It has been suggested that Oraculology be merged into this article. (Discuss) Proposed since March 2024.
Oracle bone script
Script type
Time period
c. 1250 – c. 1050 BC
LanguagesOld Chinese
Related scripts
Child systems
Seal script
Oracle bone script
Literal meaningShell and bone script
Chinese characters Chinese family of scripts Written ChineseKanjiHanjaChữ Hán Historical forms and styles Neolithic symbols in China Oracle bone Bronze Seal (Bird-wormLargeSmall) Clerical Cursive Semi-cursive Regular Flat brush Typefaces Fangsong Ming Sans-serif Properties and classification ComponentsStrokes (order)Radical Collation and standards Character-form standards Jiu zixingXin zixing Kangxi Dictionary forms (1716) General Standard Chinese Characters (mainland China, 2013) Graphemes of Commonly-used Chinese characters (Hong Kong, 2007) Standard Form of National Characters (Taiwan, 1982) Grapheme-usage standards General Standard Characters (PRC, 2013) Jōyō kanji (Japan, 2010) Other standards Standardized Forms of Words with Variant Forms (PRC, 2002) Nan Min Recommended Characters (Taiwan, 2009) Previous standards Commonly-used Characters (PRC, 1988) Tōyō kanji (Japan, 1946) Reforms China Clerical reforms Traditional characters Simplified characters (first roundsecond round) Debate Japan Kyūjitai Shinjitai Ryakuji Korea Yakja Singapore Table of Simplified Characters Homographs and readings Literary and colloquial readings Variants Graphemic variants Zetian characters Derived systems Slavonic transcription Nüshu Kana (Man'yōganaHiraganaKatakana) Jurchen script Khitan (LargeSmall) Idu script Bopomofo Sawndip Chữ Nôm Transliteration of .navbar{display:inline;font-size:88%;font-weight:normal}.mw-parser-output .navbar-collapse{float:left;text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .navbar-boxtext{word-spacing:0}.mw-parser-output .navbar ul{display:inline-block;white-space:nowrap;line-height:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::before{margin-right:-0.125em;content:"[ "}.mw-parser-output .navbar-brackets::after{margin-left:-0.125em;content:" ]"}.mw-parser-output .navbar li{word-spacing:-0.125em}.mw-parser-output .navbar a>span,.mw-parser-output .navbar a>abbr{text-decoration:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-mini abbr{font-variant:small-caps;border-bottom:none;text-decoration:none;cursor:inherit}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-full{font-size:114%;margin:0 7em}.mw-parser-output .navbar-ct-mini{font-size:114%;margin:0 4em}vte

Oracle bone script is the oldest attested form of written Chinese, dating to the late 2nd millennium BC. Inscriptions were made by carving characters into oracle bones, usually either the shoulder bones of oxen or the plastra of turtles. The writings themselves mainly record the results of official divinations carried out on behalf of the ruling Shang dynasty royal family. These divinations took the form of scapulimancy where the oracle bones were exposed to flames, creating patterns of cracks that were then subjected to interpretation. Both the prompt and interpretation were inscribed on the same piece of bone that had been used for the divination itself.

Out of an estimated 150,000 inscriptions that have been uncovered, the vast majority were unearthed at Yinxu, the site of the final Shang capital (modern-day Anyang, Henan). The most recent major discovery was the Huayuanzhuang cache found near the site in 1993. Of the 1,608 Huayuanzhang pieces, 579 bear inscriptions.[1] Each of the last nine Shang kings are named in the inscriptions[a] beginning with Wu Ding, whose accession is variously dated between 1250 and 1200 BC.[2][3] Oracle bone inscriptions corresponding to Wu Ding's reign have been radiocarbon dated to 1254–1197 BC (±10 years).[4] Following the overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou dynasty in c. 1046 BC, divination using milfoil became more common; far fewer oracle bone inscriptions are dated to the Western Zhou.[5] No Zhou-era sites with a comparable cache of inscriptions to Yinxu have been found; however, examples from this period appear to be more widespread, having been found near most major population centers. New sites have continued to be discovered since 2000.[6]

