The ink writings of the Shang people. A divination concerning rain is written on the oracle bone, asking if there will not be rain in two days (on the Bing day). (Chinese Characters from the Yin Ruins (Yi Edition), 0778 Oracle Bone Photograph)
Most oracle bone inscriptions are carved on tortoise shells or animal bones. However, some of the oracle bones excavated by the IHP evince records which have been “written” on the oracle bones. These “writings” are the authentic brushwork of the Shang people, and represent the earliest forms of Chinese calligraphy. As such, their value to the study of Chinese art history is enormous. The precision evinced in the interspersion of fine and thick brush strokes within these oracle bone writings prove that, at the very latest, the Chinese began to use brushes to write characters during the Shang period, and, more importantly, demonstrate that the production quality of the brushes during this period was extremely high.

The oracle bones contained at the IHP include extremely abundant examples of Yin-Shang brush writings. In addition to the ink writings found on some of the oracle bones, there are also several oracle bones on which carved writings have been smeared with red pigment. The use of this red coloring increases the aesthetic value of the inscriptions, and the coloring has remained clearly visible after the passage of 3,000 years.


Bu ci (divinations) carved using a multiple knife-cut technique. Carving an inscription multiple times causes oracle bone inscriptions to appear more similar to brush writings than inscriptions made by a single carving would. (Chinese Characters from the Yin Ruins (Bing Edition), 0778 Oracle Bone Photograph)

Oracle bone inscriptions were created some three millennia ago at a critical time during the emergence of writing systems in civilizations around the world. The oracle bone characters almost completely embody the six character categories summarized by the ancient Chinese peoples, and represent extremely mature Chinese characters. Today, over 1.5 billion people use the “Chinese character” writing system, and the origin of this writing system can be traced back to oracle bone inscriptions. When viewed from the perspective of civilization development, there is no question that the oracle bone inscriptions represent a collective, human memory.