How to Read An Oracle Bone 2

June 28, 2007


Last time I showed you how to read the first two lines of this oracle bone (and, really, any oracle bone).

As a reminder, it goes:

  • DATE + “Crack” + NAME + “Divines” + negative CHARGE
  • DATE + “Crack” + NAME + “Divines” + positive CHARGE

Or, more specifically and in plain English:

  • Crackmaking on 6.3, Que divines: “It will probably not rain.”
  • Crackmaking on 6.3, Que divines: “It will rain.”

So let’s finish off the last two lines, which are not present on most oracle bones. About 10% of oracle bones will have notes on what the king says or predicts when he personally examines the cracks (as in Line 3). And about 10% of that 10% will have follow up notes made later on that confirm the king’s pronouncement (as in Line 4).

Looking at Line 3, we see that it reads: king + says + rain + bird + ninth day. Now this would all make fine sense without the “bird” character, right? The king says it will rain on the ninth day. No problem. But what do we do with “bird,” which seems like a clear reminder that this is a language and culture very different from our own and even from that of modern China. There’s no easy answer, but I would suggest something like: The King says the rainbird (i.e. the bird, possibly mythological, that brings the rain) will come on the ninth day. It’s not completely satisfying, but it may be the best we can do.

Moving on to Line 4, we see that it reads: 9.6 (another date) + actually + rain. This is way more straightforward. On 9.6 it actually rained. So the king’s prediction was correct. When the rain or the rainbird finally arrived, it was on the ninth day of the week, on the day numbered 9.6 according to the Shang calender.

So that’s how you read an oracle bone. Simple as pie.



  1. After the initial act of divination, are these symbols then written onto the object of divination?

  2. Yeah, the characters were carved into the bones and sometimes colored with cinnabar after the divination had been performed. They were kept in clay jars near the divination site for storage and, one would think, potential later reference.

  3. The word that troubles you so much (which you understand to be “bird,” which then leads you to an imaginative but entirely fictional world of mythical rainbirds)is the preclassical copula “wei” meaning more or less “to be.” Thus, the king is predicting it will rain, and it will be on the ninth day. Notice how in the final line, the verification, the rhetorical force of the “actually” is linked to the accuracy of the day chosen, i.e., “it will be in the ninth day: lo and behold, the king was right — it WAS on the ninth day!”
    Your mistake grows from trying to read the graph in question as a pictograph, bird, instead of a phonetic symbol for a word, “wei,” which read in context means “to be” (and as you note about other formulaic parts of the oracle bone inscriptions, it pretty much ALWAYS means this).

  4. Thanks, Rob, that makes a lot more sense. Clearly I need to work on my jiaguwen!

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