Oracle Bone Script and Modern Design Article

Oracle Bone Script and Modern Design

In today’s domain of alphabetic scripts, the Chinese system of writing is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. Rather than using a number of letters, the Chinese have come up with several thousand complicated characters or signs denoting words and morphemes. The Japanese, Korean and other similar writing systems, despite having a few characters in common with the Chinese characters, are able to work completely as solely phonetic scripts. Further, though the Chinese writing system isn’t the lone-surviving logographic scripttoday, it is definitely the only such script that functions as the principal script for several hundred million individuals. The earliest recognizable Chinese writings can be traced back 3,500 years; however, there are several historians who contend that the script is actually much older. Irrespective of its true age, the language has undergone considerable evolution with time, but continues to maintain its archaic core, thus becoming one among the oldest continuously-utilized scripts worldwide.

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The History of Oracle Bones Script

It is widely agreed that Chinese writing developed from ancient non-linguistic representational systems. Late Neolithic Era individuals (2500-2000 BC) began carving a number of pictograms or symbols onto jades and pottery. It is believed that those symbols were clan or family insignias declaring provenance or ownership of those articles. Although the pictograms aren’t real Chinese letters, they somewhat resemble the initial Chinese characters. The sun-and-bird symbol was, at the very least, continually employed as a clan symbol during the Shang Dynasty’s early days, on bronze articles. The dominant belief is: at some juncture, the signs stopped portraying illustrated articles and, instead, began portraying the words that described the articles. That is, they assumed linguistic value, thereby becoming logograms. But historians are unaware of when, precisely, this shift took place. It had, possibly, already occurred when the signs were engraved on pottery, thus implying that the objects have lettering on them. However, one cannot prove either assumption in any way. We may, at best, be able to state that the signs were the forerunners to the Chinese script (Lo, 2012).

Oracle bone writings represent the earliest existing documents in Chinese, engraved onto turtle plastron or oxen shoulder-blades, and documenting questions posed for resolution through divination at the Shang (-) court. The Shang Dynasty ruled over the central regions of China from 16-11 centuries BCE.

Divination through the analysis of animals’ shoulder blades and cracks created in them upon heating was practiced by numerous cultures across historical eras. Shang-age Chinese polished shells or bones after carefully cutting them to shape on the front, and carved out hollows on their rear. When the rear hollows were heated, distinctive ├ shaped fissures emerged on the front, which mark the source of bu卜, the Chinese symbol for ‘to divine’. Diviners read the fissures and carved their interpretation on the earlier-shined part of the shell/bone; these interpretations were the answers to the questions posed. A few engravings were even dyed red (Aylmer, 1981).

In Chinese culture, it is widely acknowledged that deceased forefathers hold the power of influencing the lives of their living descendants and hence, the Chinese recognize a corresponding need to engage in placatory sacrifice which is manifested in the form of ancestor worship; these customs and beliefs are entrenched in the Chinese culture. It was widely believed by the masses that Shang rulers’ forefathers held prior knowledge of impending events and could also impact their outcomes. Victory against bordering tribes in retaliatory wars, in hunts and in harvesting the annual crop was all reliant on their royal forefathers’generosity. It was believed that if people suffered natural calamities and ill health, they had displayed impiety with regard to the deceased ancestors, a sin for which they received punishment in this form. Divination by causing fissures in shells/bones represented a technique to forecast the future. It assured the enquirer a favorable end result by determining the right target to appease (Chalfant, 1939).

The Japanese word for oracle bone engravings is koukotsubun (- — ), which may be translated as “text (-, bun) written on bones (-, kotsu) and shells (-, kou); the Chinese term for it is “qi wen” or “engraved text “(from -, ‘to engrave’, and-, ‘text’). Archeologists have, however, unearthed bones featuring brush-painted characters that weren’t engraved at a later time. A Beijing-based official, Wang Yirong (- — ), accidentally found Koukotsubun in the year 1899, when he fell sick and was prescribed a medicine whose ingredients included dragon bone (Chinese: — (transliteration: long gu)), by a traditional Chinese medical practitioner. The dragon bone fragment he bought at a traditional apothecary was engraved all over with ancient etchings that resembled the Chinese script. His scientific temper led him to be intrigued by his find and ultimately, an extraordinary discovery resulted, in a little village bordering Anyang ( — ) in Henan Province (- — ).

