Fire bird
My fire bird. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I’ve got fire on my mind.

Maybe it’s the fireworks that exploded all over Amsterdam in defiance of a nationwide firework ban on New Year’s Eve. Or it’s the Thai bird that now hovers over our living room. It’s a phoenix, right? The mythical creature that rose from the ashes of a catastrophic conflagration.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for the transition from the dumpster fire of 2020 to whatever may come in 2021.


The ancients knew the power of fire. They used fire and smoke to divine the future.

In Mesopotamia, fire is a means to an end. Priests ritually slaughter and burn an animal. They narrowly observe the sacrificial smoke and the movement of birds. Therein lie the clues to the future.

Fire. Photo image: Bart Jan Verhagen

In some sub-Saharan communities, fire is a fulcrum. The accused assemble around a fire. The diviner asks the question and the fire explodes upon the guilty one.

Diviners use fire, water, weather phenomena, entrails and bones, dots and dice, yarrow sticks and tea leaves. The Chinese combine these elements to create their own form of pryomancy.

The diviner heats a cow’s shoulder blade or a turtle shell or an ancestor’s bone until it cracks. The stress cracks make sounds, the speech of the dead. The diviner utters and a prediction is born.

This form of pyromancy has been found throughout much of Asia and as far east as Labrador in North America, but only the Bronze-Age Chinese carved the subject matter of their divinations into the bone itself and associated this form of divination with written records.

David N. Keightley; Art, Ancestors, and the Origins of Writing in China. Representations 1 October 1996; 56 68–95. doi:

And thus began the art of writing.

Oracle bones

Brenda Hillman is a poet fascinated by oracle bones. How they were created, interpreted and then transformed into the Shang dynasty’s highest art form.

The ability to produce and to interpret the cracks, to utter the sounds from the dead, and to carve the encoded signs became the most valued form of literacy. […] This oracle bone script exists between words and music.

Brenda Hillman, “Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems,” originally published 16 Aug 2010, Poetry Foundation

Hillman sees oracle bone diviners as the precursors to modern-day poets. Ancient diviners spoke metaphorically to convey messages from the afterlife. Poets today interpret the signs and sounds of our time.

Ancestral script

Fire writing
Image source: Charles Burress, SF Gate

Oracle bones constitute the script ancestral to all subsequent forms of Chinese writing. Unlike the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, a contemporary Chinese scholar can read an oracle bone. Even to my layperson’s eyes, the family resemblance is striking.

When Keightly was a lowly assistant professor in 1968, the East Asian eminence Peter Boodberg gave him a gift.

“He reached into his raincoat pocket and said, ‘Here, I’ve got something for you.’ […] He gave me a genuine Shang Dynasty oracle bone fragment, which he had obtained during his days as a White Russian refugee in Harbin.”

David Keightley interviewed by Charles Burress in “Oracle bone a coveted prize for Cal library,” SF Gate, 9 Aug 2008

Paper world

Peter Hessler is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s written numerous accounts of his time as a China correspondent. One of those journeys brought Hessler into the world of oracle bone scholars and the importance to Chinese of the written word.

Much of Chinese culture revolves around writing—calligraphy is one of the most valued arts, and paintings often incorporate prominent inscriptions. During some periods, communities erected special furnaces in order to provide a proper cremation for any scrap of paper that had been dignified by writing.

Peter Hessler, “Oracle Bones” in The New Yorker, 16 Feb 2004

The Chinese used the written word, not just to fire up certain chimneys, but to create an entire creation myth. The Shang dynasty supplied the script — the oracle bones — which the Han used to tie together the legendary Xia, Shang, Zhou and Qin dynasties into a coherent historical narrative.

There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world.


Divining the future

The future of Chinese writing is unimaginable without the contributions of Zhou Youguang. He was an economist and banker who worked in the US before returning to China in 1949. He should have been executed like all his intellectual peers. Instead, he and his team invented pinyin, a Romanized spelling system of Chinese characters.

oracle bone
David Keightley and his oracle bone. Image source: SF Gate

I’d like to write about Zhou someday. Not so much about his impossible task or even the treacherous times in which he lived. He had so many choices. He could have adopted the Wade-Giles method of transliteration used by the Anglo-American invaders. Or curried favor with the Soviet allies by creating a new Cyrillic-based alphabet. Of all the methods he could have chosen, Zhou opted for the system invented by a little known Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci. I like to imagine the conversations Zhou and Ricci might have had about the written word, tradition and fire.

For the poet Hillman, the oracle bone isn’t about fire. Like poetry, the oracle bone functions as a compass or a window or a way out. A powerful weapon to wield in these strange times of ours. Like the diviners of old, a poet keeps their eyes intent on the heating bones.

You make some sense of things as if you were your own diviner of signs, as if the cracks in the oracle bone were details brought from this world into this world.