Oracle Bones and the Development of Writing in China


The development of written Chinese has a long history but remains the only ancient writing systems that have never been converted into an alphabetic system (Hessler, 2004). To this day it remains a logographic system, where each word unit represents an object or an idea but does not necessarily represent the sound of the word. Evidence of Chinese writing date back 6000 years ago to Neolithic signs found on excavated pottery. These signs are primitive and have not been considered as a writing system. However it is not until the Shang dynasty, from 1766 BC to 1122 BC that record of a “mature” writing system developed (Li et al., 2000). This type of writing was found on and preserved in oracle bones (animal bones). The origin of these oracle bones and its implications for reading and writing will be examined. I will also hypothesis why the culture of the time required such a writing technology and how written Chinese today has been impacted by this writing technology.

Oracle Bones History

The majority of oracle bones were found in the Shang dynasty (1766 BC to 1122 BC). The Shang Chinese prepared turtle shells and plastrons and cattle scapula to inscribe questions for a divine being and heated these for answers to their question (Keightley, 1987, p. 5). The heating cracked the bones and the ancient Chinese interpreted these resulting cracks as resembling Chinese characters and were believed to be the intervention of a divine being. This was likely the main use of oracle bones as evidenced by the fact that the majority of oracle bones found today bear inscriptions of this purpose. However, oracle bones have also been found with records of tribute payment, calendrical events (Li et al., 2000) and measurements and accounting needs (Lu & Aiken, 2004).

The use of oracle bones reflected the common ancient belief of a power greater than human kind, divination (Flad, 2008). It was a desire to seek supernatural advice (Chou, 1979). And it was a direct result of the Chinese cultures belief in worshipping ancestors, God and other lesser divinities (Li et al., 2000). Those are believed to be the major uses of oracle bones. However, counting records and tribute payment also necessitated a recording system. This has also given us insights into the organization of these ancient societies and the daily lives of the people of that culture.

Oracle Bones and Chinese Language

The Shang Chinese used this consistent system of logographic script on oracle bones and is really characterized as the first literate civilization east of the Indus (Keightley, 1987, p. 6). Analysis of these oracle bones showed that the main principles of composing Chinese characters appears to have already been established, which showed that there must have been earlier development (Boltz, 1986). Prior to the development of oracle bones, evidence of writing on pottery included numbers and names (Chou, 1979). But the writing on oracle bones followed the simple sentence structure still used today containing subject, verb and object (Li et al., 2000). During the Shang dynasty, 4000 Chinese characters were developed and many of those can be traced to characters in later forms of writing and up to ones still in use today (Li et al., 2000). The style of writing, which moved from top to bottom and from right to left remained the rule until recently (Boltz, 1986).

These characters would also have provided a challenge for the scribe to carve on to the oracle bones. The number of oracle bones is difficult to estimate but by 1979 there has been well over 100 000 pieces discovered (Chou, 1979). The first oracle bone was discovered in 1889 and prior to that oracle bones were grinded and often used as medicine (Chou, 1979). This means that the use of oracle bones was a popular practice. Evidence showed its use to ask questions regarding childbirth, weather and illness (Hessler, 2004). The procedure and technology developed to create it though is complex and the skill sets required have not been successfully duplicated (Keightley, p. 12-27).

The Implications on Chinese Language Development

A further look into the characters developed at the time of oracle bones shows that they can be classified as pictograph, ideograph and variations and combinations of them (Li et al, 2000). The Chinese written language has a unique problem not found in many other languages in that the gap between written and spoken language is large. This is due to the pictograph and ideograph nature of the written language versus the alphabetic system found in many other languages. There are many dialects in Chinese that often pronounce the same word in vastly different ways. Therefore for some dialect speakers, to become literate could mean first learning a new language (Hessler, 2004).

Ong (1982, p. 86-87) describes the overwhelming number of Chinese characters in existence and the number of years it takes to master these characters. He believes the complexity of written language will eventually lead to a simplified alphabetic system. Attempts of this nature have been made, including the current simplified Chinese introduced in the 1960s. The long existence of this written form suggests a desire to keep the tradition. Written Chinese in the past was elitist and was not meant for the general population (Ze, 1995). To become a civil servant in those days required extensive learning of these characters that took many years to master.


The use of oracle bones to ask for divine answers was its primary purpose in the Shang dynasty. The process of preparing these oracle bones was not a simple one and literate scribes would require extensive skills in the process. Writing may have been regarded as mystical and therefore was used to communicate with supernatural beings. Features of this well established writing system was carried into later writing. It has retained its complexity and remains a difficult written language to master. However, perhaps because of the characters mystery, rich tradition and history it has been rigorously learned despite these challenges.


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Chou, H. (1979). Chinese oracle bones. Scientific American. 240(4), 134-148.

Flad, R. K. (2008). Divination and power: a multiregional view of the development of oracle bone divination in early China. Current Anthropology. 49(3), 403-437.

Hessler, P. (2004). Oracle bones. The New Yorker. 80(1), 118.

Keightley, D. N. (1978). Source of Shang history: the oracle-bone inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Li, X., Harbottle, G., Zhang, J., Wang, C. (2000). The earliest writing? sign use in the seventh millennium BC at Jiahu, Henan province, China. Antiquity. 77(295), 31-44.

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Ong, W. L. (1982). Orality and literacy. New York: Routledge.

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