Monday, July 18, 2016

Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part VI: Roll the Bones

Hey guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the Show Where I Say Things. Today we’re going to talk about China’s very first written documents: the Oracle Bones. I talked a little about this in another video, but here I’d like to go into more detail since this is such an important development.

Back during the Shang Dynasty—and remember that’s around 1500 BC—the primary mode of written communication would have been written symbols on thin slips of bamboo, applied with a brush and ink. Although bamboo decomposes easily, we are fairly confident that this medium existed in Shang times(1), if not earlier, because of references made thereto in another medium: oracle bones. Basically an oracle bone was an animal’s shoulder blade inscribed with an ancient form of Chinese written symbols. We call them “oracle bones” because they were used by Shang priests and kings in divination rituals. Without these bones, we never would have recovered documentary evidence of the Shang, and they would still probably be considered mythological. Fortunately, somewhere down the line they got the idea of incorporating writing into their divination rituals.

In ancient China, if you wanted to consult your ancestors for advice, you asked them by a process called scapulimancy, or alternately plastromancy. Scapulimancy means “divination involving scapulae”--i.e. the shoulder blade of an animal, while plastromancy means “divination using a plastron”--i.e. a turtle shell. In these rituals the diviner would ask the ancestors a question, and put the bone or shell on the fire. The heat would cause it to crack, at which point the diviner would interpret the patterns in the cracks to work out the ancestors’ reply. This is an extremely ancient practice deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. The first evidence we have of scapulimancy and plastromancy is from pre-Shang, and even pre-Erlitou, cultures like Longshan(2). It continued to be practiced throughout Chinese history, even surviving into the 1970s in Taiwan(3).

Let’s take a minute to imagine what these ceremonies might have been like. Imagine stepping into a dark temple chamber. Your eyes water—the room is filled with smoke, pouring from a brazier in the middle of the room. Carved into the brazier is a demonic, grinning face, coals and flames glowing through its eyes and mouth:

Something like this.(4)

An orchestra of bronze bells and gongs rings out on either side of the chamber. Your senses dull from the rhythmic peals of the bells and the effects, perhaps psychoactive, of the smoke filling the room. Through the smoke you can make out two figures. One, in silk robes, wears a headdress fashioned from a ram’s skull—the king. The other, naked and heavily tattooed, is sitting behind the brazier, inhaling the smoke and swaying back and forth—the oracle. He chants softly. With both hands the oracle takes a flat, broad bone from the king. After passing it over the fire nine times, he mutters a question for the spirits. Then, in a shower of sparks and smoke, he hurls it into the center of the flame. From the brazier he pulls a red-hot bronze rod, and presses it to the bone. Puk! Puk! Sharp cracking sounds ring out over the bells. The spirits have answered.

Now, of course, this is just me having fun with my imagination, but the general idea is not too far off: the king would consult an oracle, who touched the bones with a hot metal rod to get the answer.

As a writing system developed, someone involved in the oracle bone process had a smart idea. They said, hey, let’s actually write the questions onto the bones, along with a list of possible answers. Kind of like a multiple-choice test question. Whichever answer the crack touches is right. Then we file the inscribed and cracked bone into the archives. That way we can refer to the bone later as the event approaches. Not only was this a cool idea, but it’s because of this development that Shang dynasty texts are available to us today. Admittedly the corpus of literature that’s been preserved isn’t exactly page-turning bestseller material:

Crack making on gui-si day, Que divined: in the next ten days there will be no disaster.

The king, reading the cracks, said, "There will be no harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news."

When it came to the fifth day, ding-you, there really was the coming of alarming news from the west. Zhi Guo, reporting, said, "The Du Fang [a border people] are besieging in our eastern borders and have harmed two settlements." The Gong-fang also raided the fields of our western borders.

Pretty dry stuff, but it does give us a tantalizing glimpse into life at the Shang court. And, perhaps most importantly, it shows that both the Chinese language and writing system were in use three and a half thousand years ago, which is pretty impressive.

Furthermore, the names of royalty recorded on the oracle bones are an astonishingly close match with those recorded a thousand years later in the Bamboo Annals and other classics(5). In my next video we’ll talk about one of the biggest badasses mentioned in the Oracle Bones: my homegirl Fu Hao. See you next time.


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