Early Chinese Civilization
Ancestors, Divination and Sacrifice
Map: Early Chinese Civilization
Bamboo Page Divider
Oracle Bone PitAlthough archeological discoveries are now suggesting the existence of written characters scratched on Neolithic pots as early as 3000 B.C.E., the earliest corpus of Chinese writing consists of the oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang. These inscriptions record the pyromantic divinations performed at the court of the last nine Shang kings. In this kind of divination, the king or his diviners would address an oral “charge,” such as “We will receive millet harvest,” to a specially prepared turtle plastron or cattle scapula while applying a hot poker or brand to produce a series of heat cracks in the shell or bone. They then interpreted these cracks as auspicious or inauspicious, and the king would deliver a prognostication, such as “Auspicious. We will receive harvest.” After the divination had taken place, engravers carved the subject of the charge, and (sometimes) the king’s forecast, and (less frequently) the result, into the surface of the shell or bone — hence the modern Chinese term jiaguwen, “writings on shell and bone.” (Sources of Chinese Tradition (SCT), 5; cf. Classical Chinese Literature, 10)
Oracle Bone
[Preface] Crackmaking on jiashen (day twenty-one), Que divined:
[Charge] “Lady Hao’s childbearing will be good.”
[Prognostication] The king read the cracks and said: “If it be on a ding day that she give birth, it will be good. If it be on a geng day that she give birth, there will be prolonged luck.”
[Verification] After thirty-one days, on jiayin (day fifty-one), she gave birth. It was not good. It was a girl.
(Open Empire, 28-9)
King Ding of the Shang
Divining the Future
Reading the Past

Oracle Bone DivinationFive turtle shells lie on the rammed-earth altar. The plastrons have been polished like jade, but are scarred on their inner side with rows of oval hollows, some already blackened by fire. Into one of the unburned hollows, on the right side of the shell, the diviner Que is thrusting a brand of flaming thorn. As he does so, he cries aloud, “The sick tooth is not due to Father Jia!” Fanned by an assistant to keep the glowing tip intensely hot, the stick flames against the surface of the shell. Smoke rises. The seconds slowly pass. The stench of scorched bone mingles with the aroma of millet wine scattered in libation. And then, with a sharp, clear, puklike sound, the turtle, most silent of creatures, speaks. A bu-shaped crack has formed in the hollow where the plastron was scorched. Once again the brand is thrust, now into a matching hollow on the left side of the shell: “It is due to Father Jia!” More time passes ... another crack forms in response. Moving to the next plastron, Que repeats the charges: “It is not due to Father Jia!” Puk! “It is due to Father Jia!” He rams the brand into the hollows and cracks [of] the second turtle shell, then the third, the fourth, and the fifth.
Oracle Bones
The diviners consult. The congregation of kinsmen strains to catch their words, for the curse of a dead father may, in the king’s eyes, be the work of a living son. Que rubs wood ash from the fire into the new set of cracks and scrutinizes them once more. But the shell has given no indication. The charge must be divined again. Two more cracks are made in each of the five plastrons ... and there is again no sign.
       Another brand is plucked from the fire and the new charge cried: “The sick tooth is not due to Father Geng! ... It is due to Father Geng.” Father Geng — the king’s senior uncle. This time the indications are clear. His sons, the king’s older cousins, turn away in dismay at the diviner’s reading of the cracks. The spirit, their father, has been blamed. ...
       In such an atmosphere and in such ways
in a routine that must have consumed tens of thousands of hours during the Shang historical period — the Shang kings and their diviners sought to know and fix the future. As the ceremony ended, the diviner handed the five plastrons to scribes, who began the task of carving into the shell’s smooth front a record of the charges proposed and results observed.
       The Shang kings read the mantic cracks to divine the wishes of their ancestors. We read the mantic inscriptions to divine the wishes of the Shang kings. May the oracle bones, once used to read the future, now be used to read the past!
(Classical Chinese Literature, 13-15)
The Shang Pantheon
From Divination to Sacrifice
The Shang kings lived in a world that was dominated by a complex pantheon of Powers that included: Di, the High God; Nature Powers, like the (Yellow) River, the Mountain, and Ri, the Sun; former Lords, like Wang Hai, who were apparently ex-humans whom the cultists now associated with the dynasty; pre-dynastic ancestors, like Shang Jia; dynastic ancestors, whose cult started with Da Yi and ended with the deceased father of the reigning king; and the dynastic ancestresses, the consorts of those kings on the main line of descent, who likewise received cult in the order of their husbands’ accession. (SCT, 10)
Xiao: Filial PietyThe Shang treated their ancestors with the kind of ritual regularity and order that they were unable to apply either to the Nature Powers or to Di himself. As ex-humans, the ancestors were approachable and comprehensible in ways that the other Powers were not. (SCT, 14)
Shang Bronze Ding with Taotie
Fu Hao Video
The power of the Shang elites depended, in part, upon their control of superior armaments like bronze dagger-axes and horse-and-chariot teams, but the true authority of the dynasty — like that of the Neolithic chieftains who had preceded them — was psychological. Their material power had to be sanctified and legitimated. Much of the elites’ legitimacy derived from their ability — through divination — to define, explain, and control reality, a reality that, in a Bronze Age theocracy, was primarily conceived in religious and familial terms. (SCT, 16)
Shang Bronze Casting
The ... most time-consuming stage in the process of bronze casting was to make a mold. The first step was to produce a model of the desired bronze vessel out of clay. Another layer of clay was applied to the surface of the model in order to make a mold. Once the hollow clay mold had dried, it could be cut into different sections. A layer of clay for the bronze vessel — of the desired thickness for the bronze vessel — was removed from the original clay model, which became the core. With the core at the center, the sections of the mold were reassembled, and the casters then poured the molten metal between the mold and the core. The caster then waited for it to cool, which could occur within seconds. Then they opened the mold and removed the vessel. After the vessel had been cast, workers polished it with a series of abrasives progressing from rough to fine. (Open Empire, First Edition, 31)
The general assumption that the ancestors, when properly treated, continued to smile on their living descendants is again central to much of the religion of Zhou and Han. The preference for male children — so marked in later Chinese culture and entirely comprehensible in a dynastic system in which descent passed through the male line — was already present in the Shang divinatory record. The central value of xiao or “filiality” must surely have had its origins in the great reverence that the Shang paid to their ancestors — in divinatory inquiry, in cultic offerings, and in the rich furnishing of their graves. (SCT, 22)
Ancestor Veneration: Contemporary
Bamboo Separator
King Zhou of the Shang
King Zhou of the Shang
The Last Shang King

