The traditional Chinese city articulates two fundamental functions: It captures Qi, the heavenly breath, and it redistributes that Qi to that portion of Earth for which it is responsible. The flow of Qi into the city is natural and continuous, but understanding how to use Qi requires the managers of the city know the will of Heaven. Divination is used to ascertain Heaven's will.     Last updated 03/27/2017.


The design on this Late Neolithic pot is relatively common from the early Middle Neolithic onwards and occurs on a variety of vessel forms. It is most often surrounded by circles, as we have seen for most of the nine-in-one square representations. By the end of the Middle Neolithic it has become the symbolic basis for divination.


A less common Neolithic design is the nine-in-one square surrounded by circles, with squares 1, 3, 7 and 9 decorated with three or four cross lines that divide squares into four or five compartments. The axes of the square are rotated 45 degrees, so that the 1-5-9 axis points NW-SE and the 3-5-7 axis points NE-SW, assuming that the normal N-S axis is a vertical line passing through the pot.

In this example, notice the large white dot in the upper dark square. Perhaps it's too great a stretch, but this could represent Polaris.


Another Yangshao Culture (5000 to 3000 BC) vessel with the rotated 9-in-1 square. From the John Young Museum of Art.

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The ceramic designs above are notable because of the evidence for early divination using tortoise and turtle shells. From the Early Neolithic onwards, they were used in sacrifices, and the upper shell and lower plastron sewed together to create boxes, usually filled with light and dark colored stones. But from some 1,500 years before the Xia Dynasty, during the middle Neolithic, we have one of these boxes into which has been sewed the jade plate illustrated to the left. Here we have our nine-in-one square forming the center field in a nine-in-one circle.

One very early Chinese description of the creation of the world indicates that there was a time when it was still incomplete, when the dome of heaven truncated the earth, leaving portions of it outside and unfinished. Some have suggested that is what this drawing symbolizes. What other explanations might you suggest?


Examples of scapulas used in osteomancy from the Neolithic sites of Fuhegoumen, Kangjia, and Xichuan Xiawnggang.

Dring the Neolithic, osteomancy emerges and develops into two forms. One form involves burning in pits and chisel slits, usually on the plastron of a turtle or tortoise. Meanings are assigned to the pits and slots. The plastron is then heated to induce cracking and the distribution of cracks interpreted in their relationship to the pits and their assigned meanings. This works well as long as there is no need for a permanent record or any problem with cheating in order to achieve a predetermined outcome.

Get a detailed summary of oracle bone use.


How scapulas and tortoise plastrons were prepared.

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Tortoise plastron used in osteomancy.


In the other form of osteomancy, a turtle plastron, scapula or other bone is divided into numbered fields and then inscribed with a question for which a divine answer is sought. It is then heated to induce cracking and the cracks interpreted in relationship to the question being asked.
   Written inscriptions are necessary if an impartial record is required to demonstrate to the world the divine intent and the actions taken to fulfill those divine instructions. As a result, many of the first extensively preserved texts occur in this form and are the basis for some of the earliest historic records from China.


This is a small archive of ox scapulae recovered from Anyang and dating to the 11th and 12th centuries B.C. Most of these deal with the dates and other particulars of sacred rites.


This is a large archive of tortoise and turtle shell plastrons recovered from Anyang. Notice the skeleton at the right.

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This figure explains how oracle one inscriptions are interpreted. At a minimum, an inscription includes a Preface (time and name of questioner) and a Charge (the question). If the answer (via heating & cracking) is obscure or complex, the questioner (usually a king) ads a Prognostication, usually in the form of a prediction about what will happen if certain actions are, or are not, taken. After the event, a Verification statement may be added, recording what actually happened. These inscribed bones were then saved, creating an official archive that recorded the interchange between the worldly state and the heavenly authority. In other words, proof that the state faithfully carried out the Mandate of Heaven.

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