[Review] 刘继刚《甲骨文所见殷商灾害研究》(Liu Jigang: A Study of Disasters during the Yin Shang Dynasty as seen in Oracle Bone Inscriptions)

Liu Jigang 刘继刚, Jiaguwen suo jian Yin Shang zaihai yanjiu 甲骨文所见殷商灾害研究 (A Study of Disasters during the Yin Shang Dynasty as seen in Oracle Bone Inscriptions), Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe 科学出版社, 2022. ISBN 9787030722331; X, 207 pages, 108 RMB.

Reviewed by Thomas Crone (FAU Erlangen-Nürnburg)

This book examines the representation of disasters in oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang dynasty (ca. 13th century–11th century BCE). Disasters are a ubiquitous topic in oracle bone inscriptions, as almost every inscription is connected in one way or another with an attempt to prevent or investigate ominous and harmful events of various magnitudes. However, to date, no comparable monograph has attempted to explore the matter to its fullest extent or for its own sake.[1] Moreover, to broaden the horizon of the textual and material evidence under discussion, Liu Jigang supplements his analysis of the oracle bone inscriptions with excursions into traditional literature and published reports on archaeological excavations. This makes the monograph a welcome and much-needed piece of research, and the author has worked extensively on the subject of catastrophes in early Chinese literature.[2]

The author also deserves praise for having examined all major collections of oracle bone inscriptions, including the so-called “non-royal divination inscriptions” (fei wang buci 非王卜辞) from Huayuanzhuang East 花园庄东. Liu mainly relies on the Academia Sinica’s online database “Xian Qin jiagu jinwen jiandu cihuiku” 先秦甲骨金文简牍词汇库 (https://inscription.asdc.sinica.edu.tw/c_index.php), whose data he examined and categorized based on a preselected choice of key terms (pp. 13–14). He then compared the results with previously published bone images, rubbings, or hand-drawn pictures and then, wherever he is able, compared and collated inscriptions that were related.

In the first chapter, Liu offers a basic introduction to his topic. He divides disasters into eight types (floods, droughts, insect plagues, infectious diseases, storms, hail, fire, and earthquakes) and illustrates them with accounts of Shang period disasters in received literature and the oracle bone inscriptions. Where possible (floods, droughts, insect plagues), Liu also draws on archeological evidence and research. In the second chapter, the author then describes what he considers to be the more distinctive characteristics of disasters during the late Shang period. Liu emphasizes the diversity of the recorded types of disasters, their influence on agricultural production and the population of the Shang kingdom, their connection with climatic change, and the handling of disasters by the ruling elite. The next two chapters provide a detailed discussion of the latter, divided into “preventive measures” (fangzai huodong 防灾活动) and “rescue measures” (jiuzai huodong 救灾活动). The author ends his presentation with a discussion of the natural environment and ecosystem of the Yin 殷 region in modern-day He’nan 河南 and their influence on the nature and frequency of disastrous events. He concludes that constant population growth and the onset of climatic change, which caused substantial alternations between rainy and dry years, led to an increase in disastrous events towards the end of the Shang period (pp. 179–187).

Liu presents a comprehensive and detailed study providing broad insights into the extant written sources and archaeologically excavated material evidence. His book serves well as an introduction to the subject and could be of value to non-specialist readers wanting to obtain initial insights into the relevant primary sources and secondary literature. Furthermore, his support of the hypothesis that climatic change and ecological crisis were critical causes for the decline of the Shang dynasty is not only persuasive but moves the findings of this book beyond traditional narratives that typically regard moral and political decay as the leading cause for the decline of Shang kingship.

The valuable contributions of Liu’s monograph are diminished somewhat by his lack of attempt to take an emic perspective on the subject by exploring what the late Shang elite understood by “disaster” and the role this concept played in their perception of the world. As is well-known among researchers, the nameless scribes of the oracle bone inscriptions knew a large variety of words for “disaster,” in scientific jargon commonly referred to as “disaster words” (zaihuoci 灾祸词 or zaijiuci 灾咎词), whose (presumably) abstract meanings are notoriously difficult to determine.[3] Since the author does not dwell on this issue but takes the concept of “disaster” in the modern sense of the word as a necessarily harmful event, one searches in vain for solar and lunar eclipses in his eight basic types of disasters. However, Shang scribes believed that eclipses were potentially “disastrous” (huo 祸), as Liu himself acknowledges much later in his discussion (pp. 95–97). Liu’s decision to refer to solar and lunar eclipses as zaibian 灾变 (“ominous changes”) rather than zaihai (“disasters”) is at odds with the way the Shang scribes categorized them, but makes perfect sense if we assume that Liu is taking the etic perspective of a modern observer. However, this perspective and the derived distinction between harmful disasters and harmless zaibian is nowhere explained in his book.

