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jiaguwen 甲骨文, oracle bone inscriptions

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The so-called oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文 "plastron bone inscriptions") are remnants of archival documents from the late Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) upon which records of royal divinations were carved or inscribed. The material is the plastrons (breastshields, gui fujia 龜腹甲) of turtles or scapulae (shoulder-blades shou jiagu 獸胛骨) of different cattle. The oracle bone inscriptions are the oldest extant Chinese texts written in a perfectly developed script. Unfortunately there are no older stages of the Chinese script preserved (except some clan insignia and examples of logographs of uncertain meaning), but it appears in full maturity on the Shang oracle inscriptions.
Wang Yirong 王懿榮, a late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) expert of bronze inscriptions was the first to recognize that the inscriptions written on bones sold by drugstores as medicine were of a very old date. From 1899 on he collected lots of such inscriptions. His findings instigated a lot of other people to collect such bones, as Wang Xiang 王襄, Meng Dingsheng 孟定生, Liu E 劉鶚, Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉, the American Frank Herring Chalfant (Chinese name: Fang Falian 方法斂), the Britains Samuel Couling (Ku Shouling 庫壽齡) and Lionel C. Hopkins (Jin Zhang 金璋) as well as the Japanese Hayashi Taisuke 林泰輔. From 1928 to 1937 the Institute of History and Language of the Academia Sinica 中國研究院歷史語言研究所 undertook 15 excavation campaigns on the site of the ancient capital of the Shang, the so-called ruins of Yin (Yinxu 殷墟) near Anyang 安陽, Henan. They dug out 25,000 pieces of oracle bones. In 1973 the Archeological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 中國社會科學院考古研究所 undertook an excavation campaign in the village of Xiaotun 小屯 near the Yinxu site. During the 1950s other oracle bones were excavated in Zhengzhou 鄭州, the site of the royal capital in the mid-Shang period. Excavation sites of minor importance were Hongdong 洪洞 in Shanxi, Changping 昌平 near Beijing, Fenghao 豐鎬 in Shaanxi as well as other places of the early history of the Zhou dynasty nearby. Until now more than 150,000 pieces of oracle bones are excavated which are to be found in different museums and archives around the world. The findings are published to a great extent. The most important collections are:
  • Liu E's Tieyun canggui 鐵雲藏龜
  • Luo Zhenyu's Yinxu shuqi 殷墟書契, with a supplement
  • Ming Yishi's 明義士 Yinxu buci 殷墟卜辭
  • Hayashi's Guijia shougu wenzi 龜甲獸骨文字
  • Wang Xiang's Fushi Yinqi zhengwen 簠室殷契徵文
  • Dong Zuobin's 董作賓 Yinxu wenzi 殷墟文字, in two series
  • Hu Houxuan's 胡厚宣 Zhanhou Ning-Hu xinhuo jiagu ji 戰後寧滬新獲甲骨集, Zhanhou nanbei suo jian jiagu lu 戰後南北所見甲骨錄, Zhanhou Jing-Jin xinhuo jiagu lu 戰後京津新獲甲骨錄, Jiagu xucun 甲骨續存, and others
  • Xiaotun Nandi jiagu 小屯南地甲骨
  • The most important and comprehensive collection of oracle bone reproductions is the 13 volumes book Jiaguwen heji 甲骨文合集 by Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and Hu Houxuan
From the linguistic aspect it is important to notice that the inscriptions are written in Chinese language and are readable and understandable if the vocabulary is known. The characters are also constructed in the same patterns as those of later date, although the shape is in many cases not that of the standard characters.
Virtually all activities of the Shang kings were recorded in the oracle bone inscriptions. For this reason the inscriptions provide an insight into society, economy and politics of that time. It is known how members of the royal house, males and females, of the aristocracy and groups the common people were called, titles of the bureaucracy are known, as well as terms from the judicial system and the army. Subservient states, inimical tribes and colonies are known by their names - although not always their location is clear. The inscriptions contain records of tributes of such polities paid to the royal court, and what social activities the king undertook, from huntings to offerings to his ancestors. Records of human sacrifices are also preserved. Astronomical events are also recorded, like eclipses or irregularities in the starry sky. The calendar was already arranged in the sexagenary cycle as known later. Sickness and diseases are also included in the records.
All daily activities of the king were observed by superhuman beings, either natural deities and ghosts and spirits or by the king's ancestors. All these had to be asked if a planned activity would be lucky or if bad luck would befell the kings and his entourage. Virtually the whole life of a Shang king was thus guided by prophecies derived from an oracle made previously. The method to divine by heating bones is unique to China and only a few other peoples of northern Asia. It is called scapulimany or plastromancy. The diviners (zhenren 貞人) tried to tell the future by creating cracks (bu 卜) on the bones. Inserting a hot bronze (?) stick (therefore also called pyromancy "divining by fire") into a hole drilled into the surface of the bones, the diviners were able to tell the future by interpreting the emerged cracks. The Shang diviners told the future of sacrifices, military campaigns, tribute payments, hunting expeditions, settlement building, weather, sickness, agriculture and childbirth, that is almost every aspect of the daily routine. In many cases the deified ancestors of the dynasty were consulted in the simple question if a day was auspicious (ji 吉) or inauspious (xiong 凶).
