The earliest known Chinese writing is called chiaku-wen, or “bone-and-shell” script, used from 1800 to 1200 BCE. It was closely bound to the art of divination, an effort to foretell future events through communication with the gods or long-dead ancestors. This ancient writing—as with hieroglyphics and cuneiform—was pictographic.
Chinese pictographs are found incised on tortoise shells and large animals’ flat shoulder bones, called oracle bones, which convey communications between the living and the dead. When one wished to consult an exalted ancestor or a god, one asked the royal diviner to inscribe the message on a polished animal bone. Here is an Oracle bone inscribed with chiaku-wen, or bone-and-shell script, c. 1300 BCE. The 128 characters inscribed on this scapula concern a diviner’s predictions of calamities during the next ten-day period.