Chinese Oracle Bones

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CUL 52 recto (left); verso (right)
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Over three thousand years old, the Chinese Inscribed Oracle Bones in the Hopkins Collection are by far the oldest written materials in Cambridge University Library.

The oracle bone texts are the oldest extant documents written in the Chinese language. They are inscribed on ox shoulder-blades and the flat under-part of turtle shells, and record questions to which answers were sought by divination at the court of the royal house of Shang 商, which ruled central China between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C.

Divination by examining animal scapulae and the cracks produced in them by heating is known from many different cultures and historical periods. In Shang China, a bone or shell, having been carefully sawn to shape, was burnished on the obverse and had hollows chiselled out on the reverse. An example of the upper portion of an ox scapula prepared in this way is shown above. The application of heat to the hollows on the reverse produced characteristic ├ shaped cracks on the obverse; this is the origin of the Chinese character bu 卜 ("to divine"). The diviner interpreted the cracks as the answer to his questions, which were engraved on the polished surface alongside the cracks. Some inscriptions were also coloured in with red pigment; traces of this can be seen in the example shown above.

The attribution to dead ancestors of power to influence the living and the consequent need for propitiatory sacrifice expressed as ancestor worship are deep-rooted in the Chinese people. The ancestors of the Shang royal family were believed to have foreknowledge of future events and the ability to influence their outcome. Success in punitive wars against neighbouring tribes, in hunting expeditions and bringing in the harvest all depended on the benevolence of the royal ancestors, while sickness and natural disaster were punishments inflicted for impiety to the departed. Divination by making cracks in bone and shell was a method of predicting the future and ensuring a favourable outcome for the enquirer by identifying the correct target for appeasement.

It is a remarkable fact that the existence of the oracle bones, the most important source of primary information about Bronze Age China, only became known as late as 1899. It was in that year that the antiquarian and philologist Wang Yirong 王懿荣 (1845-1900) first recognised the significance of fragments of bone and shell engraved with ancient script, which he is said to have found on sale in Peking as ‘dragon bones’ to be ground into a powder and used as a styptic agent. By 1903 the first book of rubbings of oracle bone inscriptions had appeared, and interest in them among collectors grew rapidly, enabling unscrupulous dealers, who were careful to conceal the ultimate source of the bones, to profit from the ignorance of enthusiasts by selling egregious fakes. Eventually the origin of the finds was revealed as a site, near the village of Xiaotun 小屯 near Anyang 安阳 in Henan Province, which had long been known as the location of the capital city of the later Shang dynasty, and where many Shang bronze vessels had also been found.

The discovery of the oracle bones, at a time when the veracity of China’s early historical records was being questioned by many scholars, caused immediate controversy. They confirmed the accounts given in the traditional histories about the Shang dynasty, whose very existence had been doubted, even validating the names and order of succession of the Shang kings. Some regarded the bones as a hoax, and it is certain that many of the early collectors fell victim to forgers. However, scientific excavations at Xiaotun, which were begun in 1928 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, established beyond doubt that the oracle bones were part of the Shang royal archive, dating from the period between 1400 and 1200 B.C. Favourable soil conditions have preserved the bones well, though in most cases they have broken into fragments. To date about 200,000 fragments have been excavated, some 50,000 of which bear inscriptions.

A new scientific discipline, ‘Oracle Bone Studies’ (jiaguxue 甲骨学) has developed, devoted to deciphering the inscriptions and analysing their contents in order to reconstruct as far as possible the society which created them. As the earliest known specimens of the Chinese script, the oracle bone inscriptions are of fundamental importance for Chinese palaeography. The script is highly advanced and fully mature, indicating a long period, perhaps millennia, of previous development. Underneath superficial changes caused by stylistic evolution and the use of different writing materials, the structural principles of the oracle bone script are identical with those of the Chinese script in use today. About six thousand different characters have been recorded from the inscriptions, of which some two thousand can be identified with modern versions; the remainder are mostly proper names. Though constricted by the formulaic nature of their composition, the texts yield a mass of varied information which gives a vivid insight into the lives of the Shang people. In addition to the topics mentioned above, they contain also genealogical, calendrical, meteorological and astronomical data, including the earliest records of a solar eclipse and a comet. The society which produced the oracle bone inscriptions shared many of the characteristics which are recognised today as typically Chinese.