The most interesting thing for our knowledge of the life and religious thought of the Shang people is that they did not only create cracks, but it is the fact that the scribes (li 吏, shi 史) of the king wrote down the result of the divination on the bones and also the outcome of the planned activity. Thousands of these oracles bones were stored in the king's archives. The first king whose name appears in the inscriptions is that of Wu Ding (Wuding) 武丁 who lived around 1200 BC. Dong Zuobin has divided the oracle inscriptions into several historic phases, depending on language, the names of the diviners, and so on: 1) From king Pan Geng (Pangeng) to Wu Ding; 2) kings Zu Geng (Zugeng) and Zu Jia (Zujia); 3) kings Lin Xin (Linxin) and Kang Ding (Kangding); 4) kings Wu Yi (Wuyi) and Wen Ding (Wending); and 5) kings Di Yi (Diyi) and Di Xin (Dixin).
The excavation of the oracle bones proved that the stories about the Shang dynasty as reported in ancient histories like the Shiji 史記 were not simply pure mythology but historical facts. The oracle bone inscriptions of Yin make evident that at least the Shang rulers as listed in the later historiographies really existed.
During the later part of Shang Dynasty, the king took over the role of the diviner which had been shared by different diviners during early Shang. Only the last few rulers of Yin did not personally make divinations. Until then, each diviner had a special topic or subject he was aprofessional in, e.g. one diviner for warfare, one for ancestral rites, one for household affairs, and so on. It was usual to make divinations for a ten-day week (xun 旬, see Chinese calendar) and during certain special days of this week.
After many decades of studies in oracle bone inscriptions a total number of about 1,200 characters can be identified of which about half can be translated. The meaning of the others is unknown.
Before the divination process, the bone (scapula) or turtle shell (plastron) was cleaned and polished. Oval and round hollows (aoxue 凹穴; the number is depending on the thickness of the material) were chiseled or drilled in paralled rows on the back side of the bone. The diviner placed a very hot round item (more details are unknown; the divination method is also called pyromancy "divination by fire") in the hollows. The heat produced cracks (bu 卜) on the polished front side of the bone. The first task of the diviner after the divination had taken place was to incise the sequential number of the burning spots (crack numbers, xushu 序數) of the whole divination set (chengtao 成套), in turtle shells normally alternating between two parallel rows on the surface, in other, lengthy bones from top to bottom. The whole inscription of a divination (buci 卜辭, zhaoyu 兆語) consists (ideally) of several parts:
  1. Preface (xuci 序辭 or 敘辭), indicating the date and the diviner (like: "crack-making on day XY, NN divined")
  2. Charge (mingci 命辭), indicating the topic or question of the divination, often in positive and negative pairs (duizhen 對貞, like "will there be rain?/will there not perhaps be rain?")
  3. Prognostication (zhanci 占辭), an interpretation of the resulting cracks, often made by the king
  4. Verification (yanci 驗辭), record of actual events verifying the divination
The Chinese terms are not original but were invented by modern Chinese scholars studying the Shang oracle inscriptions.
Normally the scribes first incised the vertical strokes of the characters and then the horizontals. The characters of the text, sometimes also the cracks resulting from the heat application, could be filled with cinnabar or ash to make them more easily readable. Sometimes the text was not incised but written down with a brush. Where the text was written depended on the shape of the crack and on which side of the plastron the crack was made. The remarks to a crack running to the left were written to the right, and vice versa. From these conditions it also depended if the text columns were written from the right to the left, as it is usual in traditional Chinese text and still in Taiwan and Hong KOng, or from the left to the right. It was very common to create two oracles for the same charge, one on the left and one on the right side of the plastron, the one with a negative charge or question, the other with a positive charge.
The first scholarly study on the oracle bone inscriptions was Sun Yirang's Qiwen juli. It was followed by a lot of further studies of which only the most important shall be mentioned here:
  • Luo Zhenyu's Yinxu shuqi kaoshi 殷墟書契考釋
  • Tang Lan's 唐蘭 Yinxu wenzi ji 殷墟文字記 and Guwen zixue daolun 古文字學導論
  • Yang Shuda's 楊樹達 Nailinqing jiagu shuo 耐林廎甲骨說 and Jiweiju jiaguo shuo 積微居甲骨說
  • Guo Moruo's Buci tongzuan kaoshi 卜辭通纂考釋, Yinqi cuiwen kaoshi 殷契粹文考釋 and Jiagu wenzi yanjiu 甲骨文字研究
  • Yu Shengwu's 于省吾 Jiagu wenzi shilin 甲骨文字釋林
  • Wang Guowei's 王國維 Yin buci zhong suo jian xiangong xianwang kao 殷卜辭中所見先公先王考, with a supplement
  • Zhongguo gudai shehui yanjiu 中國古代社會研究, Yin lipu 殷曆譜, and Jiaguxue Shangshi luncong 甲骨學商史論叢, published by Guo Moruo, Dong Zuobin and Hu Houxuan
  • Chen Mengjia's 陳夢家 Yinxu buci zongshu 殷墟卜辭綜述

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July 10, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
Chinese Literature over time