty to rule over China, after the legendary Xia. For a long time, oracle bones were also considered to be purely fictional, among the legends describing the prehistory of the state. That changed in 1899, when an imperial bureaucrat named Wang Yirong fell ill with malaria and sought treatment from a doctor peddling “dragon bones.”
Wang had taken a position at the court in Beijing, seeking to rescue China before it crumbled under the weight of foreign invasion, domestic chaos, and palace intrigue. He was also a scholar, a student of ancient scripts and antiquities. Shortly after taking up his post, Wang developed a fever. He sent a member of his household out to the apothecary to bring him the appropriate medicine. The servant returned with a packet of Dr. Fan’s Fresh Dragon Bones, ready for grinding. The bones were indeed fresh; they were washed out of a riverbank earlier that year by flooding near a village called Xiaotun. Luckily, Wang and his friend, the novelist Liu E, noticed that they were inscribed with figures, similar to early Chinese, but—to them—indecipherable. Here, they realized, was an example of an ancient version of the Chinese script, so old it hadn’t been recorded anywhere else.
Before they could do anything about this discovery, history intervened. The Boxer Rebellion began in the north. Wang watched as the rebels were mown down by gunfire, and, in despair, he committed suicide. It was left to Liu, Wang’s friend, to continue the work of investigating and assembling the inscribed oracle bones. He tracked the original shipment to an itinerant medicine salesman from Shanxi named Fan Weiqing. But Fan didn’t want to tell Liu where the bones came from, for fear that he would try to muscle him out of the dragon bone business. Discouraged, Liu traveled across the countryside, buying up all the bones he could get his hands on without ever discovering their source. Eventually, he built up a sizable corpus of inscriptions.
In the 1930s, however, Chinese scholars pinpointed where the bones originated, and set about conducting comprehensive excavations of the ancient royal capital at Anyang (ancient Yin).
The oracle bones provide a window into the daily life of the court, albeit a strange one, since most of the surviving text doesn’t concern ordinary communication between people, but rather, between people and gods. Divination was a way of addressing questions to the spirit world, alerting ancestors about the daily activities of king and court. Gaining spiritual approval for their plans was a task of signal importance: In the words of David Keightley, the foremost Western interpreter of the oracle bones, “to the Shang kings… pyromantic reassurance was the sine qua non of daily life.” (Pyromancy is a general term for divination by fire. Scapulimancy is the technical term for divination by shoulder bone; plastromancy is divination by turtle shell.)
Prophecies had to be gathered and assessed every day. Divination was a complex, technical process that could only be performed by experts. It required a tremendous expenditure of resources and time. Shang notations show the receipt of as many as 500 or 1,000 turtle shells at a time. (These were most likely delivered to the Shang from southern tributaries, though there are signs they may also have come from turtles bred in captivity on-site.) Similar numbers of oxen—whether foreign or domestic—would be slaughtered in connection with the prophesying as well.
Before divination could be performed, the bones had to be prepared. First, they were stripped of flesh. Then, craftsmen drilled a series of small pits into the shells. When it was time to ask the spirits a question, they inserted hot brands into the hollows and waited for the shell to crack. The shape of the crack contained the spirits’ response to each question. The questions were inscribed onto the surface of the bone. Usually, they were presented as a neutral statement (for instance, “In the present moon, it will rain”), allowing the spirits to reply in the affirmative or negative.
This pantheon they addressed included nature powers, former lords, and predynastic powers, a supreme power called Di, and legendary ancestors like Ku, one of whose consorts allegedly gave birth to the founder of the dynasty after swallowing an egg left by a dark bird. The questions covered the full range from personal to political. The diviners of the Shang court asked about the state of the harvest, the success of military campaigns, and the proper order of sacrifices, including human sacrifices. They also probed more mundane matters. It was important to keep the spirit world apprised of goings on at court. If the king was going to go hunting, the former lords had to be alerted, just as the nature powers had to be informed if he intended to dance for rain.
Often, the crucial thing to learn was which ancestor was causing trouble or needed to be appeased. If the king had a toothache, a series of questions would be addressed to his distinguished predecessors in the spirit world—his uncle, father, grandfather, etc.—to find out which one was causing the pain (in the record we have, it turned out to be his uncle).
The king himself was the chief diviner in the kingdom. He interpreted the cracks, and his prognostications were recorded on the bones. This necessitated careful record keeping. A scribe engraved the precise date of each divination on the bone. Often, they also noted its result. Since the prestige of the king’s rule depended on his mantic powers, the post-facto fact-checking of his prophecies almost always tilted in his favor. Sometimes, though, the postmortem reports show a hint of disagreement: Rain fell on the wrong day or when it wasn’t forecast at all. At other times, the king hedged his bets: A birth would be auspicious (i.e., male—the Shang were as patriarchal as their counterparts in the Western Bronze Age) if it happened on one of two days. When the queen then gave birth on one of the other eight days of the week and it turned out to be inauspicious (female), he couldn’t be said to be wrong, he just wasn’t precisely accurate.
Some scholars see in this small sliver of discrepancy the birth of objective history. Others suspect that literacy itself developed in response to the needs of diviners—writing was invented not as a means of communication among humans, but between humans and gods.
But these are speculations. What is certain is that the Shang elevated the art of divination by bone to its greatest heights. They were, however, not the only ones to practice it. Everywhere from Yamato, Japan, to the Arabian Peninsula, people practiced scapulimancy. A scapula warned Attila about his defeat at the battle of Châlons, while Genghis Khan used scorched sheep bones as a check on the reports of his astrologers. One of the most intriguing uses of scapulimancy comes from the Naskapi, an Algonquian-speaking tribe who lived in the tundra lands of Canada’s Labrador Peninsula. The pattern of cracks in a caribou shoulder blade contained their prophecies. The most important question was always this: What direction should the hunters go in search of game? This was a matter of life and death. First, the hunters would try to find the answer in a dream. When they woke up, the bone would hold the key to interpreting what they saw while they were asleep.
In the 1950s, the Yale anthropologist Omar Khayyam Moore theorized that there was a good reason for this practice. If the Naskapi hunters pursued caribou in the same places year after year, they risked depleting their stocks to fatally low levels. The unpredictable nature of the shoulder bone cracks served as a check on any unconscious biases that could have led to overhunting from pursuing the same paths season after season. If this is true, the practice supports two vastly different ideas of prophecy. To the Naskapi, the scapula was a random number generator, a 20-sided die, a way of trusting chaos to guarantee the security of the tribe. For the Shang, by contrast, the scapula bone worked like a radio, tuning in to the spirit world. Its predictions were above all a way of keeping uncertainty at bay.
The matter for which the oracle bones were most often consulted was this: “In the next 10 days, there will be no disasters.” It’s less of a question, really, than a wish—one rooted in an anxiety that, despite the gulf of time, feels all too familiar.