Masterpieces of sculptured bronze attest to the brilliant civilization of the Shang dynasty. Another Shang legacy – a collection of bones etched with questions for the ancestral gods – reveals clues to the birth of the Chinese language. Towards the end of the 19th century, Chinese peasants tilling their fields near Anyang, in the northern province of Henan, unearthed hundreds of ancient bones inscribed with strange writing. They sold their discoveries to apothecary shops, believing that they were dragons’ bones charged with magical healing powers.
Scholars soon realized that the bones were of great historical interest, but serious excavations in the area did not begin until 1928. Under the direction of Dr. Li Ji of the Academia Sinica (a Chinese research institute, now based in Taipei), archaeologists unearthed thousands more of the inscribed bones, which had been carefully stored in chronological order. The inscriptions were questions for the ancestors of the mighty Shang kings, who ruled from 1750 to 1027 BC.
They were the only written records of a vanished civilization. In the 14th century BC, the warrior-king Pan Geng had initiated a new era in the Shang dynasty when he moved his capital north from Yan – a place not yet identified – to the site of Anyang. He called his new city Yin, and historians refer to this second Shang era, which lasted until 1027 BC, as Yin, and to its rulers as Shangyin. Little was known about the period until the excavations at Anyang. By 1937, more than 100,000 objects had been unearthed, and the inscribed ‘bones’ – including ox shoulder-blades and the lower shells of turtles – were recognized as tools of divination.
Yin spread across several sites near present-day Anyang. At the nearby village of Xiaotun, the foundations of 53 large buildings were excavated, including those of a single-storey royal palace built on several large terraces. The buildings had evidently been part of an important ceremonial complex – following an earlier tradition hundreds of human sacrifices had been placed beneath them.
The victims may have been prisoners, captured in the wars waged against neighbouring communities by Shang kings such as the great Wuding of the 13th century BC. The palace itself was the heart of Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. The 20 buildings which made up the palace had been built along both sides of a central street.
The larger buildings were about 40 m (131 ft) long and 10 m (33 ft) wide, and – on the evidence of the marble sculptures, woodcarvings, and bronzes discovered in the royal tombs – richly decorated. Space, light, and luxury were the exclusive privileges of the royal family and the court. The ordinary people of Yin lived in holes in the ground, in pits and dugouts of many shapes and sizes. The pits, which were probably roofed with thatch, were between 3 m and 4 m (10 ft and 13 ft) deep. Steps led down to a rammed earth floor, in which smaller pits were dug for storage purposes.
The inscriptions on the bones found at the site offer the most important evidence about life under the Shang dynasty. These inscriptions preserve the earliest known Chinese writing and confirm the historical basis of some legends; they also record everyday life in Yin. Many inscriptions seek predictions for the day’s hunting. This pastime seems to have been a royal sport – to provide animals for sacrifice rather than for food. The Shangyin were essentially farmers. Questions inscribed on the bones reveal their staple crops:
‘Is this a year to grow rice?’
‘Is this a year to grow millet?’
Back came the answers inscribed by diviners:
‘This year is a good year for sorghum.’
‘Go out and harvest the wheat.’
Some inscriptions show that the Shangyin knew how to breed silkworms and make silk fabrics. Traces of silk wrappings have been found in one of the Yin tombs, around a bronze vessel. Of the hundreds of bronze vessels discovered in the tombs, more than half were used for wine. Alcohol played an important role in the social life of the city, and in its religious rituals. Wine made of fermented cereals was used in sacrificial rites, and libations were poured onto the ground after burials.
The royal burial chambers lay at Xibeigang, north of Yin. Each tomb contains several bodies, and is surrounded by subsidiary tombs. On the death of a Shang king, his intimate followers and servants were buried with him – as many as 500 people were sacrificed at each royal death. In most of the tombs, the skeletons of dogs were found next to the royal sarcophagus, guarding their master against the evils of the spirit world. In one area, an entire company of soldiers and four charioteers with horses and vehicles had been buried.