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

Hexagram 38. Kui, Diversity, Disharmony, Estrangement, A wagon carrying devils

It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.


Kui Diversity
— Li Fire
— Dui Lake

Hexagram 38
Fire above
Lake below
Fire, in the upper position, rises upward, and lake in the lower position sinks downward.Therefore, the movement of this hexagram is one of separation. In addition, fire symbolizes the middle daughter, while lake symbolizes the youngest daughter: two sisters who live in the same house disagree.

Separation. Opposition.To squint.To stare. Unusual,

The Statement
In small matters: fortune.

gua38The Gua, Kui, Early Form.

ESTRANGEMENT is the very opposite of family. It can happen to every other kind of relationship as well. A longtime friend suddenly becomes cold. A comrade who usually supports us turns hostile. We seek allies for a
project, but find others against us. Frustrated, we begin to think the worst of others, and we drag out the barricades.
Opposition leads to separation. Separation leads to alienation. If the two sides never build new bridges between them, the separation becomes lasting. Alienation results, and the situation becomes dangerous: No revolution was
ever begun by happy people. Revolts come from the disenfranchised. When Di Xin degenerated into drunkenness and debauchery, ruling by murder rather than reason, others in his government began to oppose him.
King Wen, in a separate fiefdom that still owed allegiance to the Shang dynasty, also opposed the emperor’s moral lapses. Both Di Xin’s more enlightened ministers and King Wen first tried to change the situation diplomatically. But as communication with Di Xin became more difficult, opposition grew. The Shang dynasty might not have been overthrown by the Zhou had Di Xin heard what was being said and had he worked to remedy the difficulties of estrangement.
Opposition. Separation. Alienation. Once these three factors became overwhelming, there was no saving Di Xin .
Opposition can be positive if it is managed correctly. Democratic government incorporates opposition. By having at least two sides ruling, there is a constant struggle within the government to find the superior choice in any situation. Excesses are balanced, and the government is animated by the opposing forces. Just as it takes two people to move a teeter-totter, it takes at least two political parties to make a democracy work.Such embracing of opposition implies that the best results cannot be gained by one person’s judgment. We do not trust any one person or any one political view to lead our country. We want opposing sides in balance against one another. This system is not perfect. It can also degenerate into estrangement, and the inherent inefficiency of human endeavors can sometimes dominate the process. In the long run, however, there will be progress. If we delve deeper into this hexagram, we will find that it has multiple meanings, like the other hexagrams, and that these meanings must be understood simultaneously. Opposition, separation, and estrangement can refer to the separation of things. They also refer to the very yin-yang dichotomy that underlies all assumptions in the Changes. Thus, opposition, separation, and alienation can refer to separation or can refer to the inherent tension that animates all things. Nevertheless, we have to know what to do in the time of estrangement. The Statement tells us that this is a situation where the forces of separation are dominant and we can succeed only in small matters. We have to accept our circumstances and work within those limitations.

The Image closes with the timeless observation that a leader can never truly be like the masses. A leader is different—strange—but that is the way it is. Although we must work with others, we must remain individuals and continue to cultivate our personal excellence. Frankly, people can turn on you at any time. The risks for a leader are considerable. If you must lead, fulfill your responsibilities but realize that you must maintain your own resources
should you and the multitude one day part. Fire above the lake means that there are times when the leader must separate from the gather throng below. Fire above the lake also means that when the opposing forces of a society are
joined (as the lake pools all streams), wisdom rises like the sun. Only then is there a chance of some small success in the time of estrangement.Devils in a Cart

As I consulted the I-ching today, My changing Line was:

■ Top yang : Disharmony results in isolation ; see a pig covered with mire, a wagon carrying devils . First you
draw the bow, later you put the bow down . It is not an enemy but a partner . Going on, it is fortunate if you
encounter rain.
At the extreme of disharmony, the mind of Tao has been long buried away, and people don’t pay attention to it; this is disharmony resulting in isolation. With the mind of Tao buried away and the human mentality taking charge of affairs, the influence of habit becomes one’s nature, and doubts and ruminations come forth by the hundreds; this is being like a pig covered with mire, a wagon full of devils.
If you want to restore the mind of Tao, it is necessary to first understand the human mind. But to understand it, it is important to see it :Seeing it as a pig, as devilish, is truly seeing the human mentality and how injurious it is. Once you can see and understand it clearly, your former use of the human mind without understanding is like first drawing a bow, while your later ability to understand and restore the mind of Tao is like afterward putting the bow down. Without the human mind, you don’t see the mind of Tao; without the mind of Tao, you cannot know the human mind. Using the human mind temporarily to restore the mind of Tao, even though the human mind is
the chief of villains, it is also the chief in merit ; it is not an enemy, but really a partner. Once the human mind is seen and the mind of Tao is restored, at this point if you empty the human mind and activate the mind of
Tao, and go on to solve disharmony, then yin and yang combine harmoniously. It is like encountering rain, which washes away the filth of all the pollution of the past, so one is restored to original wholeness and soundness . What can compare to that fortune? This is taking advantage of the time to solve disharmony, inasmuch as disharmony must ultimately be reconciled. So, using the Mind to kill the mind….I may have left you with more Questions then Answers with this post, but that will help you more then me laying it all out for you. Stay Gold….

Art work; A wagon carrying devils , Copyright 2015

Sources: The complete I ching : the definitive translation from the Taoist Master Alfred Huang., The Living
I Ching By: Deng Ming-Dao, The Taoist I Ching Translated by Thomas Cleary.

Hexagram 38. Kui, Diversity, Disharmony, Estrangement, A wagon carrying devils was originally published on The Hidden Left Hand