oracle-bone inscriptions: ancient Chinese lifelogging

The development of writing gave humans technology for storing knowledge and conveying it across time. But, at least in China, storing and transmitting knowledge doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for the earliest writing.

The earliest corpus of Chinese writing is oracle-bone inscriptions from the Late Shang Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty arose about 3500 years ago in the Yellow River valley in the northeastern region of present-day China. To converse with ancestors, spirits, and powers, the dynastic kings and his diviners orally addressed propositions (“charges”) to a specially prepared cattle scapula or turtle plastron (“bone”). The bone was then heated, and the king read a response — “auspicious” or “inauspicious” — from the heat cracks that appeared in the bone.

In the late Shang Dynasty (about 3050 to 3200 years ago), the divination conversation was systematically recorded. After the divination had occurred, engravers carved unto the bone the date of the divination, sometimes the place if it was unusual, and the charge. Sometimes they also recorded the king’s reading, and, less frequently, a record of the actual outcome relevant to the charge. About 150,000 inscribed oracle bones from the Late Shang have been found. Hence late Shang kings had an extensive inscribed-bone record of their conversations with ancestors, spirits, and powers.

The oracle bone inscriptions cover a wide range of concerns. Roughly 7% of inscribed bones concern primarily the weather. Other charges addressed harvests, favor of ancestors, disasters, childbirth, administrative orders, hunting expeditions, and many other topics. In other words, charges are like text on Twitter, but forward-looking:

  • “Today it will not rain.”
  • “(We) will hunt at Wu; going and coming back there will be no disasters.”
  • “It should be tonight that (we) perform the you-cutting sacrifice and perform an exorcism.”
  • “There is a sick tooth; it is not Father Yi who is harming (it/him).”
  • “The Eastern Lands will receive harvest.”
  • “Today, yichou, we offer one penned sheep to Ancestory Xin, promise five cattle.”
  • “It should be Qin whom we order to inspect Lin.”
  • “It should be Bing whom we order to inspect Lin.”
  • “If we build a settlement, Di (the High God) will not obstruct (but) approve.”
  • “Lady Hao’s (a consort of the king’s) childbearing will be good.”
  • “(We) pray for Lady Hao to Father Yi (the king’s deceased father).”

[all of the above charges are translated and presented in Keightley (2000)]

The charges address immediate, pragmatic concerns. That’s not usual for divination. Preserving a record of such divination, however, is unusual.

The purpose of this record seems not to have been to record and transmit knowledge. The reading of the cracks and the actual outcome would have been highly relevant information, but these aspects of the divination often weren’t recorded. Moreover, logically complementary propositions were often proposed serially. For example, an oracle bone was addressed with the charge, “It is Shang Jia who is harming the rain,” and then, on the same bone, another charge, “It is not Shang Jia who is harming the rain.” To avoid inconsistency, these two conversations must have been interpreted in light of each other. In addition, there’s no evidence that anyone other than the king determined the readings that the oracle-bone cracks implied. Hence no one other than the king would have an incentive to study the information recorded on the bones. Of course, modern science also implies that studying these records would have no predictive value.

Why then this costly, extensive use of writing? Communication with ancestors, spirits, and powers was highly valued in ancient Chinese culture. Accumulation of inscribed bones documented the extent of the king’s communication with ancestors, spirits, and powers. What specifically the bones recorded didn’t matter.

Perhaps not having a life for reading lifelogging doesn’t matter either. Life is good. For those that find it hard to believe, lifelogging is evidence that they’re alive. On the other hand, the social value of that record is likely to be much less than the social value in ancient China of a record of communication with ancestors, spirits, and powers.

Reference:

Keightley, David N. (1999), “The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of the Late Shang Dynasty,” in Wm. Theodore De Bary and Richard Lufrano, compilers, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2’nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press) Ch. 1.

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