Ancestor worship was very important to the early Shang kings and nobles.
It was a way of life.
When a man died, the ancient Chinese
believed his spirit lived on in the afterworld. They believed their
ancestors had magical powers. These magical powers allowed their
ancestors to punish them or to help them.
To keep their ancestors happy, they
brought gifts of food and wine to special places or temples. They held
many celebrations to honor their ancestors.
To communicate with their ancestors, the Shang kings used oracle
bones (sometimes called dragon bones).
The king or emperor would ask a question, for example, will it rain
tomorrow? The priest would carve the king's question on an oracle bone,
which was just an animal bone or turtle shell. (Will it rain tomorrow?)
Then, the priest would heat a bronze pin and hold the hot pin to the
bone. This created a pattern of cracks over the bone. The priest (who
was usually a woman) would study the cracks to find the answer to the
Archaeologists have found over 100,000 oracle bones. Since many
questions were asked about daily life, we know something about this
civilization. The thing is, they didn't exactly ask "Will it rain
tomorrow?" Oracle bones say things like: "If we sacrifice 10
men or 5 oxen, will it rain tomorrow?"
The Shang kings sacrificed a great number
of people to talk to their ancestors. Some of those sacrificed were
enemies, captured in war. Some were slaves or people who were sick or
deformed. Some were merchants, craftsmen, or farmers who had upset the
nobles. Some were nobles who had upset the king.
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