Week 3: Shang “Oracle Bones” and earliest writing

Sept. 7 – Sept. 13

Check you have completed your assignments for Week 2. There will be opportunities to rewrite posts, or do extra feedback comments for extra credit.

Table of Contents for week 3:

Introduction and Background

Accompanying slides (Gdrive link)

This week we jump back in time, to the earliest writing found on Chinese territory that we can read: materials from the Shang dynasty, located in central northern China ca. 1600 BCE-1046 BCE (a long long time ago!)

Did you know that Chinese characters form one of the few writing systems that developed independently? They had a big influence across East Asia: written Chinese became the written language on the Korean peninsula, in Japan, and in Vietnam, and affected the spoken language, too. (FYI: The western alphabet is ultimately derived from the Phoenician alphabet)

The Shang dynasty is the earliest attested archaeological culture that corresponds to a state in northern China. In traditional mythology, there is an earlier state named Xia, but archaeologists and historians are still debating if recent discoveries, in particular around the Erlitou culture, should be equated with this Xia from myths that were recorded centuries later. We are on firmer ground for the Shang: they left written records, so we can understand much better what their society was like.

The Shang language was very different from modern Chinese, both in grammatical structure and in script. But over the course of millennia between then and now (!), the evolution shows continuities as well. There still are many characters in Shang inscriptions that remain unknown, and if you can crack the secret, you could win a nice prize: check out this article from the South China Morning Post!

Shang people’s writing comes to us on two different types of materials: carved in bone, and cast in bronze vessels. In this week’s materials, there are materials you will all read, and then you pick one of two “packs” for your Initial Response post. You may, of course, read and view all materials if you are curious and have the time!

The main idea is to use these objects to think about the wider structures of state and society. The questions, in the slide decks and in the reading list, will help you think about questions and how to go about answering them.


Basic set

Remember: Use the login name and password found on the Canvas SECRETS page for the PDFs hosted in the PDF vault (url starting with “docs.tdh.bergbuilds”)

Everyone reads/views:

  • Hansen, Valerie. “Chapter 1: The Beginnings of the Written Record”. In The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800, 18-55. Seconded. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. (PDF)
    • Read the selections indicated with red brackets.
  • Keightley, David. “Chapter 1: The Oracle Bone Inscriptions of the Late Shang Dynasty”. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1: From Earliest Times to 1600, edited by W. deBary et al. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999. (PDF)
    • A selection of oracle bones in translation, with background information and interpretation from the translator.
  • Bensimon, Rachel. “Four-Ram Fang Zun: A Bronze Master Piece.” 2019. (MP4)
    • This was a mid-term project last year.
  • Horowitz, Joshua. “Literacy in Ancient China”. In People and Their Stuff: A History of China in Objects Now Preserved in North America. URL: http://scalar.tdh.bergbuilds.domains/hst137/chapter-1-the-shang-dynasty
    • Go through to the next chapters as well.
    • You can annotate the project with Hypothes.is, use group HST137.
    • This is one of the projects from last year’s students.
  • OPTIONAL EXTRA: Haapanen, Minna. “The Royal Consort Fu Hao of the Shang”. In The Human Tradition in Premodern China. Edited by Kenneth J. Hammond, 1-13. Scholarly Resources, 2002. (PDF)
    • In this chapter, the writer uses materials from archaeology and inscriptions from the Shang dynasty to reconstruct a mini-biography of the royal consort Lady Hao (Fu Hao), the consort of King Wuding of the Shang. Read the final pages (11-12) for more information on the method used. This text should give you a better sense of life for a member of the elite in the Shang dynasty.
    • explore more about the tomb of Lady Hao on this other course site. This is the only Shang dynasty tomb so far that has been found completely intact (through sheer luck).

Choose from the following: option Bronzes or Bones for your Initial Response Post.
Later in the week in the Discussion Comments and Reflection post, you’ll be able to touch on the other aspects as well, but I prefer depth over breadth of coverage in student work.