Up until now, roughly150,000 fragments of shells and bones have been found, but not even half of the 4700 classified symbols have been decoded. The foremost carvings can be traced back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century BCE (Shang era, –, 1600 — 1046 B.C.). Diviner-historians or “Zhen Ren” were court officials who chiefly composed the text on oracle bones; these individuals were charged with documenting key religious services and other events. Slightly-dented bones were, firstly, heated till a fissure formed in them. The fissures assumed the shape of divinatory signs; that is, divinatory signs were indicated in how the fissures separated the engraving. Later on, ink or cinnabar was used to rub off the writings. Those engravings helped confirma number of key and intriguing details with regard to Shang-age China’s routine life and reports of major political events (Beyond calligraphy, 2016).

The Meaning of Some of the Pictographic Characters

The Ji and Xun pictogram-glyphs presented above belong to the same time and are physically linked. In this case, the two form a decipherable ancient Chinese, conventional, oracle-bone prediction. Briefly, they may be translated as: “The ten days to come will be auspicious.” The above example forms a standard example of Chinese predictions from the oracle-bone age. The discovery of this sort of message within Rock Writings in North America suggests the existence of ancient Asiatic populations in America in around 1000 BC, as oracle-bone carving ceased to be employed at about this period. Only in 1899 AD did it surface again (as mentioned above, Wang Yirong discovered it in that year) and was subsequently interpreted by the Chinese. The decoding of these signs took long and even now, more than fifty percent of the unearthed oracle-bone signs remain to be decoded. Thus, it may be safe to state that such ancient and repainted glyphs (whose age has been verified by National Park Service experts) were created by ancient explorers from China just after the Shang kings’ rule ended, when the writing system was lost to humanity for almost three millennia.

It is worth noting that Asians as well as Native Americans had sacred ten-day calendars. Michael Zeilik highlights this highly intriguing point in his treatise, The Ethno astronomy of Historic Pueblos, II Moon Watching, published in 1986. He writes that subarctic and arctic Asians also adopted a ten-day calendar similar to the one adopted by Native Americans.

The picture shown above translates Chinese pictogram-glyphs etched on a rock.

An important fact to be borne in mind is that the Chinese didn’t standardize their ancient writing system. Thus, one can find substantial variations in ancient Chinese writings, since scribes drew pictograms in individual, distinctive styles (just like our signatures, which differ considerably but are largely understood by all).

The above picture may be described as follows: (Chinese is read in the right-left direction, which will be adopted for interpreting the picture): Firstly, the Geng symbol shows the day-date upon which this event occurred. The second pictogram-glyph (Jie) depicts an individual respectfully kneeling in front of a superior. The next pictogram is of Da (“Great,” which signifies a high-ranking Chinese official, and the official portrayed in this picture is greatly decorated). The fourth pictogram represents the ancient symbol for dog (Quan). The last is the complicated ancient shape of Xian (the tripartite sign implying the offering of a traditional cult sacrifice).

Rock art students often misconstrue the above Chinese rooted picture — they (understandably) believe it is a ladder. But, for the purpose of this paper, prior to labeling this pictogram photograph or petroglyph a “boat,” there is a need to extend the sign by seeing its attached water lines. The right vertical line in the picture depicted above continues along the boulder’s right edge, and while not seen in this picture, the line assumes a rather wavy shape and goes on 5-6 ft. further across the boulder’s adjoining side.

Supplemented by 4 additional leg-lines, the above petroglyph discovered in North America comprises of line-strokes identical to those in the ‘Xiang’ pictogram in ancient Chinese writing, which denotes ‘elephant’. The petroglyph’s posterior has3 diagonal lines matching up to the two diagonal strokes on the pictogram’s rear; these, in ancient Chinese writing, depict hair. It is to be specifically noted that the petroglyph suggests two sharp tusks and a bifurcated trunk, which are both typical of elephants.

Quite frequently, Chinese pictograms possess two or more meanings. For their proper interpretation, one needs to take into account the context wherein the sign was found. (for instance, although the English terms “knight” and “night” sound identical when spoken, they convey diverse meanings depending on the context they are used in.)

