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Oracle Bone, Shang Dynasty

Oracle Bone, Shang Dynasty, Reign of Zu Geng, c. 1191-1181 B.C.E. (Shanghai Museum, China) Speakers: Dr. Kristen Chiem and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Narrator] We're in the Shanghai Museum, and we're looking at a very early Oracle Bone. And this is so important because this brings us to the very beginnings of writing in ancient China. - [Narrator] The Oracle Bone is on an ox scapula, so it's actually the shoulder blade here that you can see carved little tiny characters from the right to the left, all in little lines. - [Narrator] And those characters are still, many of them, recognizable as Chinese characters today. - [Narrator] Yeah, about 40% of them, actually are decipherable, and we have tons of these remaining. We have about 200,000 of them. - [Narrator] We're not really used to the idea in the west that we could read writing that's more than 3,000 years old. - [Narrator] And, of course, this is really important, because you can read history through it. When we have a group of these objects together, we can look back and see how things evolved on this particular year, what kinds of concerns people had. - [Narrator] It's an Oracle Bone, so we know that it something that could divine the future, that could help people understand what the future might bring. - [Narrator] They would get these bones, they would inscribe the questions on them, and then a diviner would come and use a particular ritual that involved a heated rod, a metal rod, that they would touch to the bone, and the way that the cracks would evolve on the questions would divine the future. - [Narrator] So the cracks would be read by someone who had a kind of special power. - [Narrator] The questions were all directed toward somebody named Shangdi, the deified ancestor of the Shang royal cult. And we're talking about the Shang Dynasty, this is in the cradle of civilization, the Yellow River Valley, the capital. And the kinds of questions that people would ask would involve everything from the very mundane to ritualistic things. When should a sacrifice be performed, a particular rite of worship. This one we're looking at, a question about the bumper harvest, when to be planting. - [Narrator] And, ancestor worship was incredibly important during the Shang Dynasty, and that's something that will change with the next dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty. - [Narrator] Now, when we get into the Zhou, we see a different concept of the divine. - [Narrator] So, Shangdi was the particular ancestor/god of the Shang Dynasty. - Exactly, royalty. - And it makes sense with the - next dynasty-- - Exactly (drowned out). - you'd have to adjust that. - You'd have to adjust. - [Narrator] So, we see these on, especially on scapula of oxen, but also other animal bones, and also tortoise shell. - [Narrator] Tortoise shell is another favorite medium, probably also as tortoise was an important mythological creature from very early times. But, here, you can see that the medium itself is very flat, it's a good surface to carve into. And, when we're looking at these kinds of things, keep in mind that this is what we have. We have bones, these stood the test of time, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't also writing on other things. - [Narrator] And the writing that we're seeing, we know that Chinese characters stand for words, but, perhaps, at this time in history, the signs that we're seeing are more pictographic-- - Yeah, they've been-- - until it evolved. - [Narrator] Yeah, they've been slowly decoded and, actually, art historians have spent quite a bit of time trying to decipher this, enough so that we can read them, but, at this point, writing is a functional medium. It's to communicate, in this example, with the gods. Eventually, it evolves into calligraphy, which becomes this art form. - [Narrator] And, so, the importance of Chinese writing here in this very early moment. - [Narrator] A lot of major developments in Chinese society right, we've got centralized power as a major theme coming out of the writing, the idea that people can communicate and organize, and this idea of creating a history here. - [Narrator] And, so lucky that we can at least untangle 40% of it, - Yeah, 40%. - of these thousands of bones that survive. - Exactly. - And, one day, we'll understand even more of them. - [Narrator] Even more of them, exactly. (piano music)