Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells
Such inscriptions include oracles and events recorded on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. They are also known as “script chiseled out with a knife,” “oracles on bones or tortoise shells,” or “script from Yin ruins.” They are the earliest known characters of ancient China dated more than 3,000 years ago. Inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells were first uncovered from among Yin ruins at Xiaotun Village in Anyang in Henan Province, generally believed to have first been discovered in 1899 by Wang Yirong (1845-1900), a late Qing epigrapher. In the Shang and Zhou dynasties, royal families and noblemen would consult heaven about anything ranging from state business to trivial affairs in daily life, such as sacrificial rituals, weather, harvesting, war, hunting, illness, and giving birth. It was the answers they thus elicited that determined what course of action to take. Divination was an important part of a country’s governance; the bones and tortoise shells with characters inscribed on them would be stored away as state archives. So far, more than 100,000 bones and tortoise shells have been unearthed, about 4,500 characters have been tallied, and of these, about 1,700 have been understood and interpreted. Characters on bones and tortoise shells have become increasingly systemized, with the six ways of forming Chinese characters (namely, pictographs, selfexplanatory characters, associative compounds, pictophonetic characters, mutually explanatory characters, and phonetic loan characters) all reflected in them and a large number of pictophonetic characters (or phonograms) that had merged. Oracles inscribed on bones and tortoise shells are also valuable firsthand material for studying the history of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
Writing began by cutting out or inscribing characters on bones or tortoise shells. The Chinese character 栔, according to Xu Shen, means exactly this… And 契 is a phonetic loan character derived from 栔… According to Mao’s Annotations on The Book of Songs, 契 means the same as 开, which has the same meaning as 刻–to carve. Thus we know that some characters are cut out on bones or tortoise shells. (Sun Yirang: An Interpretation of Some Characters Inscribed on Bones or Tortoise Shells)
Words of divination, cut out on bones or tortoise shells, are truly admirable for their excellent craftsmanship and fine structures. They fascinate me nonetheless today, although they were the work of several thousand years ago. And they also varied in style from time to time and from person to person. Roughly speaking, the characters of King Wuding’s time look majestic whereas those of King Diyi’s time look elegant. (Guo Moruo: An Interpretation of Selected Inscriptions on Bones and Tortoise Shells of the Shang Dynasty)