The oracle bone inscriptions—along with several roughly contemporaneous bronzeware inscriptions using a different style—constitute the earliest corpus of Chinese writing, and are the direct ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts developed over the next three millennia.[7] Their study is essential for the research of Chinese etymologies. It is also the direct ancestor of over a dozen East Asian writing systems. The length of inscriptions ranges from 10 to over 100 characters, but a few dozen is typical. The subjects of concern in inscriptions are broad, and include war, ritual sacrifice, and agriculture, as well as births, illnesses, and deaths in the royal family. As such, they provide invaluable insights into the character of late Shang society. Oraculology is the study of oracle bones and oracle bone script.[8]


The common Chinese term for oracle bone script is 甲骨文 (jiǎgǔwén 'shell and bone script'), which is an abbreviation of 龜甲獸骨文字 (guījiǎ shòugǔ wénzì 'turtle-shell and animal-bone script'). This term is a translation of the English phrase "inscriptions upon bone and tortoise shell", which had been coined by the American missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862–1914) in his 1906 book Early Chinese Writing, which first appeared in Chinese books during the 1930s.[9][10] In earlier decades, Chinese authors used a variety of names for the inscriptions based on the name of Yinxu, their purpose ( 'to divine'), or the method of inscription ( 'to engrave'). One previously common term was 殷墟卜辭 (Yīnxū bǔcí 'Yinxu divinatory texts'). [9]


Main article: Neolithic symbols in China

It is generally agreed that the tradition of writing represented by oracle bone script existed prior to the first known examples, due to the attested script's mature state. Many characters had already undergone extensive simplifications and linearizations, and techniques of semantic extension and phonetic loaning had also clearly been used by authors for some time, perhaps centuries. However, no clearly identifiable examples of writing dating prior to the 13th century BC have been discovered. Sets of inscribed symbols on pottery, jade, and bone that have been discovered at a variety of Neolithic archeological sites across China have not been demonstrated any direct or indirect ancestry to the Shang oracle bone script at Anyang.[11]


Oracle bone form of 'tiger'
Oracle bone form of 'eye'

Along with its contemporary bronzeware script, the oracle bone script of the Late Shang period appears pictographic. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period).[12] Comparing the oracle bone script to both Shang and early Western Zhou period writing on bronzes, the oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the bone's hard surface, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds the bronzes were cast from. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thought to be more representative of typical Shang writing using bamboo books than the oracle bone forms; this typical style continued to evolve into writing styles of the Western Zhou period, and then into the seal script within the state of Qin.

Comparison of characters in the Shang bronzeware script (first and fourth rows), oracle bone script (second and fifth rows), and regular script (third and sixth rows)

It is known that the Shang people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items,[13] and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books[b] just like those found from the late Zhou to Han periods, because the graphs for a writing brush ( , depicting a hand holding a writing brush[c]) and bamboo book ( , a book of thin bamboo and wooden slips bound with horizontal strings, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees), are present in oracle bone inscriptions.[14][d]

Table of the Chinese sexagenary cycle inscribed on an ox scapula, dating to the reigns of the last two kings of the Shang dynasty during the first half of the 11th century BC

Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shang graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books.[14] Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs,[e] by rotating them 90 degrees, as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats. The style must have developed on books of bamboo or wood slats, and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the layout of characters in columns from top to bottom is mostly carried over from bamboo books.[15] In some instances, characters are instead written in rows in order to match the text with divinatory cracks; in others, columns of text rotate 90 degrees mid-phrase. These are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing,[16] and inscriptions were never read bottom to top.[17] Columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally laid out from right to left; this pattern is first found with the Shang-era bronze inscriptions. However, oracle bone inscriptions are often arranged with columns beginning near the center of the shell or bone, then moving toward the edge such that the two sides mirror one another.[15]

Structure and function


Despite the pictorial nature of the oracle bone script, it was a fully functional and mature writing system by the time of the Shang dynasty,[18] meaning it was able to record the Old Chinese language, and not merely fragments of ideas or words. This level of maturity clearly implies an earlier period of development of at least several hundred years.[f] From their presumed origins as pictographs and signs, by the Shang dynasty, most graphs were already conventionalized[19] in such a simplified fashion that the meanings of many of the pictographs are not immediately apparent. Compare, for instance, the pictographs to the right. Without careful research to compare these to later forms, one would probably not know that these represented 'swine' and 'dog' respectively. As William G. Boltz notes, most of the oracle bone graphs are not depicted realistically enough for those who do not already know the script to recognize what they stand for; although pictographic in origin they are no longer pictographs in function. Boltz instead calls them zodiographs, emphasizing their function as representing concepts exclusively through words.[20] Similarly, Qiu labels them semantographs.[13]

