Early Chinese Civilization


Their kings were buried in coffins in immense pits with two or four sloping access ramps. A dog was sacrificed and placed immediately under each coffin, and numerous treasures (5,801 articles in one particular tomb) were buried along with the monarch. Among the most valuable of these objects, and ranking as status symbols, were cult vessels of bronze and war chariots, with horses and charioteers previously killed and buried along with them. ... A grim feature of Shang burials was the sacrifice of large numbers of human victims in groups of ten. They were ceremonially beheaded with large axes, also found in the tombs. These were prisoners taken in war or captured from nomad shepherd tribes on the western borders of Shang. (China: Its History and Culture, 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. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 10.)
The 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. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 14)
The chief glories of Shang art and craftsmanship are the magnificent vessels of bronze. These vessels, in a number of carefully prescribed shapes, were designed primarily for use in sacrifice to ancestors and gods, but they were also used to mark occasions of royal favor, such as the granting of a fief or an honor to a noble. Possession of bronze vessels was a conspicuous sign of wealth and a means of preserving it in the family. ... Shang bronze-working attained an extremely high standard, scarcely excelled anywhere else at any date. The rise of Shang bronze techniques appeared until recently to have been very rapid, and this led to speculation that knowledge of bronze casting might have been introduced from West Asia, then applied and developed in China. But discoveries in the 1970s have revealed examples of earlier, thinner, and much more primitive bronzes, which point to a long development within China itself. It now seems likely that the Chinese invented the casting of bronze independently. (China: Its History and Culture, 17)

In 1899, ... a pair of Chinese scholars happened to notice some particularly archaic-looking Chinese writing on old turtle shells and bones that were being marketed for medicine as so-called “dragon bones.” These bones were eventually traced to a source near the modern city of Anyang, in the northeren province of Henan. The site was finally excavated by scientifically trained archeologists beginning in 1928, and it proved to be the ruins of an ancient Shang Dynasty capital. The dragon bones turned out actually to be shells and bones that were used for divination by Shang Dynasty rulers, and they are therefore now generally called oracle bones. The inscriptions found on some of these oracle bones are the earliest known examples of Chinese-language writing. (HEA, 26-7)

Altogether 100,000 of these bones — shoulder blades of deer and oxen and the carapaces of toroises — have been unearthed and the results of research upon 15,000 of them published. The characters inscribed upon them, dating from about 1300 B.C., and some of the signs found on Yang-shao pottery represent the earliest known form of the Chinese language. Some 5,000 characters have been distinguised and 1,500 of these deciphered. A major reform of Chinese writing in the second century B.C. is the reason why the meanings of many of the older characters have been lost. (China: Its History and Culture, 14-5)

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. HEA, 29)

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 use oracle bones [while] at the same time they consulted the hexagrams [of The Book of Changes] indicated by the yarrow stalks, and their subjects used oracles to determine whether they should marry or what the ancestors were saying during their ceremonies. (Open Empire, 52)
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. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 318)
Yijing Divination