The ideas outlined above must have had some concrete basis in beliefs deeply rooted in the past, because a pictograph for the zhi appears in the oldest surviving Chinese writing carved on oracle bones (ob). These are graphs used mainly in the inscriptions incised on tortoise-shells and ox scapulae which comprise the archives of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty at Anyang, Henan Province, dating from the fourteenth to the eleventh centuries B.C.E. This record is the first concrete evidence for the existence of an animal called a zhi. The pictograph, shown here in its two known variations in Figures 1 and 2, represents an unidentified bovid mammal, yellowish-brown in colour, with two extremely long horns, which was hunted and presented as a sacrifice in Shang times.

Figure 1. Oracle bone pictograph zhi    Figure 2. Oracle bone pictograph zhi

There is only one other oracle bone pictograph which shows an animal with horns as long as the zhi, and this is the character ji, which means ‘relay station,’ ‘harness for a horse or ox,’ and ‘to sustain’ (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Oracle bone pictograph ji

However, in this instance, the horns have been artificially lengthened so that they can be shown secured with rope to some kind of yoke, indicating a beast strong enough to draw heavy carts for the relay station system in ancient China.

During the Shang Dynasty, domestic animals such as pigs and oxen were commonly used for sacrifices. The zhi animal, however, was rarely sacrificed. The oracle bone reference reads as follows: “Made a burnt offering to the East with the female yellow/brown zhi.” This indicates that the zhi was a wild beast which was hunted by the Shang kings for use on special sacrificial occasions. It is therefore obvious that the zhi character must have represented a real two-horned animal, since it is physically impossible to sacrifice a mythic beast. It is also clear that the zhi must have been considered an animal of great spiritual power, since its sacrifice was reserved for important royal rituals.

The zhi pictograph also appears in the bronze script (bs) of the Western Zhou Dynasty, a term which refers to inscriptions cast on bronze vessels dating from about the eleventh century B.C.E. to the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in the third century B.C.E. In this script the zhi also forms part of the character jian meaning ‘a woven mat,’ ‘to present,’ ‘to recommend,’ and ‘to introduce’ (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Oracle bone pictograph jian

This pictograph is composed of the zhi pictograph written together with the symbol for ‘grass.’ The inference here is that the type of grass eaten by the zhi was the best for making woven mats, i.e., that it was both strong and flexible. Mats were essential household articles in ancient China and were used for many diverse purposes, including sitting, sleeping and entertaining guests. Thus the inclusion of the zhi pictograph in the jian character provides proof that the animal known as the zhi must have been native to China in ancient times. According to Robert Orr Whyte,

If the fossil record shows that certain types of fauna occurred in a particular region, it can be assumed that the natural vegetation provided feed which was adapted to their dietary requirements and dentition and that the climate would have promoted the growth of such vegetation. Thus, in the study of early fauna, it is not so much the taxonomy and bone structure that are important in the ecosystem approach as a knowledge of the kind of terrain the animals preferred and what they ate. (Whyte 1983, 9)

During the Shang and early Western Zhou Dynasties, the climate in north China was approximately two degrees warmer than it is today, and as a result, tropical animals such as the elephant and the rhinoceros flourished there.

The animal bones found at Xiawanggang, Xichuan county, Henan, have been used to obtain a general picture of the climate on the Central Plains over the past 6000 years, the most important period in the development of Chinese civilization […] .[This] evidence shows that during the period between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago the climate was warmest at the beginning. About 4,000 years ago the climate cooled and then 3,600 years ago it began to warm up again until 3,000 years ago, after which a gradual cooling began again. (Hsü 1996, 94-95)

As a result of this subsequent cooling and drying of the atmosphere during the Shang Dynasty, various species of early fauna such as the zhi, which were originally native to north China, gradually migrated southeastward towards more temperate climes (Elvin, 2004).

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