How Were Oracle Bones Used in Ancient China?

oracle bone main

We are able to predict the future in a range of ways. Divination is a means used to predict the future by the usage of signs from nature and the spirit world. Oracle bones (animal bones and shells) were an Ancient Chinese source of divination. The bones remain an important historical artifact, including as an early form of Chinese writing.  

Predicting the Future 

Life has a certain steady, predictable nature.  The sun rises and sets on schedule.  

Some things are less predictable.  These things, however, often can be determined with a certain degree of reliability.  A basic example here would be the weather.  

And, certain people would be able to better see and analyze certain signs to do so.  For instance, a sailor would be more likely to understand that “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”  The sailor here would be able to predict the future.  

We have special methods in the modern world to study meteorological (weather) events.  Traditionally, let’s say in some ancient societies, there were much fewer such tools. Nonetheless, the same basic thing happened: certain experts were able to predict the future.   

The Practice of Divination

Divination is an ancient attempt to predict the future by reading various types of signs found in nature.  Again, this is not merely a mystical process that tries to interpret the spiritual world.  There are some signs of nature that in a quite scientific fashion provide hints of the future.  

People did and still do try to obtain meaning from things that offer no scientific reason to rely on them.  A prime example is those who follow their horoscopes, believing that the position of stars in the sky can be used to guide their lives.  

People over the years believed a range of things could be used to tell the future. Ancient Romans, for instance, believed that you could determine the future by observing lightning strikes or the habits of birds.  The insides of animals, already used for sacrifices to the gods, also were believed to have special meaning.  

What are Oracles?

And, like some having special abilities to predict the weather, certain people became experts at reading such signs.  These would be priests or shamans.  

A person who is able to tell the future also is known as an “oracle” (which means “to speak” and is the source of the word “oration”).  

An oracle is also the name of the place where the future can be told.  The Delphi Oracle was a famous one in Ancient Greece.  And, an “oracle” can be a tool used to tell the future such as the mysterious Urim and Thummim in the Bible.  

An oracle could be very powerful, their predictions used to determine such things as when to plant crops, schedule military battles, and agree to a marriage.  

Oracle Bones at Pitt River Museum

Oracle Bones 

Animal bones and shells were used as oracles in Ancient China.  

The shoulder blades of oxen and the undersides of turtle shells over time were believed to be the best means to predict the future.  These “oracle bones” were first used over six thousand years ago.  They became particularly popular during the  Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).

Oracle bones were believed to be a means to access the spirit world.  The fortune-teller or “diviner” would be able to use them to contact the spirits of royal ancestors, legendary figures from the past, nature deities, and other powerful spirits.  

The practice of telling the future through oracle bones is known as scapulimancy (telling the future through the scapula, the shoulder bone, of an animal), plastromancy (using a turtle’s shell) or pyromancy (the use of fire). 

Oracle Bones At Work  

A person went to the fortune teller and asked them questions such as “will I have a good harvest this year?”   

A hole or grooves would be chiseled or carved into the oracle bone.  Then, a heated rod or twig was inserted into the hole or groove.  An appeal was also made to the spirits.  

The resulting cracks were then analyzed to determine the future. 

Finally, it was seen how accurate the conclusions turned out to be.  Can you imagine ways diviners could be more correct or not? Or, is it merely chance? 

Oracle Bone symbols

First Chinese History Books

Oracle bones are important historical artifacts, objects that tell us about past civilizations.

Oracle bones tell a story. The fortune-teller recorded basic information on the bones in pictorial form.  This developed into the first Chinese writing.  

The details recorded include information about the question, the name of the diviner, the answer provided by the spirits, and if the answer turned out to be true (as well as how the person used the information).  It is the first written record of Ancient China we have.

The remaining oracle bones do provide an unbalanced view because they are generally concerned about the needs of the elite. They still provide an important window into a long ago world.   

Later Usage 

Use of oracle bones continued after the end of the Shang Dynasty.  However, other methods of divination, especially as explained by the I-Ching fortune-telling manual, became more popular.  

The lingering importance of oracle bones is shown by Mongolian divination manuals carefully explaining how to create and use them.  Mongols eventually were rulers of China.  

The Mongols were big believers in divination.  Reportedly, the Mongols found it essential before doing anything of note.  Fortune tellers in the process became quite powerful.   

Recent Discoveries

The oracle bones used for divination became popular for use in Chinese herbal medicines. These “dragon bones” were usually ground up to form medicinal powders.  

Wang Yirong, the director of the Chinese Imperial Academy, one day in 1899 obtained such medicine to deal with a bout of malaria.  But, in one of those acts of historical serendipity, he obtained an “unprocessed” batch of bones.    

Noticing the ancient writing on them, he sought out their source.  Yirong himself became a victim of the Boxer Rebellion, but other scholars also investigated. 

And, soon thousands were found and studied.  We continue to learn from these discoveries.  


Oracle bones might seem to many a somewhat silly attempt to use magical means to tell the future.  These days, we are supposed to use more scientific techniques.  

Nonetheless, analysts are not always very reliable.  What we use to predict economic trends or the best time to use military force can be quite unreliable.  

How will future historians study the diviners of the modern-day?  I wish them good luck interpreting the artifacts that we’re leaving behind. 

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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