The doubters and the oracle bones

The Doubting Antiquity School were sceptics of ancient Chinese texts’ historical veracity… until the oracle bones were deciphered.

Shang-era oracle bone
National Museum of China, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, a group of Chinese academics began questioning the ancient accounts of Chinese history. The Records of the Grand Historian, a history of ancient China completed in 94 BCE, was one target for their scepticism. How could such a work accurately record the details of events from a millennium earlier?

These academics, known today as the Doubting Antiquity School, were part of a broader intellectual trend called the New Culture Movement – essentially a shift away from traditional Chinese culture and knowledge. (Depending on who you believe, the New Culture Movement may also have planted the seeds of the Chinese Civil War and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.)

Anyway, the Records – amongst other things – named thirty kings of the ancient Shang Dynasty. These kings would have lived more than a thousand years before the completion of the text, so the Doubting Antiquity School… doubted its authenticity.

Enter the oracle bones, also known as the dragon bones. These bones were used for pyromancy, a kind of divination. Questions were written on the bones of cattle (or on the plastrons – belly shells – of turtles). The diviner applied heat to the bones until they cracked. The position and direction of the cracks, properly interpreted, answered the question.

Academics did not properly identify and translate the oracle bones until the early 20th century. This is what they discovered:

  1. The oracle bones contained some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing. In fact, they dated back three thousand years, making the writing the ancestor of all modern Chinese and Japanese scripts.
  2. The oracle bones dated back to the Shang Dynasty.
  3. Many of the bones included the names of kings of the Shang Dynasty.
  4. Twenty-three of those names matched the kings listed in The Records of the Grand Historian.

In other words, the oracle bones independently corroborated the historical record. This archaeological evidence disproved the Doubting Antiquity School’s hypothesis in a rather explicit and dramatic fashion – and also gave us a crucial insight into the long history of Chinese civilisation.

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