The oracle bones were discovered at one of the most tumultuous times in China’s history. The Manchu Qing Dynasty was tottering towards its final collapse in the revolution of 1911, hemmed in by hostile foreign powers and riven by internal rebellion. Wang Yirong, the discoverer of the oracle bones, himself committed suicide in 1900 when the court fled Peking before foreign invaders. Foreigners resident in China at this time were well-placed to assemble collections of cultural objects, and it is not surprising that several of them were among the earliest collectors of oracle bones. One such was Lionel Charles Hopkins (1854-1952) in whom, as a biographer of his posthumously celebrated eldest brother the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins remarks, ‘the Hopkins streak of mental acquisitiveness and scientific curiosity found outlet in the collecting of ancient incised bones and research into the subject of early Chinese written characters’ Hopkins went to China as a student interpreter at the British Legation in Peking in 1874; in 1901 he was appointed Consul General in Tientsin, and retired to England for reasons of ill health in 1908. He devoted his forty-four years of retirement, until his death at the age of 98, to the study of Chinese palaeography, using as source material for over forty articles, mainly published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, his collection of nearly 900 oracle bones, purchased piece by piece from the American Presbyterian missionary Frank Herring Chalfant (1862-1914), another early enthusiast. Hopkins was a pioneer in oracle bone studies, and his published work has inevitably been superseded by subsequent research; in common with other early collectors, he was sometimes deceived by what now appear obvious fakes. He did however perform a lasting service to scholarship by bequeathing his collection, acknowledged as the finest of its kind in Europe, to the University, whose Library Syndicate, after some initial reluctance, eventually agreed to accept it.

The Hopkins Collection is well known to oracle bone specialists all over the world through the published volume of drawings of the inscriptions made by Chalfant. As scholarship advanced, these drawings were increasingly felt to be an inadequate record of the collection. Between 1955 and 1960 the oracle bone scholar Mr Lee Yim 李[木炎], then working at London University, rearranged the collection into a chronological sequence and prepared new, more accurate drawings. At the same time, the bones were removed from the cardboard boxes in which they had previously been stored and laid out in specially constructed wooden trays. Mr Lee’s drawings were, however, never published.

Since the end of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, oracle bone studies in China have made great advances, a notable instance of which is the publication of a series of sumptuous volumes containing rubbings of all known oracle bone inscriptions. In 1982 Mme. Qi Wenxin 齐文心, an oracle bone specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Peking, came to this country to make rubbings of all the oracle bones in public and private collections in Britain, which are the best in Europe. These have been published in five large volumes and include the whole of the Hopkins Collection. One of the possibilities opened up by the publication of these rubbings is the rejoining of broken fragments scattered in different collections around the world; computer technology may be useful in this work.

References

C. Aylmer, Origins of the Chinese Script, London, 1981, pp.12-20

E. Ruggles, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, London, 1947, p.15

W.P. Yetts, ‘Memoir of the Author’ in L.C. Hopkins (trans.), The Six Scripts, Cambridge, 1954

Correspondence in the CUL archives between Prof. A.C. Moule and H.R. Creswick, July-October 1952

Report of the Library Syndicate for the year 1951-52, Cambridge University Reporter, Vol. 83, p.1577

F.H. Chalfant, The Hopkins Collection of Inscribed Oracle Bone, New York, 1939

甲骨文合集 郭沫若主编 ; 北京 : 中华书局, 1978-83 [FB.285.174-186]

英国所藏甲骨集 李学勤等编辑 ; 北京 : 中华书局, 1985-91 [FB.285.249-252]

甲骨文校释总集 曹锦炎、沈建华编著 ; 上海 : 上海辞书出版社, 2006, Vol. 19, pp. 6587-6869 [FB.285.352]