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Chinese characters used on oracle bones—animal creative writing pieces or turtle plastrons used in pyromantic divination—in the late 2nd millennium BCE, and is the earliest known form of Chinese writing.

The late Shang oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the creative of Chinese etymology, as Shang writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. 1930s as a translation of the English term «inscriptions upon bone and tortoise shell» first used by the American missionary Frank H. As the majority of oracle bones bearing writing date from the late Shang dynasty, oracle bone script essentially refers to a Shang script. It is certain pieces Shang-lineage writing underwent a period of writing before the Anyang oracle bone script because of its mature nature. However, no significant quantity of clearly identifiable writing from before or during the early to middle Shang cultural period has been discovered.

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The oracle bone script of the late Shang appears pictographic, as does its contemporary, the Shang writing on bronzes. Despite the pictorial nature of the oracle bone script, it was a fully functional and mature writing system by the time of the Shang dynasty, i. Old Chinese language in its entirety and not just isolated kinds of meaning. By the late Shang oracle bone script, the graphs had already evolved into a variety of mostly non-pictographic functions, including all the major types of Chinese characters now in use. Phonetic loan graphs, semantic-phonetic compounds, and associative compounds were already common.

Although it was a fully functional writing system, the oracle bone script was not fully standardized. Of the thousands of characters found from all the bone fragments so far, the majority still remain undeciphered. One reason for this is that components of certain oracle bone script characters may differ in later script forms. In such cases, context — when available — may be used to determine the possible meaning of the character. One good example is shown in the fragment below, labeled «oracle bone script for Spring». The top left character in this image has no known modern Chinese counterpart. The numbers of oracle bones with inscriptions contemporaneous with the end of Shang and the beginning of Zhou is relatively few in number compared with the entire corpus of Shang inscriptions.

Until 1977, only a few inscribed shell and bone artifacts were known. Zhou related inscriptions have been unearthed since the 1950s, with find fragments having only one or two characters. Wang Yirong, Chinese politician and scholar, was the first to recognize the oracle bone inscriptions as ancient writing. Wang Yirong recognized the characters as being ancient Chinese writing in 1899.

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