Dragon Bones

   A possibly apocryphal tale tells of how the scholarly Wang I-Yung, dean of Hanlin College in the city of Peking, came to discover the secret of the dragon bones and illuminate a part of the re­mote Chinese past that had van­ished into legend years before. In 1899, when Wang's family came down with the chills and fever of malaria, their doctor prescribed a concoction containing decayed tortoise shell—fragments popularly called dragon bones—which the patient was expected to grind himself. Wang was intrigued by the compound that was subsequently delivered to his house, for the fragments of turtle shell were covered with markings that had to be some sort of writing.

   According to the view then prevailing, prehistoric China had been ruled by several dynasties, but only the last, called the Chou, was well documented by artifacts and records. The preceding dynasty, called Shang, was regarded by most scholars as nothing more than myth. But the inscriptions noticed by Wang I-Yung suggested that the supposedly legendary Shang dynasty had really existed. For years, the merchants who sold the dragon bones to doctors and curio collectors guarded their secret sources jealously. Finally, in 1910, scholars learned that the shells came from around the city of Anyang in the Henan province of eastern China. The notion of digging into the ground to learn about ancient history was anathema to most of Wang's fellow scholars, for an educated Chinese man was not supposed to dirty his hands with manual labor. But in 1928, the Chinese government broke with tradition, authorizing a full-scale archaeological dig at the Anyang site. Directing the project was Li Chi, who combined both Eastern and Western approaches to scholarship: His classical Chinese education had been capped with a Harvard doctorate in archaeology.

   Li's excavations revealed that Anyang was once the capital of the Shang dynasty, which flourished from about 1750 to 1100 BC. Great Shang, as it was called, boasted a palace ninety-two feet long, flanked by workshops where skilled artisans once made exquisite porcelains and ornamented bronze bowls. Underground corridors lined with skeletons hinted grimly at human sacrifice.

   Decades of further digging at Anyang yielded about 100,000 inscribed "dragon bones," from tiny fragments to whole turtle shells, and inscribed cattle shoul­der blades. The bones, scholars discovered, were actually used as oracles in Shang society, and the inscriptions were questions and answers about every aspect of life, from warfare and marriage to health and the planting of crops. Pieced together and translated, the oracle bones offered an extraordinary glimpse into everyday life in China more than 3000 years ago and restored a vanished dynasty to its prehistoric throne.