The Language of the Huayuanzhuang East Oracle Bone Inscriptions

Project: Research project

Project Details


The Huayuanzhuang East oracle bone inscriptions, discovered in 1991 and published in six folio volumes in 2003, are a synchronically compact and unified corpus of 2452 individual divination accounts inscribed on 529 (345 completely intact) turtle shells and bovine scapulae. Produced during the late Shang period (ca. 1250-1045), China’s first historical dynasty, and sanctioned under the patronage of an adult male of the royal family, this recent discovery now stands as one of the most important epigraphic finds in the history of Early China studies. What the field of Early China has needed for quite some time is more intact oracle bone discoveries that leverage a corpus-based and data- driven approach to make a systematic and holistic study of the language of the inscriptions from the perspective of the experts who produced them. A clear model of what the inscriptions mean is required before proceeding to do other things with them.

The ideal Shang oracle bones are those that have come to us unbroken and with their full context of other shells and pieces. Prior to this discovery such conditions have been rare. Although they had become disjointed and separated during their disposal, the majority of the inscriptions can be linked together in integral divination sets that lead to reconstructed timelines that span periods of weeks or months. The reorganized materials produce what is essentially China’s earliest daily planner. The divination accounts are remarkably linguistically transparent and well preserved, homogeneous in orthography and content, and published to an unprecedentedly high standard, which makes them ideal material for reading the epigraphic texts and explaining their language. Scholarship on the language and grammar of oracle bone divinations produced on behalf of royal family members, which comprises approximately five percent of the total inscriptional corpus and is the type to which the Huayuanzhuang East inscriptions belong, is understudied and can be woven neatly into well-established scholarship on the language of oracle bone divinations produced for the Shang kings. This project will enhance our knowledge of Shang oracle bone language, still very imperfectly understood, as well as to contribute in important ways to knowledge about Shang divination practices, the methods of scribes and diviners, and the daily life and concerns of the powerful patrons whose hopes and fears drove the divination process.
Effective start/end date1/09/1931/08/22


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