According to Sima Qian (the Grand Historian), the last Shang king liked the company of women, drank too much, enjoyed “depraved songs” with erotic lyrics, and hosted orgies. At the same time he raised taxes while generally neglecting matters of state. When some of his subjects objected, he invented a new way of punishing them, by roasting them on a rack. He turned some of his critics into mincemeat, others into dried meat strips. He appointed evil officials, and his good officials drifted away from his palace to serve the Zhou. ... When he heard [that the Shang king killed an official by cutting his chest open while he was alive], the Zhou king (i.e. King Wu) launched his invasion and defeated the Shang troops, and the last Shang king plunged to his death in a fire. The Zhou king then impaled the head of the dead tyrant on a pole for all his vanquished subjects to see. (OE, 43)
c. 1050-1045 BCE
King Wu
King Wu
King Cheng
King Cheng
Duke of Zhou
The Duke of Zhou
The Mandate of Heaven
The Mandate of Heaven
The following section of the “Shao Announcement” (from the Book of Documents) is supposed to record the words of the second Zhou ruler’s uncle, the Duke of Zhou, who served as regent for the young king:
Duke of ZhouAh!  August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah! How can he fail to be reverently careful!
       Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue. ... Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin. ... We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue. It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36)
Yijing Divination Tools
From Oracle Bones to the Yijing
Continuity ... and the Seeds of Change

The Shang oracle bones reveal much about the king and little about his officials or the people who worked the land, while the gradually expanding source base for the Zhou, biased as it is toward ritual language, still provides information about a greater variety of people. Even so, our overriding impression must be of the continuities between the Shang and the Zhou. Both peoples used oracles constantly. The Shang king consulted oracle bones for momentous matters of state, like the launchings of military campaigns, and for personal matters, like his toothaches. The Zhou kings continued to divine with oracle bones at the same time they read the hexagrams [of  the Yijing] formed by yarrow stalks, and their subjects used oracles to determine whether they should marry or what the ancestors were saying during their ceremonies. (OE, 54)
Oracle Bone Divination
In early times this process [i.e. the use of Yijing divination] apparently resembled the kind of divination that had been practiced in the Shang period; over time, however, divination changed from a method of consulting and influencing ancestors — the “powerful dead” — to a method of penetrating moments of the cosmic process to learn how the Way is configured, what direction it takes at such moments, and what one’s own place is — and should be — in the scheme of things. By developing the capacity to anticipate and accord with change, one could avert wrong decisions, avoid failure, escape misfortune, and, on the other hand, make right decisions, achieve success, and garner good fortune. (SCT, 318)
Taiji Bagua
  • How might the more “humanistic” emphasis of the Mandate of Heaven have gradually affected the conceptual understanding of the divination process during the shift from Oracle Bone to Yijing divination?
Yijing Divination
Yijing Dude