Besides its principal meaning of “elephant,” the above Xiang pictogram can be read in another way: as a “picture” or “image.” The rock has been labeled the “Newspaper Rock” owing to the many petroglyphs discovered on it. Thus, instead of telling visitors about an elephant, the sign may be a prehistoric reference to “picture rock” or a similar word, to identify this spot which contains innumerable petroglyphs (Ruskamp, 2015).

How the Oracle Bones Script Transform to the Modern Chinese Character

Being the oldest-known examples of Chinese writing, oracle bone carvings have an exceptionally important role to play in Chinese paleography. This well-developed and highly sophisticated script suggests an extensive period, maybe even millennia, of prior development. Beneath surface transformations brought about by stylistic development and the employment of diverse writing materials, oracle bone engravings’ structural rules resemble those of the contemporary Chinese script. The engravings have gleaned roughly 6000 distinct characters, about a third of which relate to contemporary characters. The rest are largely proper names. Although bound by their creation’s formulaic nature, the texts offer a plethora of diverse information offering an intense understanding of the Shang-era Chinese people’s lives. Aside from this, they cover astronomical, genealogical, calendric, and meteorological information, including comet sightings and the oldest recorded solar eclipses. The people who created these oracle bone carvings have several traits in common with typical contemporary Chinese people (Yetts, 1954).

Considering its enormous time depth, Chinese script can hardly be considered static. Following the premature Shang-era evolution, the Chinese script is evolved continually. In visual terms, it grew more linear, formalized and less similar to natural objects. Its complexity increased as well, with revisions like phonetic supplements and radicals or semantic determinatives used continually to compose novel words. Researchers have easily separated diverse Chinese writing styles into many “scripts.” The chart depicted below compares a number of Chinese letters in different forms across ages.

Chinese writing’s initial 4 phases track the language’s initial 1500-year-long history, basically covering the writing system’s progress from a budding graphic and vague script to one that was made standardized and comprises of thousands of letters that are used even now.

• Jiaguwen (- — ): Oracle Bone Script: It represents the oldest form of written Chinese that was employed between the middle and late Shang periods (roughly 1500-1000 BC). The letterings were engraved on animal bones and turtle shells that, in those days, were employed in divination practices in the Shang rulers’ courts, thus giving rise to the name of “oracle bones.” Hence, these have been utilized by researchers as historical records describing the eras of the later Shang rulers. These studies also, surprisingly, verify the genuineness of the age-old list of kings of China believed to be mythical and not historical. These characters’ shapes are typically considered “pictographic,” as they look like stylized sketches of the things they depict.

• Dazhuan ( — ): Greater Seal: It denotes a phase of the Chinese writing system that flourished between the time of the Late Shang kings and that of Western Chou kings (1100-700 BC). Unlike the earlier phase that involved engraving characters on bone, these writings were chiefly done on molded bronze vessels. The two stages, in fact, intersected in time; they may even have been regarded as the same phase of Chinese script, however, their inscription on different surfaces of different quality (bone/shell and bronze vessels) made their visual style different.

• Xiaozhuan (-): Lesser Seal: The stylish Lesser Seal script may be considered the direct antecedent of contemporary, un-simplified Chinese writing. Its characters are less “pictographic” compared to the earlier two stages and more stylized; further, it also utilizes radicals extensively and systematically, akin to modern Chinese. The script has endured over time and is still utilized today in seals and calligraphy.

• Lishu ( — ): Clerkly Script: This script, as suggested by its name, was utilized in government offices. Although it may have surfaced in around 500 BCE, it was used extensively during the Qin (221-207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) eras when government officials required an effective, fast script for addressing state matters. One chief difference between the Lesser Seal and Clerkly Script is: the latter’s characters have a more graceful style and fewer strokes, thus adapting conveniently to pens and brushes. It is still used, on occasion, in the contemporary era.

Lishu characters’ shapes are just like those of modern Chinese letters. Moreover, in order to eliminate regional differences, the Chinese standardized their written language. The characters standardized in that day are mostly still utilized by the Chinese in the current age. Thus, it may be stated that Chinese script matured in this period (till the twentieth century). Chinese script’s evolution following its Lishu phase saw a drift towards increasingly cursive characters, which are now largely utilized by calligraphers (Lo, 2012).

