The ancient Chinese believed that after someone died, their spirit lived
on in the afterworld. The spirits of family members who had died,
watched over you. These spirits of your ancestors had magical powers.
They could help you or hurt you. Family spirits included all of your
ancestors, going back hundreds of years, any of one of whom could help
Ancestor worship was the Chinese way of
keeping their ancestors happy. They brought gifts of food and wine to
their temples, to honor the spirits of their ancestors. Celebrations
were held to honor their ancestors.
Shang kings, especially, believed in the power of their ancestors. The
Shang wanted to ask their ancestors questions. They wanted answers to
their questions. They used oracle
bones (sometimes called dragon bones) to accomplish this.
First, the king would ask a question:
"Will the weather be sunny tomorrow?" The priest carved the
king's question on an oracle bone, which was just a turtle or other
animal bone. (It was not a human bone.) Then, the priest heated a thin
pin made of bronze. Once heated, the pin was held against the bone. The
heat caused a series of small cracks to appear on the surface of the
bone. Those cracks formed a pattern of sorts. Then a special oracle
reader, usually a woman, would "read" the cracks, and provide
the king with an answer to his question.
Archaeologists have found thousands and thousands of oracle bones,
each with a question carved on them. The questions on these oracle bones
have told archaeologists a great deal about daily life during the Shang
Dynasty. The thing is, the questions did not actually say "Will it
be sunny tomorrow?" What the question actually said was something
like this: "If I sacrifice 8 men or 3 oxen, will it be sunny
A great many people and animals were
sacrificed during Shang times so that Shang kings and queens could ask
their ancestors questions. The people they sacrificed might be slaves,
or people who were sick or deformed, or people captured in war, or
someone who upset a noble, or a noble who upset the king. No one was
safe. The only thing that was important to the Shang kings and queens
was getting an answer to their question.
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