Monday, October 15

Reading: The Sexagenary Number-Date System of Traditional China, The Oracle Texts, Shang Religion

The readings for today focus on aspects of the religious activity of the royal Shang court, an aspect of Shang life that occupies an outsize portion of the attention historians devote to analysis of Shang history and society. The reason is simple: almost all the written records we have of the Shang are inscriptions made in the connection with religious ritual: the oracle texts. These inscribed bones and shells record the interactions that the Shang king and his corps of diviners had with the world of spirits - the questions asked of the spirits and, in some cases, the king's interpretation of answers conveyed through the cracks on shell and bone.

In Monday's class, I will present a quick overview of the formal features of these unique historical materials, including the dating system that governs them and that allows us, along with other clues, to place hundreds of thousands of individual inscriptions in a type of rough chronological order, from which historical features may be inferred. (You will have a small opportunity to practice the analytical techniques that historians of the Shang employ on these materials in your Homework assignment, due in class on Wednesday.) Then we will turn to the heart of the oracle tradition: the nature of the religious system it reflects, and in particular, the imagined pantheon of deities that the Shang elite believed controlled the destiny of the Shang state.