By the late Shang, oracle bone graphs had already evolved into mostly non-pictographic forms,[citation needed] including all the major types of Chinese characters now in use. Phonetic loan graphs, semantic-phonetic compounds, and associative compounds were already common. One structural and functional analysis of the oracle bone characters found that they were 23% pictographs, 2% simple indicatives, 32% associative compounds, 11% phonetic loans, 27% phonetic-semantic compounds, and 6% uncertain.[g]

Comparison of oracle bone script, large and small seal scripts, and regular script characters for 'autumn' ()

Although it was a fully functional writing system, the oracle bone script was not fully standardized. By the early Western Zhou period, these traits had vanished, but in both periods, the script was not highly regular or standardized; variant forms of graphs abound, and the size and orientation of graphs is also irregular. A graph when inverted horizontally generally refers to the same word, and additional components are sometimes present without changing the meaning. These irregularities persisted until the standardization of the seal script in the Qin dynasty.

There are over 30,000 distinct characters found from all the bone fragments so far, which may represent around 4,000 individual characters in their various forms. The majority of these still remain undeciphered, although scholars believe they can decipher between 1,500 and 2,000 of these characters.[citation needed] One reason for the difficulty in decipherment is that components of certain oracle bone script characters may differ in later script forms. Such differences may be accounted for by character simplification and/or by later generations misunderstanding the original graph, which had evolved beyond recognition. For instance, the standard character for 'autumn' () now appears with 'plant stalk' () as one component and 'fire' () as another component, whereas the oracle bone script form of the character depicts an insect-like figure with antennae – either a cricket[21] or a locust – with a variant depicting fire below said figure. In this case, the modern character is a simplification of an archaic variant 𪛁 (or 𥤚)[22] which is closer to the oracle bone script form – albeit with the insect figure being confused with the similar-looking character for 'turtle' () and the addition of the component.

Oracle bone script fragment featuring a character for 'spring' in the top-left which has no known modern descendant

Another reason is that some characters are attested only in the oracle bone script, dropping out of later usage and usually being replaced by newer characters. An example is a fragment bearing character for 'spring' that has no known modern counterpart. In such cases, available context may be used to determine the possible meaning of the character. In other cases, the character may be assumed to be a phono-semantic compound, and a rough meaning can be inferred based on the semantic component. For instance, an oracle bone character was recently found which consists of on the left and on the right ([礻升] when converted from oracle bone forms to their modern printed equivalents). This character may reasonably be guessed to a compound with ('altar') as the semantic and (modern reading sheng) as the phonetic.[23] Though no modern character consists of these two components, it likely refers to a type of Shang dynasty ritual with a name similar to the pronunciation of in Old Chinese.[h] In the same collection of fragments, the character ⟨阝心⟩ was surmised to be a place name, since the semantic component means 'mound', 'hill', and the divination concerned the king traveling for a royal hunt.[i]

Oracle bone script forms, from the left: 'horse', 'tiger', 'swine', 'dog', 'rat', 'elephant', 'beasts of prey', 'turtle', 'low table', 'to lead', and 'illness'

During the Zhou dynasty

Further information: Chinese bronze inscriptions

Hand copy of a Zhou inscription[24]

There are relatively few oracle bone inscriptions dating after the conquest of the Shang by the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046 BC). From their initial discovery during the 1950s, only a handful of examples from this later period had been uncovered, and those that did were fragments consisting of only one or two characters. In August 1977, a cache containing thousands of Zhou-era oracle bones was discovered at a site closely linked to the ancient Zhou heartland. Among thousands of pieces, 200–300 bore inscriptions.


Wang Yirong, Chinese politician and scholar, was the first to recognize the oracle bone inscriptions as ancient writing.

