Early Chinese Civilization

Although 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)

[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)

Divining the Future
Reading the Past

Five 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.
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 Shank 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)
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. (SCT, 14)

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)
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)