The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 2 - Oracle bone script - Overview

Oracle bone script (甲骨文 jiǎgǔwén) offers the earliest forms of the written Chinese language. While 5000-year-old examples of written Chinese are contested within academia,  there is a scientific consensus on the appearance of oracle bone script as far back as 1200 BCE, during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 to c. 1046 BCE).  

The script's name originates from the fact that the characters often appeared on bone and tortoise shells. The inscriptions were also carved onto pyromantic ceremonial items; such as vases. 

An example of oracle bone script, inscribed on a tortoise shell.

An example of oracle bone script, inscribed on a tortoise shell.

One of the earliest examples of oracle bone script engravings, found at the Yinxu site in Henan province, were used in pyromantic ceremonies for the Shang dynasty's last nine kings. Pyromantic ceremonies were a form of divination used to find answers to questions. They would inscribe a question or series of questions onto ceremonial items; after which they were placed into a fire. Where cracks formed in the items determined the answers to the inscribed questions. Questions were often about warfare, the outcome of a hunting trip or any other unknown auspicious aspects of their lives. 

An example of the cracks formed from the pyromantic ceremonies.

An example of the cracks formed from the pyromantic ceremonies.

In our next post we'll be looking at some specific examples of the oracle bone script and how its pictorial form evolved from drawings. 

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