The Shang were the first Chinese people to invent writing. The Shang people, who lived over 3,000 years ago, etched characters (pictures) onto bones. Shang writing is known as 'oracle bone script'. Other ancient scripts, such as Egypt's hieroglyphics, fell out of use, but oracle bone script developed into the modern characters, which Chinese people still use today. One of the ways Shang kings communicated with their ancestors was by writing questions on shells and bones. A diviner would apply a heated rod to the backs of the bones. The cracks that formed were interpreted as the ancestors’ answers to the written questions. The shells and bones are known as 'oracle bones'. The oracle bones provide a great deal of information about Shang life – from military activities, harvest, crop, and weather forecasts, to their families, illnesses, travels, and pastimes such as hunting. Most of the Shang oracle bones date from about 1200 to 1000 BCE.
In this activity, students learn about the structure of Shang writing, play the interactive game Can You Read Shang? and create their own oracle bones.
Suggested Time: 2-4 hours
After completing this lesson, students will be able to describe how written Chinese is different from English.
Video Clip: How the Shang Invented Writing
Video Clip: How Do We Know About the Shang
Interactive: Can You Read Shang?
Engage - Shang Writing Overview
- Watch the How the Shang Invented Writing video clip individually or as a class.
- Discuss the two questions below with the class: a. How is written Chinese different from English? b. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a pictographic written language?
- Play the game – Can You Read Shang?
- Have students share the strategies that they used to decode the different symbols.
Explore - Oracle Bones and Shang Writing
Watch the How Do We Know About the Shang video clip individually or as a class.
Discuss the questions below with the class:
- Why do you think they were called dragon bones?
- What types of questions did the Shang kings ask?
- What does the practice of oracle bones tell us about the Shang kings?
Apply - Create Your Own Oracle Bones
- Students pretend they are a Shang emperor who is facing the problems, listed below as questions. You can add others as well. What questions would they write? Students must use at least two of the words and Shang characters below in their questions.
- Your child, and heir to the throne, wants to go hunting for the first time. Should they we let him or her?
- It has not stopped raining in weeks and some worry that the crops this season will be ruined. What should we do?
- A group from outside your territory has attacked several villages. Do we attack or set up our defences?
- On a piece of paper, students draw and outline of a bone fragment and cut out from the paper. They should write the questions on the paper and include the Shang characters.
- Crumble the paper up. Look at the lines caused by it and write a short story about what an ancient Chinese diviner might have seen in those lines.
- Students can create their own characters for the other words, based upon a visual representation of that word. They should draw their character and include a translation of the word below it.