The content of oracle bone inscriptions includes bu ci (divinations) and chronicle inscriptions. Chronicle inscriptions are records of events and/or occurrences and are not directly related to divination. Bu ci represent a record of divinations preformed by or for Yin-Shang royalty. Royalty from that time performed divinations to decide nearly all aspects of life, and, in this way, the oracle bones act as a vivid, living history. They fully and truthfully record nearly every occurrence pertinent to the Shang royalty, and are the most accurate historical records from that period.

The Oracle Bone Divination Process: (Indentation→Divination Question →Inscription of Bu Ci)

  • First, oracle bone materials are prepared, and cut and thinned as much as possible. For example, the abdomen and back portion of tortoise shells are separated and smoothed flat, and the ridges of animal bones are cut and flattened.
  • Indentations are made on the back of the oracle shells or bones. These indentations are advantageous to the production of bu zhao (signs) on the front of shells or bones during divination.
  • During the divination, a diviner first explains the content of the question to be predicted. Then a smoldering stick is used to burn the indented areas. At this time, cracks appear on the bones or shells; these cracks are referred to as bu zhao (signs).
  • Afterwards, the king or a historian makes a prediction based on the bu zhao, and a historian inscribes the content of the divined question and the result on the bones or shells. These inscriptions form the bu ci (divinations) we see today.
  • A complete bu ci includes four parts: 1) The “preface” (records the date of the divination and the diviner), 2) The “charge” (records the question divined), 3) The “prognostication” (records the prediction made by the diviner), 4) The “verification” (verifies whether or not the divination was fulfilled)