How People Were Able to Define the Characters without Knowing the Meaning

The script etched onto oracle bones represents the oldest discernible Chinese writing system, with some characters discovered on the bones still used in almost the same form today, over three millennia later. Its vocabulary comprises of more than 30,000 characters, of which several are variations of roughly 4000 basic characters; about 50% of these have been decoded thus far. Whilst originally pictographic, these have moved past the phase of being directly representative of images and have become a full-formed language that can effectively communicate abstract ideas. Such level of complexity reveals that they already belong to a well-developed writing system. All prior signs are either yet to be unearthed or were captured on objects more delicate than bone, which perished over time (Early Chinese Writing, 2016).

How People Use It In Modern Time (Such As Loge, Furniture, Etc.)

The sheer simplicity of oracle bone inscriptions makes them exceptionally beautiful. They are greatly sheltered by a cloak of “ancientness,” grand and matchless and proud, yet tastefully brilliant. Owing to the crude tools utilized to carve out the symbols (knives were used for carving, and characters were painted using inferior quality brushes that were made from rather non-responsive and “dull” hairs), the characters’ lines appear to be like compositions of wood splinters. The strokes appear like canoes, slowly tapering to sharp endings. The curved lines also comprise of a succession of straight scratches. Consequently, in the present day, they are popular as tattoo designs, furniture designs and in other art works.

How People Define the Meaning

Oracle bones’ presence has different meanings for different individuals. To the scientist, they are valuable validation tools. Their surfacing in an era when innumerable historians were raising doubts regarding ancient Chinese historical accounts’ accuracy gave rise to instant controversy. The oracle bones corroborated the Shang Reign-related accounts provided by traditional histories, in addition to the Shang rulers’ names and their order of ascending to the throne. (Scholars had even begun raising doubts regarding the Shang Kingdom’s existence). Some believed the bones were a sham; apparently, numerous initial collectors were made victims to forgery. But Chinese Academy of Sciences-sponsored scientific excavations conducted at Xiaotun beginning from the year 1928 removed all doubts regarding the oracle bones’ presence in Shang royal archives from 1400 to 1200 B.C. Promising soil conditions ensured the bones remained well-preserved, although most of them have disintegrated into fragments. Up until now, archeologists have dug up roughly 200,000 bone fragments, 25% of which have engravings. Jiaguxue ( — ) or ‘Oracle Bone Studies’, a novel scientific discipline, has emerged, dedicated to translating the carvings and studying their contents thoroughly for reconstructing as much of the society that composed them as possible (Cambridge University Library, 2016).


A point worth mentioning is that oracle bones inscriptions weren’t always cut into bones but were, on occasion, even brush-painted. In the Shang rule ( –, 1600 — 1046 B.C.), the Zhou rule (-, 1046 B.C. — 256 B.C.), and the Jin rule (-265 C.E. — 420 C.E.), wood and bamboo were the dominant writing materials (numerous historians and scholars also claim silk was used). Paper was utilized since the year 265 B.C. by the elites only owing to its high cost. Commoners began using it as writing material after the Xuan paper’s () invention about 800 years later. The above extraordinarily protracted span of about two millennia is called the “Age of the Bamboo Slips” in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, because of cloth’s and wood’s perishability, a number of these artifacts are lost to us.


Aylmer, C. (1981). Origins of the Chinese Script. London.

Beyond calligraphy. (2016, November). Oracle Bone Script- Part 1. Retrieved from

Cambridge University Library. (2016, November). Chinese Oracle Bones. Retrieved from Cambridge University Library:

Chalfant, F. (1939). The Hopkins Collection of Inscribed Oracle Bone. New York.

Early Chinese Writing. (2016, November). Retrieved from Trustees of the British Museum:

Lo, L. (2012). Chinese. Retrieved from

Ruskamp, J. A. (2015). Epigraphic Research. Asiatic Echoes. Retrieved from Epigraphic Research:

Yetts, W. (1954). Memoir of the Author. In L. Hopkins, The Six Scripts. Cambridge.

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