Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén) is an ancient form of Chinese characters that were engraved on oracle bones—animal bones or turtle plastrons used in pyromantic divination. Oracle bone script was used in the late 2nd millennium BC, and is the earliest known form of Chinese writing. The vast majority of oracle bone inscriptions, of which about 150,000 pieces have been discovered, were found at the Yinxu site located in Xiaotun Village, Anyang, Henan Province. The latest significant discovery is the Huayuanzhuang storage of 1,608 pieces, 579 of which were inscribed, found near Xiaotun in 1993. They record pyromantic divinations of the last nine kings of the Shang dynasty, beginning with Wu Ding, whose accession is dated by different scholars at 1250 BC or 1200 BC. Oracle bone inscriptions of Wu Ding's reign have been radiocarbon dated to 1254–1197 BC±10 years. After the Shang were overthrown by the Zhou dynasty in c. 1046 BC, divining with milfoil became more common, and a much smaller corpus of oracle bone writings date from the Western Zhou. Thus far, no Zhou sites have been found with a cache of inscriptions on the same scale as that at Yinxu, although inscribed oracle bones appear to be more widespread, being found near most major population centers of the time, and new sites have continued to be discovered since 2000.
|Oracle bone script|
|Bronze Age China|
|Oracle bone script|
|Literal meaning||"Shell-and-bone script"|
The late Shang oracle bone writings, along with a few roughly contemporaneous inscriptions in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing. The script is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shang writing is the oldest known member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts, preceding the bronzeware script. It is also the direct ancestor of over a dozen East Asian writing systems developed over the next three millennia, including the Chinese and Japanese logographic and syllabaric scripts still in current use. In terms of content, the inscriptions, which range from under ten characters for incomplete prognostications to over 100 characters in rare cases (a few dozen being typical), deal with a wide range of topics, including war, ritual sacrifice, agriculture, as well as births, illnesses, and deaths in the royal family. Thus, they provide invaluable insight into late Shang dynasty civilization and society.