From Oracle Bones to the I Ching: History

Let us start out with the historical origins of the I Ching, which, as is well-known, can be traced back to ancient China. Divination was a widespread practice deeply ingrained in the cultural and spiritual fabric of society. People sought answers and guidance by observing signs, interpreting symbols, and consulting oracles.

Divination with Oracle Bones during the Shang Dynasty

One of the earliest forms of divination was conducted using oracle bones, a practice dating back to the Shang Dynasty (approximately 1600-1000 BC). For this practice shoulder blades of sacrificial animals, mostly cattle, were used as oracle bones, later also turtle shells. The oracle bones were carefully selected, cleaned, and prepared to achieve a flat surface. A ritually determined number of holes in a specific pattern were then drilled into the resulting plate, and during the subsequent consultation the plate was heated until cracks and fissures appeared. However, the system for interpreting these cracks remains undeciphered to this day.

The inquiries made during the consultations covered a wide range of topics, including future weather, harvests, the fate of members of the royal family, military campaigns, hunting fortunes, ancestral matters, and auspicious dates for sacrifices. The consultations often held a political dimension as well since the Shang rulers sought to legitimize themselves by demonstrating their ability to communicate with ancestors or the supreme deity, for example, through the use of oracle bones.

Accurate Documentation of Consultations

Over time, approximately 150,000 oracle bones have been discovered through archaeological excavations, many of which bear early Chinese characters. Some of these oracle bones not only contain a preface and epilogue but also mention the place and date of the consultation, the name of the oracle priest, details about the question asked, the number of cracks that appeared with their description, a prediction, and subsequent verification for accuracy. This meticulous documentation of the consultations, along with the presence of numerical symbols on the oracle bones, suggests that the practice of oracle consultation was extensively studied in a systematic manner, with a particular emphasis on the art of questioning.

The inscriptions on the oracle bones encompass approximately 5,000 different characters, but only about 1,200 of them have been identified with certainty thus far.

History of the I Ching’s Origins

It remains unclear whether the inscriptions on the oracle bones can be considered the origins of the I Ching, or if the I Ching, a method of oracle consultation using yarrow stalks, was employed concurrently with the bone oracle during the Shang period.

The oldest parts of the I Ching that have been passed down as Textus receptus, date back to the 8th century B.C. These parts consist of a collection of oracle vocabulary, ancient songs, and traditional folk wisdom compiled by one or possibly multiple authors.

Authenticity of the Text Material

The written preservation of orally transmitted material is noteworthy because the Chinese language has a unique characteristic: Spoken text, when heard, inherently possesses ambiguity and automatically encodes multiple meanings. Since the authors of the written material surely took this phenomenon into account during their transcriptions, the interpretation of a written text should always consider both the pictorial expressiveness of the written character and the ambiguities and variations of meaning that arise during pronunciation.

Furthermore, it is worth considering that approximately 1,000 years elapsed between the first written preservation of the oldest parts of the transmitted I Ching (8th century BC) and the creation of the stelae that form the stone classics (175 AD). What happened to the (written) textual material during this time? Were there text variants? What socio-cultural or political factors contributed to the selection of the specific material that eventually became the Textus receptus?

Various archaeological discoveries have been made since then, notably at Mawangdui in 1972 and Shuanggudui in 1977. These excavations unearthed copies of the I Ching that are considerably older than the known received text and also display significant deviations from it. Consequently, it is justifable to question the accuracy and authenticity of the current textual material we have as the I Ching (referred to as the Textus receptus; for more information, please refer to the comprehensive article on the Textus receptus.)


“Orakelknochen.” 2023. In Wikipedia.
“Oracle Bone Script.” 2023. In Wikipedia.
“Oracle Bone.” 2023. In Wikipedia.

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