Less excusable is the timidity with which the author handles apparent contradictions between the three types of textual and material evidence he raises. Even though the oracle bone inscriptions do not confirm the catastrophic events described in the received literature at any point, Liu never doubts the general trustworthiness of the received accounts, many of which date to the Han dynasty or even later periods. His presentation suggests that texts written more than a thousand years after the events they describe are as equally credible as archaeological evidence and excavated texts, which beggars belief. Why should we believe in the faithful transmission of accounts of catastrophic events in received texts such as the Shangshu 尚书 (Book of Documents) over generations and centuries and grant them the same significance? The author leaves this question unanswered.

He also glosses over apparent contradictions between archaeological evidence and prevalent ways of reading oracle bone inscriptions. For example, Liu discusses in detail that inscriptions reporting the capture of elephants in this period have been challenged by scholars citing paleoclimate data and noting the relatively small quantity of excavated ivory and elephant remains (pp. 180–181). However, instead of questioning that the animals reported captured indeed were elephants or that the hunts took place outside the Yin region, he ends his discussion by arguing that elephants initially were native to the Yin region but gradually retreated to the south because the climate turned drier and colder somewhere after the time of Pan Geng 盘庚 (ca. 1300 BCE) (pp. 181–182). While the archaeological evidence he cites (p. 182) suggests declining groundwater levels, it seems nowhere near enough to substantiate the dramatic climate change Liu envisions.

The author’s discussion of the ritualistic and religious countermeasures for coping with disasters is also underdeveloped. He credits the countermeasures with possible psychological effects and benefits without citing a single piece of evidence from the primary or secondary literature on the subject (p. 84). One would expect references to anthropological research on the subject or at least a comparison with similar rituals in later literature. Since that is not the case, this extremely brief section (half a page) gives the impression of pure speculation on the author’s part. In comparison, the author spends much time defending the “scientific significance” (kexue yiyi 科学意义) of the magico-religious healing practices described in the oracle bone inscriptions (pp. 85–87). He cites the archaeological findings of peach and bush cherry seeds to prove that medical herbal treatments accompanied these rituals. However, none of this is corroborated by the inscriptions, which instead seem to report the sacrifice of various animals and even humans. Liu’s argument, therefore, comes across as an attempt to sugarcoat and justify the probably harsh reality of royal Shang healing practice, which is not only misleading but largely irrelevant to the subject of the book.

The book thus leaves a mixed impression. Its systematic approach and attempt to consider as many forms of textual and material evidence as possible is to be commended. However, the analysis of this evidence remains superficial and unconvincing. Moreover, one searches in vain for a conclusion in which the author formulates and defends his own insights.


[1] One of the earliest and thus far most comprehensive studies on the subject remains Stanley L. Mickel, A Semantic Analysis of the Disaster Graphs of Period One Shang Dynasty Oracle Bones, Ph.D. Dissertation: Indiana University, 1976.

[2] See Liu Jigang, Zhongguo zaihai tongshi – xian Qin juan 中国灾害通史·先秦卷, Zhengzhou: Zhengzhou daxue chubanshe, 2008.

[3] For a recent discussion of the most common disaster words, see Davd N. Keightley, Working for his Majesty: Research Notes on Labor Mobilization in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.), as Seen in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions, with Particular Attention to Handicraft Industries, Agriculture, Warfare, Hunting, Construction, and the Shang’s Legacies, Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2012, pp. 308f., 311–315, 320ff., 344f., 350f., 358.



Cite this blog post
crone (2023, June 1). [Review] 刘继刚《甲骨文所见殷商灾害研究》(Liu Jigang: A Study of Disasters during the Yin Shang Dynasty as seen in Oracle Bone Inscriptions). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ohae

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