The Yin Ruins Museum (Yin Xu)
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The Yin Ruins Museum is made up of multiple buildings that stand in a park-like setting about 2 km northwest of the city of Anyang (Henan province). The park marks the location of Yin Xu, the ancient capital of the Shang dynasty. Even though the museum just opened at this UNESCO World Heritage Site in September 2005, its buildings have been given the appearance of ancient structures. That makes them blend in tastefully with the surrounding park landscape and provides an appropriate setting for the cultural relics it displays. These were all unearthed through archeological digs at the site itself as far back as the 1920's. Exploration is still ongoing and new archeological treasures are periodically discovered.
The buried remnants of Yin Xu constitute the biggest archaeological site in all of China. Yin Xu once covered a grand area of 24 square kilometers and was divided into four districts. All the palaces stood in one district and all the civil residences in another. The workshops were located in the third district and the tombs in the fourth. So far, excavations have uncovered more than 80 rammed-earth foundations of palaces, shrines, tombs and workshops. Many of the cultural relics that were unearthed during these digs such as bronzes, carved jade objects, pottery, lacquer ware and oracle bones (more on these below) are now on display at the exhibition hall of the museum. One of Yin Xu's excavated tombs that can be visited, the Tomb of Fu Hao, is the only tomb of a member of the royal family of the Shang dynasty that wasn't looted and has been uncovered intact. Fu Hao was the wife of one emperor of the Shang dynasty and possibly China's first female military general. The six chariot pits that were discovered at Yin Xu are also special as the earliest-known examples of animal-driven carts in China. The remains of a carriage and two horses that were found in each pit are now on display at one of the exhibition halls of the Yin Ruins Museum.
A four-legged bronze cauldron that was discovered at the site in 1939 is perhaps the single most famous relic that was unearthed from the Yin Ruins. It was at first known as the Simuwu ding but is now known as the Houmuwu ding. The massive ding is now on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing but you can see a replica of it at the Yin Ruins Museum. The vessel measures 133 cm in height and 875 kg in weight which makes it the world's biggest bronze relic ever uncovered.
Most people that have heard of Yin Xu across the world however associate the site with the discovery of the oracle bones, tortoise shells and animal bones with mysterious ancient inscriptions on them. It is believed that farmers in the area that is now Anyang had periodically discovered such bones as far back as the Han dynasty. Possibly regarding them as bad omens, the bones were generally reburied. A large number of such bones was discovered once again in 1880 and the superstitious locals believed them to be "dragon bones" with magical powers. Soon, pharmacies all over China sold such bones as part of a Chinese medicine to treat malaria and other ailments.
In 1899, the scholar Wang Yirong that was prescribed this medicine recognized the bones for what they were, the earliest known example for Chinese writing. Even though the scholar Luo Zhenyu eventually discovered the source of the bones in Xiaotun village north of Anyang, it took until 1928 for the first official archaeological excavations to begin at the site. More than 150,000 bones and bone fragments with inscriptions on them have since been unearthed from pits amidst the buried ruins of the ancient Shang dynasty capital Yin Xu.
Much research has been done in the years since to understand the purpose of the bones and the meaning of the inscribed characters on them. We now know that the ancient rulers of the Shang dynasty capital Yin Xu used the bones for the purpose of divination. After poking the bones with heated metal rods, the resulting cracks were interpreted as god's foretelling of the future. That's why the bones are now referred to as oracle bones. In addition to the date of the divination and name of the diviner, three different text messages were inscribed on the bones. The first one was the question that was being asked in the divination ritual. Second came the prognostication, so whatever the diviner predicted to happen based on the cracks in the bone. Interestingly, researchers today still have no idea whether any rules existed regarding the interpretation of the cracks. Whether or not the predicted divination result came true was inscribed at a later time as the third and final message on the bone. Even though the meaning of more than 2,000 different characters of the oracle bone script is now understood, translating the messages on the ancient bones is still a challenging and sometimes even impossible task.
History buffs that are interested to learn even more about the oracle bones after their visit of the Yin Ruins Museum are advised to also visit the National Museum of Chinese Writing during their time in Anyang. Going on an excursion to the nearby Linzhou region from Anyang is also highly recommended. There you can marvel at the outstanding achievement of the Chinese workers that built the Red Flag Canal during the Great Leap Forward era of the People's Republic of China in the 1960's.