History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: Bone Script During Shang Dynasty

What is the Shang Dynasty ?

Where did Chinese writing come from? It appears that the first characters were not written with brush and ink, but rather inscribed on bones. It was in the Shang Dynasty (商朝, c. 1600-1050 BCE) that characters first appeared as a fully developed linguistic system. Although there have been clear examples of meaningful marks on artifacts from slightly before the Shang, these did not often appear in sequence, and are thought to be clan markings denoting ownership of elite goods.

The Shang was not really a Dynasty in the way we think of the Tang or Song. Indeed, this period is often known as the pre-dynastic period. Although there was a largely coherent feudal economic system in place over much of the Chinese mainland, it was held together not by rigid central government bureaucracy, but rather by a feudal tribute system. In this way, the Shang, from a political or bureaucratic standpoint, shares very little with later dynasties.

Early Writing in the Shang Dynasty

Writing was developed in the Shang as a way of standardizing prognostication and spirit-communication rituals. The practice of burning and cracking bones in a ritual context appeared before the rise of the Shang, but it wasn’t until the emergence of a large state with accompanying royalty that there was a move by elites to standardize ritual conduct. It may be argued that this standardization was carried out in order to solidify the privileged status of elites by controlling ‘readings’ of the bones more closely.

It is interesting to note that unlike the earliest Western scripts such as cuneiform, Chinese characters were not developed for use in keeping records of manufactured or farmed goods, but rather for use in a ritual context. This may have been one of the defining factors that caused characters to retain their pictographic essence long after the Western writing systems had become strictly phonetic.

Osteopyromancy: Tortoise Shell Writing in the Shang Dynasty

In the Shang method of osteopyromancy (a magnificent word that means the magical or mantic burning of bones), the under-shell or plastron of a tortoise was often used. The tortoise was so highly regarded as a magical and important animal that, even today, the tortoise is one of the few animals to have its own specific radical and character (龜/Guī).

The precise process of preparing and using the plastrons is remarkably well-documented. In advance of the burning and inscribing, the back or interior of the plastron was carved with a series of pits. Then, the “charge” was given in the form of a pair of symmetrical statements, one in the positive, one negative (honouring a certain ancestor will bring a good harvest, or honouring a given ancestor will not bring a good harvest). Once the charge was applied, a ritual specialist would declare how the cracks would be read, and he would apply a hot implement to the pits in the back until the plastron visibly cracked.

The Evolution of Characters in Chinese Writing

The evolution of Chinese characters up to their modern form is an important topic for those pursuing the calligraphic arts. As you can see from the chart below, the evolution of Chinese characters was by no means a quick process. Even so, the degree to which characters have changed over time is not consistent. For some more specific characters, again as in the case of 龜, the character still bears a striking resemblance to that which it originally represented.