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Oracle bone

Tortoise shell

Western Zhou,
1046-900 B.C.

At Zhou Gong Miao
("Temple of the
Duke of Zhou")
site in Shaanxi,
northeastern China,
November 2008

About the size
of a fingernail


(Courtesy Lei Xingshan)

Although various ancient Chinese texts mention King Ji Jili, who died in 1185 B.C., until now there has been no archaeological evidence of the Western Zhou Dynasty ruler.

During recent excavations at Zhou Gong Miao ("Temple of the Duke of Zhou") in northeastern China, our team uncovered 6,977 oracle bone fragments, one of which mentions Ji Jili.

Oracle bones are small pieces of tortoise shell or bone used to divine the future. The Chinese heated the bones or shells until they cracked, then read prophecies in the cracks and inscribed them on the same oracle bones. These inscriptions are the earliest Chinese writing, which closely resembles the characters still in use today.

In addition to Ji Jili's name, this oracle bone also mentions a type of worship, the month of March, and the celebration of a festival that Ji Jili began.

The history of the Zhou Dynasty and Ji Jili's place in it is crucial to our understanding of ancient China. Ji Jili's life--and execution by Shang Dynasty king Wu Ding--inspired the Zhou state to overthrow the neighboring Shang and instate the "Mandate of Heaven." The mandate replaced the Shang system of ancestral right to power and affirmed that a just ruler would be blessed with a long reign while a despotic one would lose the kingdom via rebellion or natural disaster.

This popular philosophy was widely invoked by Chinese dynasties for thousands of years as a way to curtail the power of tyrannical rulers.

Lei Xingshan is head of the Zhou Gong Miao excavation team. Megan Shank is...