Historical Wonders of Anyang, China

Anyang is one of the seven ancient cities in China, and is considered the place where Chinese culture originated. Historically, Anyang is significant because it is where the oracle bones scripts, the foundation of modern Chinese characters, were found. Of the three oldest writing systems in the world, only oracle bone inscriptions were developed into a form of writing that has remained in use to this day. Anyang was also where the tomb of Fu Hao, a queen and military general from the Shang Dynasty, was excavated. The well-preserved objects and oracle bone inscriptions in the tomb of Fu Hao proved the existence of the Shang Dynasty and its highly developed agricultural society.
The Burial Pit inside of Fu Hao’s tomb
The Burial Pit inside of Fu Hao’s tomb
Oracle bones
Oracle bones
The Shang Dynasty was founded around 1599 BCE, although its origins are unknown. For a variety of reasons, the dynasty moved its capital city several times but the twentieth King, Pan Gen, moved his capital to Yin (the current Anyang) around 1300 BC and settled in this city.

In 1899, a scholar, Wang Yirong, was suffering from malaria. Traditional Chinese medication was prescribed to treat his disease. A carved bone, which was one of the ingredients of his medication, caught his attention and he concluded that these bones could be samples of China's earliest writing. The bones were indeed traced to Yinxu (“ruins of Yin”, or today’s Anyang) in the Henan province, the capital of the late Shang Dynasty. Since that time, over 150,000 pieces of Oracle bone inscriptions have been excavated from this location.
Oracle bone inscriptions
Oracle bone inscriptions
Over 3,000 years ago, animal bones were used to record things. Research suggests that the inscriptions were mainly used for divination during the Shang dynasty. The rulers of the Shang Dynasty were very superstitious, and divination was a daily part of almost every activity, ranging from forecasting the weather and farming, to seeking good health and auspicious weddings. Each oracle bone used has two halves—a positive one and a negative one, with holes drilled in each half. When the holes are heated with a burning stick, the bone forms cracks. The king would interpret these cracks to find answers to important questions. Subsequently, information about the oracle was carved onto the bone itself, forming an inscribed oracle bone. The bones not only were used in divination, but also for recording activities and results. Today's Chinese characters are based on and developed from the writing on these oracle bones.

Excavations at Yinxu have been ongoing, but many Shang tombs in Yinxu were looted before researchers had a chance to excavate. In recent times, archeologists discovered a smaller and totally undisturbed tomb near the Royal tombs in 1976. This tomb was identified as the final resting place of the queen and military general, Fu Hao, who died around 1250 BCE and who was one of King Wu Ding’s many wives. Inside the tomb, in addition to the remains of the queen, there were also 6 dog skeletons, 16 human slave skeletons, and over 1,900 objects, including pieces of bronze vessels, jade and gem objects, pottery, and other items of huge archaeological value. According to the inscriptions on the bones, the owner of the tomb, Fu Hao, was not only a warrior, but also a government functionary who participated in state affairs and presided over royal ceremonies. These tasks were normally honorary tasks carried out by royal noblemen in ancient China. This is suggestive of Fu Hao’s unusual position—she was also the first documented female hero in China's history. The tomb was thoroughly restored as a museum and has been open to the public since 1999. In addition, it was also listed as a world heritage site on UNSECO 2006.

Forty years have passed since 1976, and more and more artifacts have been gathered, examined, and deemed connected to the Shang Dynasty. All of this information has provided important insights about the legendary Shang Dynasty. Last summer, I had the exciting opportunity of visiting this intriguing museum and seeing first-hand the brilliant legacy and history left behind by the Chinese more than three thousand years ago.
Bronzes from the tomb
Bronzes from the tomb
Samples of Oracle Bone script
Samples of Oracle Bone script:
A person leaning against a tree means rest (休);
Cross (交);
Bathing (浴 );
a Bear  (熊)
Titles related to this fascinating subject can be found in the Mercer County Library System:

Fun with Chinese Characters by Tan Huay Peng. 495.1 PEN 2003

Understanding Chinese Characters by Their Ancestral Forms by Gam Go. 495.1 GO

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis. 495.1 DEF

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler. NF 951 HES

The History of China by Kenneth Pletcher.Y 951 HIS

China: A New History by John King Fairbank. NF 951 FAI

—Jean Chou


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