oracle bones

oracle bones, bones used for divination by the Chinese during the Shang dynasty (traditionally c.1766 B.C.–c.1122 B.C.). Along with contemporary inscriptions on bronze vessels, these records of divination, which were incised on the shoulder blades of animals (mainly oxen) and on turtle shells, contain the earliest form of Chinese writing. In addition to being an important source for understanding the development of written Chinese, they tell a great deal about Shang society. Questions asked by the diviners concerned such matters as sacrifices, weather, war, hunting, travel, and luck. The bones were heated to produce cracks from which "yes" or "no" answers were somehow derived. A small number of oracle bones have the answer and the eventual outcome inscribed. Discovered in the ruins of the Shang capital of Anyang in the late 19th cent., they were first sold as so-called dragon bones to be ground up for use in Chinese medicinal compounds and only received the attention of scholars in the 1920s.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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