Details & Cataloguing

Inscriptions: History as Art

New York

of varied sizes and forms, eighteen of ox scapulae and sixteen turtle shells, all inscribed with characters, some with cut hollows, burn marks and cracks  
Length of largest 5 in., 13 cm

Length of smallest  1/8  in., 0.3 cm
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Collection of Kobayashi Toan (1916-2007). 

Private Japanese collection.


Matsumaru Michio, “Collections of Oracle Bone Inscriptions in Japan—Part 2”, Oracle Bones Studies, no. 8, 1960, p. 173, 180-83.

Works by Kobayashi Toan, Tokyo, 1975, p. 12.

Matsumaru Michio, “Collections of Shang Oracle Bones in Japan”, Bulletin of the Institute for Oriental Studies, Tokyo University, Oracle Bones Studies, no. 86, 1981, p. 15.

Institute of History, CASS, Compendium of Oracle Bone Inscriptions, Beijing, 1978-82.

Nota del catálogo

The oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen; literally: writings on shells and  bones) are the earliest surviving writing systems in China. They were first discovered at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty (c. 1300-1046,also known as Yinxu, ‘ruins of the Yin’) at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and have since become a major subject in Chinese history and archaeology. 

There are over 100,000 fragments of oracle bone inscriptions (OBI) in various public collections.  The contents of the inscriptions are mostly related to divination, and a typical example includes four parts; a) the preface (xuci), b) the charge (mingci), c) the prognostication (zhanci), and d) the verification (yanci).  However, because the majority of the bones found are fragmentary, scholars can only read what is left and make reasoned guess as to the missing parts.  A few of the examples are related to particular events, such as hunting trips, records of ceremonies and warfare, or sometime as the scribe's writing exercises.

Though not fully standardized, OBI is a mature writing system. The style of writing varies in different periods, and from different diviners’ groups.  During the late Shang period, there were many diviners working under different kings, and some royal princes and relatives also employed diviners and scribes. Inscriptions were first written with brush together with black or red pigments on the surface of the cracked bone, then incised with a bronze or jade knife. In the OBI, we can see more pictographic elements than in the later scripts. The tradition of writing on bones continued from the Shang dynasty into the early Western Zhou period, but soon disappeared. Nonetheless, OBI are the direct ancestors of all the later forms of Chinese writing.

The present group comprises thirty-four pieces,  thirty-two of them are divination texts and two scribes' exercises.  The contents range from ancestral worship, warfare, weather, to royal hunts. They belonged to the Bin, Chu, He and Huang diviner groups, representing all different periods of the Shang royal house at Yinxu.

Professor Matsumaru Michio has studied these inscriptions and numbered them with hand copies and ink rubbings, illustrated here. 

Inscriptions: History as Art

New York