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The BBC programme Stargazing Live, broadcast on Thursday 19th March in advance of the solar eclipse occurring on Friday 20th March, featured an item from the Hopkins Collection of Chinese Oracle Bones in Cambridge University Library.

The oracle bone texts, inscribed on ox shoulder-blades and the flat under-part of turtle shells, are the earliest extant documents written in the Chinese language and the oldest documents in the Library. They record questions to which answers were sought by divination at the court of the royal house of Shang, which ruled central China between the 16th and 11th centuries BCE. Among topics mentioned in the inscriptions, which include matters as varied as warfare, hunting, the weather, medical problems and dreams, are the earliest dateable records of eclipses in any civilisation.

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 Chinese culture. 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 heating specially prepared bone and shell to produce cracks was a method of predicting the future and ensuring a favourable outcome for the enquirer by identifying the correct target for appeasement.

 

己未夕皿庚申月ㄓ[食]

Ji wei xi xiang geng shen yue you shi

'In the night between ji wei and geng shen [days 56-57 of the cycle of 60] there was an eclipse of the moon.'

Aberrations in nature such as eclipses were considered ill-omened, and required propitiation of the royal ancestors. The bone fragment featured in the programme (see right) has been identified as a record of the eclipse of the moon which began at 20:48 local time on the night of 26 December 1192 BCE. Totality was reached at 21:53 and lasted for an hour and three-quarters; the moon began to reappear at 23:37 and the eclipse ended at 00:42 on 27 December.

You can catch-up with Thursday 19th March’s episode of Stargazing Live on BBC iPlayer by clicking here.

Learn more:
Chinese oracle bones
Hopkins Collection
Lunar eclipse inscription