Shang (c.1600 - 1066 B.C.) & Zhou (1066 - 771 B.C.) Dynasties  

Shang Dynasty Territory


Inscriptions on oracle bones were widely considered to be one of the earliest forms of writing in ancient China. As early as 3600 years ago, during the Shang Dynasty ( 商朝 ), its use was already widespread. The Shang people’s deep belief in ghosts and spirits prompted them to seek otherworldly advice through divinations. These inscriptions carved on tortoise plastrons and animal scapulae served to record the auspicious or inauspicious results of the divinations sought by the priests. The oracle bones yield information concerning the Shang Dynasty’s wars, agriculture, mythology, history, and so on. They revealed a mythical element that pervaded all aspects of their daily lives.  


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Oracle Bone Inscriptions on different shapes of bones. These are the early masterpieces of Chinese calligraphy.




Writing Oracle Bone Inscriptions with an extra fine brush


Writing Bronze Inscriptions with an extra fine brush



Although Oracle Bone Inscriptions (Gia Gu Wen, 甲骨文 ) already existed 3600 years ago, they were not discovered until 1899, during Emperor Guan-Hsu’s ( 光緒皇帝 ) reign in the Ching Dynasty. The Institution of History and Philology of the Academia Sinica carried out a series of excavations and archaeological fieldwork at Hsiao-Tun Village ( 小屯村 ) , An-Yang County ( 安陽縣 ) of the Henan Province ( 河南省 ), from 1928 to 1937. Many tortoise shells and animal bones were uncovered, drawing a large number of scholars and experts to study and interpret the inscriptions. As a result, the study of Oracle Bone Inscriptions has emerged to be a new topic of Chinese calligraphy.  

Zhou Dynasty Territory


Later Gia Gu Wen was still used in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) although Great Seal Style (Da Zuan, 大篆 ) was also used at that time. Great Seal Style was a transitional type of writing between Gia Gu Wen and Small Seal Style (Shiao Zuan, 小篆 ). Gia Gu Wen already was written very artistically. Yet the total number of decipherable characters of Oracle Bone Inscriptions was about 2000. Recently, the decipherable numbers of Gia Gu Wen have increased.

Following Gia Gu Wen were inscriptions cast or carved on ancient bronze objects of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. They are called “Jin Wen 金文” (literally, script on metal) and, as ancient bronzes are generally referred to as “zhong ding, 鐘鼎” (bells and tripods), it is also called Bronze Inscriptions (Zhong Ding Wen 鐘鼎文 ).




The bells and tripods became a ritual object and a sign of power, and the owning of such tripods was a status symbol of the Shang slave-owning aristocrats. At the beginning only the names of the owners were cast or engraved on the tripods. Later the tripods and other bronzes began to carry longer inscriptions stating the uses they were put to and the dates they were cast. The contents might include wars, treaties, agriculture, and history. Thus the inscriptions on bronze objects grew longer, from a few characters to a few hundred, from simple phrases or pictures to detailed statements and treaties and thus the varieties of calligraphy styles increased.


San Shu Pan ( 散氏盤 ) or San Pan ( 散盤 )

The Real San Shu Pan vs. Duplicated Ones




Mao Gong Ding 毛公鼎

A very famous bronze called Mao Gong Ding ( 毛公鼎 ), now kept in Taiwan, belongs to the late Western Zhou Dynasty. It bears an inscription of 497 characters, the longest ever discovered on any bronze unearthed. It is an account of how the king of the Zhou Dynasty, Xuan ( 宣王 ),  admonished, commended and awarded Mao Gong Yin; it also reveals the instability of the Western Zhou regime at the time. 







Bronze inscribed with ancient Chinese characters can be seen in many museums around the world. The total number of pieces of Oracle Bone Inscriptions and Bronze Inscriptions is difficult to be estimated - the number can be from a half million to several millions.


Selected Samples of Bronze Inscriptions


Samples of Bronze Vessels & Other Artifacts

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Drawings of Shang Dynasty ritual vessels. Note the oroborus-like dragon or serpent that is depicted inside the bowl (fig. 5). The oroborus is a quite universal symbol that refers to the serpent-like ecliptic paths of the sun and the moon and their cyclical nature. The "mask" on the side of the vessel depicted in figure 6 may be interpreted as a form of winged eye symbol.


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Recommended Reading & Viewing

Ritual Bronze Vessels

Comparison Charts of Gia Gu Wen and Kai Shu Characters

pdf file


Google Images Search 


中國甲骨文 DVD (10碟裝) (Out of Print)

京都大學藏甲骨文字 N/A


Two Volumes of Rubbings of Bronze Inscriptions


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