Thursday, December 04, 2008

the voice of the turtle

“Oracle bones” is the name given to the artifacts that preserve the earliest known samples of Chinese writing. The writing was inscribed on “cattle scapula and turtle plastrons. These objects were probably used because they provide a flat surface for writing (the plastron is the undershell that protects the turtle’s belly).” The bones were then purposely cracked with heated brands in order to get divine responses to what had been written. “In subsequent ages, this kind of scapulimancy was sometimes described as ‘the voice of the turtle.’” Nobody knows exactly how the cracks on the recovered bones were interpreted in their time but many of the messages have been deciphered, for instance:

The king goes hunting in the field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.

One might suspect confirmation was hoped for. Reassurance, perhaps.

This one, a common theme apparently, is my favorite:

Tonight there will be no disasters.

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

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