Although archaeological 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, 5; cf. BHC, 24-5)
The Shang Dynasty
c. 1766-1040 BCE
The Shang were bloodthirsty — their kings expressed their authority through a tripartite expression of violence. Hunting and warfare were extensions of the third and most integral form of ritual violence, the sacrifices that tied the other pursuits together, followed by prescribed methods of dismemberment and display. ...
Of the thirty-seven different kinds of sacrificial ceremony found on the oracle bones, many seemed to involve partial destruction of bodies, carcasses, food or treasures — burning them seems to have been seen as a means of releasing their essence for the gods or ancestral spirits. This spelled disaster for a lot of dogs, as these animals were seen as guides, and hence would be thrown into the inventory as some sort of insurance policy.
Funerals were the worst. The tombs of the Shang aristocracy are piled high with the dead — sacrificed slaves or prisoners of war beheaded at the graveside, animals as food, steeds and companions in the afterlife. But a Shang funeral was a dangerous occasion even for the upper classes, who might find themselves called upon to prove their loyalty or friendship by joining their lord or lady in death. Concubines appear to have been sacrificed whole, strangled or buried alive rather than beheaded, in order to keep their bodies intact in the afterlife.
This carnage escalated as the Shang state both expanded and faced increasing problems both inside and outside its borders. Some 13,000 human sacrifices are scattered around the Shang capital for the reigns of its last nine emperors — an average of 33 victims a year, slain in cemeteries to open channels of communications with the ancestor-gods, or ritually sacrificed to “purify” princesses and dukes troubled by ailments or worries. (BHC, 44-5)
Ancestor Veneration and the Shang Pantheon
A supreme being, Shangdithe “lord above” was an unknowable deity, with whom only the king stood a chance of communicating. The motivations of nature spirits was also difficult to grasp, although appeasing them was a process that the priests claim to have worked out through a process of sacrificial trial and error. The spirits of the ancestors, however, were accessible to someone who knew the right rituals and payments, and could be prevailed upon to intercede from the afterlife. The natural accretion of prayers “answered” ensured that the older an ancestor was, the more likely he or she was liable to be credited with great powers. Often, according to the oracle bones, such ancestors were malicious or irascible, quick to take offense or to send bad omens as signs of their disapproval. (BHC, 46)
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. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 16)Oracle Bone Divination
Open Empire, First Edition, 31)
Communicating with the Ancestors
The Last Shang King
The last of the Shang kings was called Dixin, although the word that is used for him in many historical records means “crupper” — the part of a saddle that is looped around the horse’s tail, and is most likely to get covered in waste. We only have the word of the dynasty that supplanted King Crupper. They claim that they had ample reason to overthrow him. There were intimations, in his younger days that he was brusque and arrogant, and legends that he had managed to insult the gods through his impious behavior, once even joking in a temple that the statue of the goddess Nüwa was so beautiful, he wished he could have sex with her.
paolao, a torture device in which a naked victim was made to dance atop a heated cauldron, only to inevitably tumble into the burning charcoal beneath.
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:
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. (Open Empire, 54)