  • Bensimhon, Rachel. “Precious Metals: Animal-Shaped Bronze Vessels in the Shang-Dynasty Period.” In People and Their Stuff: A History of China in Objects Now Preserved in North America. URL: http://scalar.tdh.bergbuilds.domains/hst137/precious-metals-animal-shaped-bronze-vessels-in-the-shang-dynasty-period
  • Ledderose, Lothar. “Casting Bronze the Complicated Way” Chapter 2 in Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1998. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. (PDF)
    • Questions to consider: why is this the “complicated way”? What can we learn about Shang and early Zhou dynasty as a state based on their capacity for creating these intricately decorated vessels?
  • Allan, Sarah. “The Taotie Motif on Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes.” In The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Eugene Yuejin Wang. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2016. (ebook Trexler)
    • Read pp. 21-29 of the book (stop at the section “The problem of interpretation”). You may read the entire chapter if you’re interested, but I want to keep the reading relatively limited.
    • Questions to ponder: what is this taotie motif? How might understanding this motif help us understand the Shang dynasty better?
  • Videos: I am still looking for the perfect video explaining the bronze casting process used in early China, so these ones will have to do for now. Let me know if you find a better one!
  • Slides (Gdrive link)


  • Keightley, David N. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. (PDF)
    • In some ways, our understanding of the Shang dynasty has evolved tremendously since 1978, when this text was published. Yet this remains one of the best texts discussing the materiality of the bones and turtle shells.
    • I draw your attention in particular to note 93 on p. 21, where the author describes attempts to recreate an oracle bone.
  • Slides (Gdrive link)


Feedback on the Great Wall reflections

2 points, due by Tuesday Sept. 8, 11.59PM ET.

Just like you read through the initial posts of others, it’s useful to read through and learn how others see their progress over the previous week. Maybe you are not used to sharing your writing with your fellow students. But writing is actually a very collaborative process: from bouncing ideas off each other, to proof reading, and in the case of publication, going through multiple rounds of review and editing, a text is not the product of a single writer, but benefits from the input of multiple people’s perspective. The writer then decides what to do with all that advice. And to become a better writer, it helps to read more.

Here are two students’ Reflection posts on the Great Wall:

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
    • Comment using Hypothes.is group HST137
    • Content: draw the writer’s attention to something they missed, or point out how they highlight something you weren’t aware of
    • Style: do you have tips how the writer can make their reflection pack a tighter punch? Does the writer have great sentences or choice of words? What would you like to emulate? Share it!
      • Note: Spelling and phrasing are not the most important, but if you notice a pattern, it is helpful to point it out.

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I commented on two fellow students’ end of week reflections on the Great Wall readings, using the Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that help the writer to improve the post, or to identify their strengths.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

Initial post on Shang bronzes or bones

3 points, due by Tuesday Sept. 8, 11:59PM ET, but start reading earlier so you have time to digest.

You will read and watch the materials in the Basic Set in the reading list, and then pick either the Pack “Bronzes” OR “Bones”, and write an initial post of appr. 200 words. Look through the slide decks and use the guiding questions to get started, but you can also begin from your own observations of what is strange, remarkable, or interesting.
This post is your “opening salvo” in a discussion of these course materials. This is also the place where you can ask questions about things you don’t understand: perhaps there are contradictions in or between the texts you read, or you can’t make head or tail of something? That’s ok: share it now, and in the discussion/comments, we may be able to help you find clarity. Admitting that you don’t know or understand something is the first step in learning.

      • Include the bibliographic references for the materials you choose, so we know which ones you picked.
        • Top tip: copy-paste from the list, they are (hopefully) correctly formatted in bibliography format for Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.
      • Add an image that illustrates the topic of your post, with a caption and credit for the image (e.g. a hyperlink to the source). (Memes, if relevant, are welcome!)
      • Include the word Shang in the title of the post
      • Add it to the category hst137 on your blog.

When you’re done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a post of about 200 words in response to the readings about the oracle bones or bronzes of the Shang period.
– I included the bibliographic references for the materials I used for my post.
– I included an image, and provided a caption and credit (source) for the image.
– I use the word Shang in the title, added the post to category hst137

Discussion and comments in Hypothes.is

2 points, due Thursday Sept. 10, by 11.59pm ET.

You’re likely reading different texts from each other, so it is important that you read each other’s initial posts, to enhance your understanding of the materials. Below you find links to four blog posts from your fellow students. If one of the websites is your own, or it is twice the same person’s, refresh the page, and you should get new sites.

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Post 3:
  • Post 4:

Leave feedback, questions, thoughts, insights about the contents of the posts of your fellow students, using Hypothes.is group HST137. You can ask for clarifications, point out similarities and differences with the material you covered, or with your interpretation. This should encourage you to nose around in the other materials you did not read in the first round.

Use the “Architect’s Model” of giving feedback, and engage with concrete issues. Go beyond “Yeah, I agree,” “I like” or “I think the same”, and instead explain why you have that reaction, or if you disagree, you can try to persuade the original poster of your idea or interpretation. Remember that Hypothes.is allows for hyperlinks, e.g. to materials that support your argument, or you can include pictures (memes! [yes, there she is again]), videos etc. that help the original poster to learn more.