Among the major scholars making significant contributions to the study of the oracle bone writings, especially early on, were:[25]

Computer encoding

A proposal to include the oracle bone script in Unicode is being prepared.[27][needs update] Codepoints U+35400 through U+36BFF in Unicode Plane 3 (the Tertiary Ideographic Plane) have been tentatively allocated.[28]


See also


  1. ^ A few such shells and bones do not record divinations, but bear other records such as those of hunting trips, records of sacrifices, wars or other events, calendars, or practice inscriptions;Xu 2002, pp. 31, 34 these are termed shell and bone inscriptions, rather than oracle bones, because no oracle (divination) was involved. However, they are still written in oracle bone script.
  2. ^ There are no such bamboo books extant before the late Zhou, however, as the materials were not permanent enough to survive.
  3. ^ The modern word is derived from a Qin dialectal variant of this word Baxter & Sagart 2014, pp. 42–43.
  4. ^ As Qiu 2000, pp. 62–63 notes, the Shangshu's "Duoshi" chapter also refers to use of such books by the Shang.
  5. ^ Identification of these graphs is based on consultation of Zhao 1988, Liu 1997, Wu 1990, Keightley 1978, and Qiu 2000
  6. ^ Boltz surmises that the Chinese script was invented around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, i.e. very roughly ca. 1500 BC, in the early Shang, and based on the currently available evidence declares attempts to push this date earlier "unsubstantiated speculation and wishful thinking". Boltz 1994, p. 39
  7. ^ Li 1968, p. 95, cited in Woon 1987; the percentages do not add up to 100% due to rounding; see Chinese character classification for explanations of the various types listed here.
  8. ^ This character was found on one of nine oracle bone fragments in the Shandong Provincial Museum's collection. The full inscription reads:


    This was the first time that the graph 礻升 had been attested attested in oracle bone inscriptions. Wang translated the sentence as: "Prognostication on the day dingwei: if the king performs the sheng sacrifice, will it benefit Ancestor Wu?" The newly found graph was tentatively assigned the same modern reading as the phonetic component .

  9. ^ The full inscription: 戊寅卜,旅貞:王其于[阝心],亡災? Translation: Prognostication on the day wuyin by Diviner Lü: if the king travels to [placename, possibly read xin], will there be harm?



  1. ^ Shen 2002, p. 86.
  2. ^ Li, Xueqin (2002). "The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project: Methodology and Results". Journal of East Asian Archaeology. 4: 321–333. doi:10.1163/156852302322454585.
  3. ^ Keightley 1978, p. 228.
  4. ^ Liu, Kexin; Wu, Xiaohong; Guo, Zhiyu; Yuan, Sixun; Ding, Xingfang; Fu, Dongpo; Pan, Yan (2020). "Radiocarbon Dating of Oracle Bones of the Late Shang Period in Ancient China". Radiocarbon. 63 (1). Cambridge University Press: 155–175. doi:10.1017/RDC.2020.90. Archived from the original on 2022-03-14.
  5. ^ Nylan, Michael (2001). The five "Confucian" classics, p. 217
  6. ^ Flad, Rowan K. (2008). "Divination and Power: A Multiregional View of the Development of Oracle Bone Divination in Early China". Current Anthropology. 49 (3): 403–437. doi:10.1086/588495. ISSN 0011-3204. S2CID 62795316.
  7. ^ Boltz 1994, p. 31.
  8. ^ Wang Yuxin (王宇信) Wei Jianzhen (魏建震) (2010). 甲骨学导论 [History of China historiography] (in Chinese). Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. ISBN 978-7-500-48878-1. OCLC 690131145.
  9. ^ a b Wilkinson (2015), p. 681.
  10. ^ Chalfant, Frank H. (1906). Early Chinese Writing. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute. p. 30.
  11. ^ Qiu 2000.
  12. ^ Qiu 2000, p. 64.
  13. ^ a b Qiu 2000, p. 63.
  14. ^ a b Qiu 2000, p. 63; Xu 2002, p. 12.
  15. ^ a b Keightley 1978, p. 50.
  16. ^ Qiu 2000, p. 67; Keightley 1978, p. 50.
  17. ^ Keightley 1978, p. 53.
  18. ^ Boltz 1994, p. 31; Qiu 2000, p. 29.
  19. ^ Boltz 1994, p. 55.
  20. ^ Boltz 1994, pp. 31–33.
  21. ^ "秋 in Multi-function Chinese Character Database (漢語多功能字庫)".
  22. ^ Shuowen Jiezi entry for 秋 (秌): 从禾,省聲。𪛁,籒文不省。
  23. ^ Wang, Entian (2015-08-27). "王恩田:王獻唐先生征集甲骨文考釋". Online Journal of the Fudan University Center for Unearthed Texts and Paleography (复旦大学出土文献与古文字研究中心 (in Chinese).
  24. ^ Liu 1989, p. 67; Gao 1996, p. 327.
  25. ^ Xu 2002, pp. 16–19.
  26. ^ Creamer, Thomas B. I. (1992). "Lexicography and the history of the Chinese language". In Zgusta, Ladislav (ed.). History, languages, and lexicographers. De Gruyter. p. 108. ISBN 978-3-111-34107-1.
  27. ^ "L2/15-280: Request for comment on encoding Oracle Bone Script" (PDF). Working Group Document, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 and UTC. 2015-10-21. Retrieved 2016-01-23.
  28. ^ "Roadmap to the TIP". Unicode Consortium. 2016-01-21. Retrieved 2016-01-23.
  29. ^ Needham, Joseph; Ronan, Colin A. (1978). The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: An Abridgement of Joseph Needham's Original Text. Cambridge University Press. p. 6, Table 20. ISBN 978-0-521-21821-4.


