The oldest inscriptions that are recognised unequivocally as Chinese
date from about 1200 BC and were found in Anyang, the capital of
the Shang Dynasty (商朝 - 1600-1046 BC) in 1895. They consist
of short texts inscribed on ox scapulae and turtle plastrons
and are known as oracle bones (甲骨 - jiǎgǔ),
and the script is known as the oracle script (甲骨文
- jiǎgǔwén) or "shell bone script".
The oracle bones were used for divination, a process which involved
inscribing a question with a bronze pin, then heating the bones and
inspecting the resulting cracks to divine answers to one's questions.
Most of the questions involved hunting, warfare, the weather and
the selection of auspicious days for ceremonies.
The Oracle Bone Script was used between about about 1300 and
1100 BC according to some sources, and between 1500 and 1000 BC
according to others.
Some 400,000 fragments with inscriptions in the Oracle Bone
Script have been found. Several thousand bones and plastrons
have been reconstructed and many thousands of texts have been
studied. The texts contain over 30,000 distinct characters,
which are thought to be variant forms of around 4,000 individual
characters, and scholars believe that they can understand between
1,500 and 2,000 of these characters. There may be 5,000 or so
individual characters used on the Oracle Bones, not including
variant forms, and possibly twice as many were used in everyday
Structural the Oracle Bone characters resemble modern Chinese
characters in that some of them are combinations of two or more
characters, and there is a high degree of abstraction in the
characters. This suggests that the script was invented long
before the Shang Dynasty.