When you’ve commented on four posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I commented on four fellow students’ initial posts on the readings about the Shang dynasty bronzes and bones using Hypothes.is group HST137.
– I made sure to leave substantial comments that move the discussion forward and help to create better insights, and go beyond a “nice” or “great”.
– I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

End of week reflection

3 points, due on Sunday, Sept. 13 by 11:59pm ET.

Possibly useful: a brief summary of the main points from the video chat session on Wednesday.

If you really engaged with the topic of the Shang dynasty bronzes and/or bones this week, your insights have changed: you know more about the origins of the Chinese script, but also about the ways archaeologists and historians make sense of the past through the use of objects, and not just what’s written on them. This week there’s only one option.

Just like last week, in your post you will also include three bullet points “Things I learned this week” — what do you know now about Shang dynasty China that you did not know at the start of this week?

      • Write a blog post of appr. 200 words (more is fine if you have Ideas), include the bibliographic details of the texts you refer to or engage with.
        • How have your ideas changed?
        • How do you now think about the Shang dynasty, the early Chinese state, the early Chinese script, …. ?
        • What new research questions can you ask, that you never thought about before?
      • Add your three bullet points with “Things I learned this week”.
      • Use the word Reflection in the title, and use the tag week3, and add to category hst137.

When you’ve commented on four posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

– I wrote a blog post of appr. 200 words to demonstrate my changed/enhanced understanding of the history of the Shang period.
– I included a list with the bibliographic references of the texts I used to create my post.
– I added three bullet points under the heading “Three things I learned this week”.
– I use the word Reflection in the title, used the tag week3, and added the post to category hst137 .

Extra Credit

Rewrite a post

2 points, due by Sunday, Sept. 13, 11.59pm collect in the Declaration Quiz

Unhappy about a post you wrote? Feeling you can do better now than a few weeks ago? Had a bad week and rushed to get it in but now you’re ready to do something you can be proud of? Now you can rewrite that post and get some extra credit for it!

  • Pick one post from a previous week and use the comments you received, and your new insights, to rewrite it.
  • Add a brief paragraph at the end explaining how you rewrote the post: which comments did you address, how did you go about the process (e.g. starting from new blank page vs. tinkering; focusing on structure or word choice or adding/correcting facts,…), and what you learned through the process of rewriting.
  • tag the post with extra, and add “rewrite” to the title
    • (Note: it should already be in the category hst137)

Read the following Declaration carefully, and then head on over to Canvas to collect your points in the Declaration Quiz:

I selected a post from a previous week and rewrote it, using feedback and insights I gained since writing it.
I added a brief paragraph at the end explaining what I did to rewrite the post, and what I learned about rewriting
I added the tag extra to the post, and added the word rewrite to the title.
I made sure the post is still in the category hst137.

“Down the Rabbit Hole”

3 points, due by Sunday 13 Sept., 11.59pm

Are you curious? Can you spend hours on internet following one link after another trying to get to the bottom of something? Did you know you can now also get some extra credit for this?

Pick a topic, placename, object, book or person connected to our readings from this week, and follow your curiosity “down the rabbit hole”, like Alice in Wonderland. Then share in a blog post with us where you went, and what you found. Your post does not have to be very long: 250 words should work; more is fine if you went on a deep dive, of course. Here’s what to include:

  • What in the course materials this week got you inspired to go down the rabbit hole?
  • Include as hyperlinked text the websites you visited, and what you learned there.
  • Include an image, with caption giving credit for the image.
  • You may also critique the sources you find, in particular if you have your doubts about their reliability, or you come across conflicting interpretations. Which one did you side with, and why?
  • Add the post to category hst137, use the title template “Down the rabbit hole: [insert subject]”, and add the tag extra.

Read the following Declaration carefully, and then head on over to Canvas to collect your points in the Declaration Quiz:

I wrote a post about additional materials on the internet I found, starting from a topic connected to course materials from this week.
I included the sites I visited as hyperlinked text, and explained what I learned on these pages.
I included an image, with a caption and credit for the image.
I added the post to the category hst137, used the tag extra, and used the title template “Down the rabbit hole:” for my post.

Where to ask questions?

Remember that it is highly likely that you are not the only one with that question. Save me time, and help your fellow students by asking questions where others can see them. If you know the answer to a question, jump in! I can’t be everywhere all the time.

Missing link? Wrong information? Email me!

On to week 4 (coming soon!)