  • Baxter, William H.; Sagart, Laurent (2014). Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-199-94537-5.
  • Boltz, William G. (2003) [1994]. The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society. ISBN 978-0-940-49018-5.
  • Chen Zhaorong (陳昭容) (2003). 秦系文字研究﹕从漢字史的角度考察 [Research on the Qin Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing] (in Chinese). Taipei: Academia Sinica. ISBN 978-9-576-71995-0.
  • Demattè, Paola (2022). The Origins of Chinese Writing. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-197-63576-6.
  • Gao Ming (高明) (1996). 中国古文字学通论 [General Introduction to Chinese Paleography] (in Chinese). Beijing: Beijing University Press. ISBN 978-7-301-02285-6.
  • Keightley, David N. (1985) [1978]. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-02969-9.
  • ——— (2000). The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-1-55729-070-0.
  • Li Xiaoding (李孝定) (1968). 從六書的觀點看甲骨文字 [Looking at Shell and Bone Inscriptions From the Point of View of the Liu Shu]. Nanyang Daxue Xuebao (in Chinese): 84–106.
  • Liu Xinglong (刘兴隆) (1997). 新编甲骨文字典 [New Oracle Bone Dictionary] (in Chinese). Beijing: Wenshizhe chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-801-73355-9.
  • Liu Xiang (刘翔) Li, Xueqin; et al., eds. (1989). 商周古文字读本 [Reader of Shang–Zhou Ancient Characters] (in Chinese). Beijing: Yuwen chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-800-06238-4.
  • Qiu Xigui (裘锡圭) (2000) [1988]. Chinese Writing. Translated by Mattos, Gilbert L.; Norman, Jerry. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. ISBN 978-1-557-29071-7.
  • Shen, Chen, ed. (2002). Anyang and Sanxingdui: Unveiling the Mysteries of Ancient Chinese Civilizations. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum. ISBN 978-0-888-54441-4.
  • Thorp, Robert L. (1981). "The Date of Tomb 5 at Yinxu, Anyang: A Review Article". Artibus Asiae. 43 (3): 239–246. doi:10.2307/3249839. JSTOR 3249839.
  • Wilkinson, Endymion (2015). Chinese History: A New Manual (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 978-0-674-08846-7.
  • Wu, Teresa L. (1990). The Origin and Dissemination of Chinese Characters 中國文字只起源與繁衍 [The Origin and Dissemination of Chinese Characters] (in Chinese). Taipei: Caves Books. ISBN 978-9-576-06002-1.
  • Xu Yahui (許雅惠), ed. (2002). Ancient Chinese Writing, Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Ruins of Yin. Translated by Caltonhill, Mark; Moser, Jeff. Taipei: National Palace Museum. ISBN 978-9-575-62420-0.
  • Woon, Wee Lee (1987). Chinese writing: its origin and evolution. Macau: University of East Asia Press. OCLC 21757249.
  • Zhao Cheng (趙誠) (2009) [1988]. 甲骨文簡明詞典——卜辭分類讀本 [Concise Reader of Oracle Bone Inscription Classifications] (in Chinese). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju. ISBN 978-7-101-00254-6. OCLC 460384170.