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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Contextual hierarchies in the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions Fowler, Vernon Keith


In this thesis I discuss the nature and significance of three different layers of linguistic context that may be discerned in the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions. I refer to these three contextual layers by the abbreviated Chinese titles duizhen, chengtao and tongban. I hope to show by this examination that the Shang oracle-bone inscriptions are not simply divinatory texts, but also comparatively sophisticated documents of an empirical and bureaucratic nature. I also show how each layer contributes a new understanding of the oracle-bone inscriptions, especially with regard to decipherment. I examine the three layers as follows: 1. Duizhen Duizhen buci [Chinese Characters] or ‘antithetical pairs’ refers to the the pairs of divinations in OBI which both contain the same subject matter, but one of which is expressed in the positive mode and the other in the negative mode. This chapter is divided into two parts: a. After a brief introduction on the possible significance of the direction of writing in various cultures as well as in China, I conclude (following Dong Zuobin) that the usual direction of writing in Shang times was probably the same as in historical times (i.e. vertical columns proceeding from right to left). However, on the oracle bones the usual right to left direction was often reversed in order to create a kind of symmetry between the antithetical members of a duizhen pair, one of which would be inscribed on the right side of the shell running in one direction, and the other on the left side running in the opposite direction, so that the two inscriptions mirror each other. Individual graphs were also sporadically reversed. I suggest that the symmetrical arrangement of the inscriptions on the plastron was inspired by the natural symmetry of the plastron itself, but that the use of antithetical propositions in the divination ritual was intended to influence the course of events in the Shang's favour. This influence was achieved by the use of the particle [Chinese Characters] , which served to distance undesired eventualities. b. It is a feature of duizhen that quite often the positively phrased member will be inscribed on the right side of the shell, and the negatively phrased member on the left side. Some scholars have suggested that the Shang, in common with many other cultures, regarded the left as 'sinister', and therefore inscribed what they wanted to happen on the right, and what they did not want to happen on the left, hoping in this way to influence the actual outcome of the divination. However, sometimes the negatively phrased member is inscribed on the right side, and the positively phrased member on the left side. Some of these exceptions may be explained in terms of illocutionary force (e.g. in divinations containing disaster graphs, in which case a negated disaster, although grammatically negative, is positive in illocution, and thus would be placed on the right side, and its grammatically positive counterpart on the left side). However, there is also a small number of exceptions which simply have to be accepted as exceptions. I conclude from this that, although the antithetical pairing of positively and negatively phrased divinations, along with the use of the distancing particle, qi [Chinese Characters], probably had a ritual and magicalsignificance, which member was placed on the right and which on the left was probably not the result of conscious effort, but of subconscious psychology. Clear-cut exceptions help to prevent us from feeling that we have to, or indeed can, force either a positive or negative meaning onto ambiguous inscriptions simply because of the side of the plastron on which they occur. 2. Chengtao jiagu [Chinese Characters] ’shells and bones which form sets’ refers to the phenomenon of sets of five plastrons (and also, but more rarely, scapulae) whose inscriptions duplicate each other to a large extent, but sometimes with significant differences. By comparing all the members of such a set, and exploring the ways in which they differ, much light can be thrown on the decipherment of the inscriptions that occur in such sets. It is not known how widespread this phenomenon was, as only a handful of such sets have been found. I examine all the sets and part sets in Bingbian (the only collection in which such sets have been assembled), and discuss the variations found within each set. The use of such sets represents a stage in the formalisation of the divination process, a formalisation which led to simplification, so that by the time of Period V even the duizhen had almost disappeared. 3. Tongban Tongban buci [Chinese Characters] simply means ‘inscriptions occurring on the same plastron'. The context in OBI is very limited, and this makes it very difficult to be sure that one has interpreted a divinatory sentence correctly. It would therefore be very useful if one could expand the context of single inscriptions by relating them to other inscriptions on the same plastron, but many tongban inscriptions at first sight appear to be quite unrelated. In this chapter, I examine how far it is justified to relate different inscriptions on the same plastron by appealing to the three criteria of: 1) cyclical dating; 2) shared vocabulary; and 3) grammatical parallelism. An examination of cyclical dating, in conjunction with the placement of the inscriptions on the plastron, suggests that none of the inscriptions were made until the last affair predicted for had been verified or otherwise by actual events. The record-keeping process which I infer from this suggests that on many plastrons the various affairs divined about formed a homogeneous context in the Shang world. Using this as a piece of corroborative evidence for my underlying assumption that most if not all of the inscriptions on a plastron are related in some way, I then go on to explore the sort of relationships between different inscriptions that can be established through the examination of shared vocabulary and grammatical parallelism. The establishment of such relationships helps to affirm the correctness of the interpretation of individual inscriptions. I conclude this chapter with a discussion of the sort of divinations that one can expect to see on a plastron, and the sort of connections that may exist between them. In particular I argue that many plastrons, though by no means all, will contain a main topic, with possibly one or more contingent topics, together with divinations concerning the possibility of curses from the ancestors, and the proposal of methods (i.e. various sacrifices) by which the ancestors might be propitiated.

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