The Study of Dragon Bones: Thoughts on the origin of the I Ching and Bone Divination



In order to understand what lies at the basis of the ancient Chinese system of thought represented in the I Ching, we must investigate those extremely ancient and important objects, the oracle bones. I believe the ancient Chinese Taoists achieved the true form of natural divination for the time that they lived in.The two main Western techniques: oracles and extispicy (Discovery of the underworld, Descent into hell,Tarot and Oracular establishments, Divination by entrails)and  The two main Eastern techniques: I Ching and oracle bones (Book of changes, Oracle bones, Oracular hexagonal lattice),are not entirety as far apart as it would seem.In Kostas Dervenis’s book “Oracle Bones Divination”, He describes the practice of astragalomancy—the Greek divination system using the ankle bones of an animal (in this case, a sheep). According to Dervenis, this system possibly predates the Chinese I Ching by a few thousand years.Divination by examining animal scapulae and the cracks produced in them by heating is known from many different cultures and historical periods.



In Shang China, a bone or shell, having been carefully sawn to shape, was burnished on the obverse and had hollows chiseled out on the reverse. The application of heat to the hollows on the reverse produced characteristic ├ shaped cracks on the obverse; this is the origin of the Chinese character bu 卜 (‘to divine’). The diviner interpreted the cracks as the answer to his questions, which were engraved on the polished surface alongside the cracks. Some inscriptions were also colored in with red pigment.  The oracle bone texts are the oldest extant documents written in the Chinese language. They are inscribed on ox shoulder-blades and the flat under-part of turtle shells, and record questions to which answers were sought by divination at the court of the royal house of Shang 商, which ruled central China between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C. .There are about 5000 ancient ideographs, about half of which are recognizable as precursors of modern Chinese characters.



The bones and script were used in the practice of scapulomancy: the diviner would inscribe on the bone or shell his name, the current date of the sexagesimal cycle and then inscribe two possible outcomes on the shell. Depending on how the fired object cracked, diviners would interpret the answer from them.

For example:

“Test : Tomorrow it will rain”

“Test: Tomorrow it will not rain”

The outcome was then inscribed on the bone and saved. The inscriptions are known as jiaguwen (甲骨文) or oracle bone inscriptions.

According to legend, inscriptions found on the shell of a magic tortoise revealed the eight trigrams which became the basis of the I Ching. The tortoise crawled out of the Yellow River onto the bank where Fu Hsi, a sage/folk hero, sat in 3322 B.C.E. (Some legends refer to Fu Hsi as Emperor and others to the animal coming out of the river as a dragon.) Fu Hsi assigned the present names and imagery to these eight trigrams. A second sage, called King Wen by some sources, combined each of the eight trigrams with each of the other eight trigrams, resulting in sixty-four hexagrams. King Wen also added interpretations to the hexagrams. Later Confucius and/or his followers wrote additional commentaries on each hexagram.


It is a remarkable fact that the existence of the oracle bones, the most important source of primary information about Bronze Age China, only became known as late as 1899. It was in that year that the antiquarian and philologist Wang Yirong 王懿荣 (1845-1900) first recognised the significance of fragments of bone and shell engraved with ancient script, which he is said to have found on sale in Peking as ‘dragon bones’ to be ground into a powder and used as a styptic agent. By 1903 the first book of rubbings of oracle bone inscriptions had appeared, and interest in them among collectors grew rapidly, enabling unscrupulous dealers, who were careful to conceal the ultimate source of the bones, to profit from the ignorance of enthusiasts by selling egregious fakes. Eventually the origin of the finds was revealed as a site, near the village of Xiaotun 小屯 near Anyang 安阳 in Henan Province, which had long been known as the location of the capital city of the later Shang dynasty, and where many Shang bronze vessels had also been found.


The discovery of the oracle bones, at a time when the veracity of China’s early historical records was being questioned by many scholars, caused immediate controversy. They confirmed the accounts given in the traditional histories about the Shang dynasty, whose very existence had been doubted, even validating the names and order of succession of the Shang kings. Some regarded the bones as a hoax, and it is certain that many of the early collectors fell victim to forgers. However, scientific excavations at Xiaotun, which were begun in 1928 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, established beyond doubt that the oracle bones were part of the Shang royal archive, dating from the period between 1400 and 1200 B.C. Favourable soil conditions have preserved the bones well, though in most cases they have broken into fragments. To date about 200,000 fragments have been excavated, some 50,000 of which bear inscriptions.


This is a fantastic system of Divination. I plan to devote much study and experimentation from the point of view of a modern practicing Taoist.  A set of tortoise Shells are being created for me by a Talented and skillful Artist who shall remain unnamed per her request.

Stay Gold Everyone….


C. Aylmer, Origins of the Chinese Script, London, 1981, pp.12-20

E. Ruggles, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, London, 1947, p.15

W.P. Yetts, ‘Memoir of the Author’ in L.C. Hopkins (trans.), The Six Scripts, Cambridge, 1954

Correspondence in the CUL archives between Prof. A.C. Moule and H.R. Creswick, July-October 1952

Report of the Library Syndicate for the year 1951-52, Cambridge University Reporter, Vol. 83, p.1577

F.H. Chalfant, The Hopkins Collection of Inscribed Oracle Bone, New York, 1939


The Study of Dragon Bones: Thoughts on the origin of the I Ching and Bone Divination was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand

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