Oracle Bones and Traditional China Term Paper

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Oracle Bone and Traditional China

According to ancient writings, the history of China dates back approximately 3,300 years. Studies by modern archaeologists provide evidence of ancient origins in a culture that was flourishing between 2500-2000 B.C. In an area that is now central China and the lower Huang He Valley in northern China. Through centuries of migration, amalgamation and development, a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and political organization came about that is recognized as Chinese civilization, unique to world history because of its continuity of over 4,000 years to today. The Chinese culture has developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins and from very early times kept voluminous records, resulting in not only knowledge of China's ancient, but of its neighbors as well. As described in mythology, Chinese civilization began with Pangu, the creator of the universe, then according to legend, a succession of sage-emperors and culture heroes taught the ancient Chinese to communicate and to find food, clothing and shelter. Xia is said to be the first prehistoric dynasty, from the 21st -16th centuries B.C. And until 1928 when scientific excavations were made of early bronze-age sites at Anyang, Henan Province, separating myth from reality had been difficult. However, by the 1960's and 1970's archaeologists had uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that pointed to the existence of Xia civilization just as described and in the same locations that were cited in ancient Chinese historical texts, proving at minimum that the Xia period marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban centers of the Shang dynasty. In the Huang He Valley, the cradle of Chinese civilization, thousands of archaeological finds have provided evidence about the Shang dynasty which endured from around 1700-1027 B.C. The Shang dynasty was called the Yin dynasty in its later stages and is thought to have been founded by a rebel leader who had overthrown the last Xia ruler. This civilization that was largely based on agriculture, hunting and animal husbandry, yielded an important event during this period with the development of a writing system that was revealed in archaic Chinese inscriptions found on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones, called oracle bones.

Oracle bones, along with inscriptions on bronze vessels, were records of divination and are the earliest form of Chinese writing and is an important source for understanding the development of written Chinese and the Shang society. Diviners would ask questions concerned with matters and issues such as sacrifices, war, travel, weather, hunting and luck, then the bones were heated to produce cracks from which yes and no answers were derived. A number of bones found during the late 19th century in the ruins of the Shang capital of Anyang were first sold as dragon bones to be ground up for Chinese medicinal compounds before being brought to the attention of scholars in the 1920's.

The religion of the Shang civilization was based on the worship of ancestral spirits and Shang Di, the supreme God and the ancestral temple is where important decisions were made by divination of the oracle bones.

Shang culture, a feudal system headed by a king, was extremely patriarchal and traditional, the oldest being closest to the ancestors, yet inferior to them, and if a woman was the oldest survivor of her generation in a powerful family then she could become a matriarch. According to oracle bones, one king had three wives, two had two wives, and twenty-six took only one wife.

The language and culture of the Chinese developed directly from the Shang era. The writing found on oracle bones and bronzes began with pictograms, developed ideograms, and phonograms and shows that the information they sought pertained to sacrifices, announcements to the spirits, diplomatic banquets, the coming ten-day week, how to avoid danger and calamity, and how to please God and the ancestral spirits. Evil was depicted as a snake attacking a person's foot and human sacrifice, which was practiced by the Shang, was indicated by a character that shows a person's head being chopped off. Although the practice of human sacrifice decreased in the Zhou era, the king or lord held the power of life or death over those under him in the Shang society. Slavery, from those captured during war and battles, was also a common practice and the word or character for servant indicates a cultural evolution. The character for captives, counted as heads and depicted as an eye, came to mean slave, servant, a retainer, and later a minister of state.

Therefore, as writing developed and subsequently became more influential, advisors to the king became more literate and thus, more powerful.

Oracle bones were also used to record astronomical events. About thirteen years ago, a group of scientists proved there was once a shorter day by reading an oracle bone with the inscription, 'three flames ate the sun...big starts seen.' This cryptic phrase in Chinese characters was found on an ancient piece of tortoise shell and records a total solar eclipse in which the sun's corona and its streamers were visible and stars appeared in the sky, and moreover, it gives a way of determining the Earth's rotation rate thousands of years ago.

Kevin D. Pang of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was able to pinpoint the date of the eclipse as being June 5, 1302 B.C. And then deduced that a day is now 0.047 second longer. By studying one particular oracle bone eclipse record and using computers to calculate the dates and paths of solar eclipses visible in China during a certain period of the Shang dynasty, Pang and his colleagues found two candidates that fit the oracle bone data. They then reviewed records of five lunar eclipses during the same era and after establishing that the Chinese day, as recorded on the oracle bone, started at approximately 3 a.m., the researchers then found a pattern of lunar-eclipse dates that fit the date of one solar eclipse but not the other. However, since any changes in the Earth's rotation rate would shift an eclipse's path from where it occurred, Pang determined how much the length of the day had changed. According to Pang, this gives scientists a better idea of how much the Earth's rotation rate varied in antiquity and it was all possible from calculations of the oracle bone.

The Shang culture and belief system concerning divine command were inseparable from divination. The majority of oracle texts were indeed divinations about the future whether asserting human preference or seeking divine will, however, it was without the implication of blind fate, and were woven with the practice of oracle bone readings.

Moreover, from these early Chinese beliefs, it seems certain that this culture believed in the idea of free will rather than predestination, even though many critics seek to prove them fatalistic. Inscriptions on one oracle bone uses the graph ling in two senses, a command and the noun ming, suggesting that ming may refer to fate or destiny of a deity.

The exact political status of the Huanbei Shang City is unknown, however, the walled city is probably one of the Shang capitals due to its huge size and geographic location. From traditional accounts, it was believed that the 19th king, Pan Geng, moved the capital to Yin, however, the oracle bone inscriptions from Yinxu only details the period from the reign of the 22nd king, Wu Ding to the 30th and last king of the Shang dynasty, Xin. Therefore, Yinxu probably did not become the capital until the reign of Wu Ding and Huanbei most likely was the capital of Pan Geng and the two succeeding kings. Moreover, inscribed oracle bones discovered in the area have enabled researchers to reconstruct the Shang royal genealogy. For nearly a century now, scholars have been reading the oracle bones to detail Chinese history.

As far back as the Shang culture, the marchmounts or sacred peaks are perhaps the best known of the mountain gods. The mountains, one in each cardinal direction, define and fix Chinese space and their worship go back to antiquity. The character yue appears quite often in the oracle bone inscriptions as a pictograph of one range of mountains above another, and is the object of sacrifices, such as the offering of burnt victims known as liao and the di sacrifice which was usually reserved for the high god or gods, moreover, gao, announcements, are made to the yue and emissaries dispatched to it. The yue is capable of cursing both the king and the crops, and according to Qu Wanli, is the most common object used prayers for rain and the second most common object used for harvest prayers. Ding Shan, however, believes that yue does not refer to the marchmounts but the character rather refers to a ritual performed on any high mountain, yet, other conclude that because the emissaries are sent to yue, then the term must refer to a specific cult site, such as Mount…

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