Ancient China: Shang Dynasty and Writing Systems

Although historians can’t be sure there was ever a Xia dynasty, early writings have proven that the Shang Dynasty did indeed exist. I photocopied the children some information on the Shang Dynasty, asked them to do a key word outline and write a short paragraph.

The belief system which pervaded the Shang Dynasty was called ancestor worship.  The children knew about this from the last time we studied ancient China and watched Mulan!  I photocopied some information about Ancestor worship and oracle bones and made up some questions to go with it.  Whilst I don’t do this often, occasionally I like the children to have a non-verbal comprehension exercise to complete.  T11 finds it hard to articulate answers, so I think practice in this skill is important.  However, I usually do it verbally, which he has always prefered.  They completed this during their independent study time:

T11's questions and answer sheet
T11’s questions and answer sheet

The oracle bones brought us nicely onto the main topic of the week which was the ancient forms of Chinese writing.  See here for some pictures of the earliest forms of writing found in China on oracle bones.  I thought it might be fun to make some of our own oracle bones using the simplest Ancient China pictograms.  The children formed plasticene into some sort of bone shape.  Using a toothpick and a list of pictographs from  Marie’s Pastiche they made Chinese pictographs on their ‘bone’.  Marie is spending a year learning about China, virtually!  She is incredibly thorough and her blog is well worth browsing.  Our resulting oracle bones:


We used this website and the book below to explore a little more about the Ancient Chinese writing system:

My goal was for the children to understand the underlying principles of this system, which is so very different from our own.  Marie has made some wonderful pictograph cards to use as a useful memory game.  We made full use of these, as well as the sheets provided in the book above and this challenge to help the children memorise some of the characters.

We all had a go at actually doing some writing.  Chinese writing was traditionally done using brushes and paint.  After reading the above book, which teaches very simply the hows of the strokes, we started practising.

Tin of Chinese brushes, Chinese ink and practice sheets
Tin of Chinese brushes, Chinese ink and practice sheets
Practicing the characters with an ink pen
Practicing the characters with an ink pen
The resulting sheets
The resulting sheets
C10 doing her calligraphy with the brushes and ink
C10 doing her calligraphy with the brushes and ink
And her resulting work
And her resulting work

We had a look at how the Ancient Chinese people used writing.  This page allows the reader to click on different items that writing was used for.  We had already made an oracle bone, so decided to also make a wooden strip which were used for  ‘writing literary or philosophical works, information about medicine, divination and military strategy.’ (from website)  I thought it might be fun to make one and cover it with cord and wet clay to make it private.  Another early form of an envelope!  (We had learnt about a clay wrapper used by the Babylonians in the 2000 B.C.)  I have absolutely no idea if this actually looks even remotely authentic as it was a made up project, but the children will probably never forget the earliest form of a Chinese envelope!  And here it is, in all it’s glory:

A piece of scrap wood from the kitchen, which between all of us we covered in pictographs
A piece of scrap wood from the garden, which between all of us we covered in pictographs
We then covered it in rope
We then covered it in rope
All ready for delivery!
All ready for delivery!

Another form of printing used for more official marks was known as the Chinese chop.  Again I will direct you to Marie’s blog for a full explanation, but basically it was used as a seal to officially sign documents or art.  I kind of stole Marie’s idea here, because although we have made seals before (from clay during our Mesopotamia studies) the simplicity of Marie’s design appealed and I just had to try it out!  For full instructions nip over to Marie’s!

The Styrofoam stuck onto building blocks, and carved with a Chinese character
The Styrofoam,  stuck onto building blocks, and carved with a Chinese character
Inked with a sheet of paper to show their stamp.
Inked with a sheet of paper to show their stamp.

Last but not least I decided that although this was a quick look into Chinese calligraphy, I would have the children do a page of practice using a calligraphy pen (the practice sheet we used at this point were too small for a brush).  We will soon be studying the Limbourg brother’s illuminations and any calligraphy knowledge, I felt, would help them with their projects.  The practice pages we used were from a little book we bought at the Louvre whilst we were in Paris.


The final invention we learnt about was the chop sticks, which came into use during the Shang Dynasty.  It is my plan to serve up one Chinese dish a week for the children to try out, on the understanding – they must eat with their chop sticks!

This week was chicken and vegetables with yellow bean sauce:


Next week we will be studying the Chou dynasty.  Loving this!



  1. As usual, love all your projects. The Chinese characters are more of pictograms than phonics, so it’s an entirely different system of writing. It’ll be interesting to see how the Chinese characters have evolved over time. Most of them you can still see traces of the ancient roots of the original characters. The meal looks delicious.

  2. I knew I’d love reading what you’ve done with Ancient China 🙂 – the bones look great, and I love the ancient “envelope” – may play around with that for secret messages of sorts… I checked out the ancient China website you referred to (thanks!) and fascinated by the discovery of the oracle (dragon) bones. Will be bookmarking it. Hats of to your kids for carving the yang style chop – more ambitious than what we tried, and they look great! And thanks for referring my site 🙂
    (how did the chopsticks go? I STILL haven’t mastered them despite using them regularly since January!!)

    1. Hi Marie! I am going to be stealing almost all of your ideas I think! I just love everything you do!
      Our chop sticks (bought off Amazon) are slightly weird, in that they are attached at the top end. Also I’m naff at cooking rice and always seem to overcook it so it is sticky which makes using the chop sticks much easier!

      1. I love including food in our studies. (I love food.) Breaking the chopsticks apart and rubbing them together to get an stray splinters is part of the meal. Chinese rice tends to be sticky to make it easier to eat with chopsticks. Looks like a fun study. We studied China about 3 years ago.

  3. Beautiful post. I have always been so fascinated how Chinese words were formed pictorially, made it much easier learning Chinese words in school days when we understood how the words were originally formed. The calligraphy looks lovely!

  4. Chopsticks are often joined at the top in the manufacturing process. You just pull the eating ends apart slightly and they will separate. I have seen it done many times at Chinese food restaurants. Good luck in mastering them. I cannot do it. Regarding sticky rice – some rice is sticky such as Jasmine rice. Asian people usually eat sticky rice.

    Myra from Winnipeg, Canada where I think I will have to turn on my air conditioner soon (after only having the snow melted about 3 weeks). Weather on the prairies goes from cold, cold to hot, hot.

  5. Ya can’t bring your wood burner to a tent in our garden in Sept. He he! Getting all excited. xxxxxxx

    1. Wouldn’t have any room in the car for it anyway. Sept is always warm over there so we won’t need it. Looking forward to getting back and seeing everyone.

      1. What are shredded duck pancakes? I’m curious.

        Myra, from Winnipeg, Canada where it is cooler today, being only 24C and cloudy, which means that with open windows I can finally cool off the house.

  6. Your oracle bones are AMAZING! You always have such wonderful units!! Thanks for letting all of us follow along =)

    Thanks sharing and linking up to TGIF! I hope you come link up later today,
    Beth =)

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