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Oracle bones and remembering

I have a lovely, fat book on my shelves called Sources of Chinese Tradition (volume 1), full of excerpted translations from the Chinese. Chapter 1, fittingly enough, is about oracle bone inscriptions: the earliest Chinese writing, divination records from the Shang dynasty, long before Yi came into being.

The bone – a turtle shell or the scapula of an ox or water buffalo – would be prepared for use, and then the charge is put to the oracle and the bone is cracked by the application of heat. The king himself interprets the cracks to read the spirits’ response, and then the bones are inscribed with a record of the divination.

Some bones have not only a record of the charge to the oracle (something like ‘It will rain’ or ‘In the next ten days there will be no disasters’ – an affirmation functioning as something between a question and a prayer), and what the king read from the cracks, but also a verification: what really happened.

Crack-making on jimao [a day in the cycle of 60, identified by its stem and branch], Que divined: “It will rain”
The king read the cracks: “If it rains, it will be on a ren day.”
“On renwu, it really did rain.”


Crack-making on guisi, Que divined: “In the next ten days there will be no disasters.”
The king read the cracks and said: “There will be calamities; there will be someone bringing alarming news.”
When it came to the fifth day, dingyou, there really was someone bringing alarming news from the west. Zhi Guo reported and said, “The Tufang have attacked in our eastern borders and have seized two settlements. The Gongfang likewise invaded the fields of our western borders.”

So here is the record engraved on the bone, so the descendants can read and learn. (Though as far as I know, we still can’t see what the king saw in those cracks.) On almost all the bones with a verification recorded, the king was proved right – and these bones are engraved and decorated as if for display. We might reasonably assume that the official record-keepers would be more eager to keep detailed records of the king getting it right.

Yet we have a few records (and if we have some, there must surely have been others) of the king getting it wrong:

Crack-making on guisi (day 30), Zheng divined: “In the present first moon, it will rain.”
The king read the cracks and said: “…on the bing day it will rain.”
In the next ten-day week, on renyin (day 39) it rained; on jiachen (day 41) it also rained.

And now we are running out of space on the front of the bone, and it has not yet rained on a bing day (that’s the 3rd day of the 10-day week – day 33, 43 etc). So we continue on the back…

On jiyou (day 46) it rained; on xinhai (day 48), it also rained.

David Keightley, the author of this chapter, explains that it’s unusual for the diviners to keep records for this long after the divination. It seems very much as if they’re continuing in the hope that eventually it will rain on the right day of the week – but after two full weeks, they give up. As Keightley says,
“Well, it did rain a lot” might have sufficed to save some royal face.’

Does anyone else get a certain rueful feeling of familiarity? I’ve always looked at the fragments of oracle bones in museums and sensed a kindred spirit: someone who makes readings, keeps records, tries to learn something. I imagine they’d have been first in line to buy divination journal software.

As for the tendency to stretch the meaning of your interpretation post-hoc in an attempt to have it fit with circumstances… no, not recognising that at all

But then… why did they record this? They had large enough stores of oracle bones, goodness knows, so why not just quietly lose this one? The divination records are solid evidence of the king’s spiritual authority, and this record doesn’t do anything for his reputation.

It looks as though something is more important than the king’s reputation – more important even than the oracle’s own reputation. That would be the practice of divination, as something you trust, remember and attend to.

Just quietly losing the reading that hasn’t quite worked out or that you can’t quite understand or don’t much like – that would be the first, slippery step towards losing the connection to guidance altogether. Or to put it another way, the least helpful reading is not the one with the less-than-ideal question, nor the one you can’t fully understand, but the one you don’t remember. (Keeping a journal is an excellent start; there’s more on integrating a reading or other sign into your awareness in Pamela Moss’s talk in Into the Flow of Change.)

And this reminds me – maybe it’s time I reviewed some readings…

5 responses to Oracle bones and remembering

  1. “But then… why did they record this? They had large enough stores of oracle bones, goodness knows, so why not just quietly lose this one? The divination records are solid evidence of the king’s spiritual authority, and this record doesn’t do anything for his reputation.”

    Because they didn’t belong to them anymore. Divination was a form of sacrifice and a communication with ancestors. The records of interpretations (notice that the writing consisted of the charges and interpretations, not the actual result of the divination which were the cracks on the bones) were made for and belonged to them. It was a way to gauge their relationship with them in the sense that the more accurate the interpretation and result, the closer the diviner was to the ancestor. Furthermore, the spirits of the ancestors are the one entities from whom they could not hide secrets and honesty in record keeping was necessary.


  2. Yes… a lack of honesty in the records would indeed be utterly pointless, and maybe these diviners had the nous to see that.

    Did the spirits own the records, though? What I’ve come across – been reading too much lately to remember where – is the suggestion that the records are made for the sake of your descendants, so they can stay close to the spirits (and also evaluate how well you did).

  3. Well, yes, but I don’t find a dichotomy there. Shang divination, and even later, was a dialogue between the king and his ancestors and records were kept as part of the “sacrifice” the act of divining was after all. The timeline doesn’t end and looks both ways, the present king, communicating with his father or grandfather, will eventually be the ancestor of his own children and grandchildren. For them the records will be history relating the relationship their ancestors had with their own ancestors but in their own present, at the moment of divining, record keeping is part of the ritual sacrifice and a way of thanking the oracle and who is behind the advise received.

    Now, that last word, “received” is key here. A vast part of those records contain the characters ?? ? and ? as way to express that the sacrifice was received by the ancestors. Everyone in the divination equation was in “receipt”.

  4. Yes, you’re right: it belongs to the line. Sorry about the exasperating ‘??’s – there is a way to get Chinese characters into WordPress posts and comments from Wenlin but I forget exactly how it goes. Possibly converting to Unicode or something.

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