Space Travel in Bronze Age China?

Did aliens visit China during the Bronze Age?

Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter 1978, pp 58-63
Reproduced with permission

Ancient monuments, cave drawings, texts, and legends have been cited by many “UFOlogists” to show that visitors from outer space came to the earth in the predawn of history. [1] The function that the stones, rock-carvings, patterns, or other ancient symbols served for the peoples who made them cannot in many cases now be determined. Any case in which the meaning can be determined is worth studying.

According to a story by Arthur Gorlick in the Chicago Daily News (April 24, 1974, p. 16), [2] Ralph Blum was to present to the April 1974 meeting of the Society of Ancient Astronauts, assembled in Park Ridge, Illinois, the following evidence (see Figure 1):

It is a piece of elephant bone carved with ancient Chinese pictographs discovered in the An-yang region of northern China in 1930 and which Blum says dates from around 1300 B.C.

He says the pictograph characters on the carving were translated by Tung Tso Pin, a professor at Hong Kong University, and James J. Hurtak, director of the Academy for Future Science in Los Gatos, California.

Their translation of the characters, Blum says, reads: “A man and woman (1) are shown to be on the third planet (2) from the sun (3). A higher being (4) arrives on the planet by reversing an energy field (5), and flying like a bird (6), displaying qualities of lightning (7). The being can take on the appearance of earthmen (8); can combine the qualities of man and bird (9), and fly like a bird (10). The ‘instrument of means’ (11) by which he returns to a distant star system (12) is a rocket-propelled (13) vehicle (14).”

FIGURE 1. Hou-pien 2.9.1 as it appeared in the Chicago Daily News (left) and in modern transcription with missing graphs supplied (right).

This may be nothing more than a case of inspired press-agentry. [3] The wide circulation that the story received, however, and the superficial plausibility of its methodology and translation, suggest that a brief critical inquiry is not out of place.

To decipher what the inscription says we must first understand that it is a so-called oracle-bone inscription from the reign of the Shang king Wu Ting (ca. 1200-1180 B.C., in my view). Shang divination was carried on as follows: The diviner addressed a “charge” to a turtle-plastron or cattle scapula, the charge being a prediction, statement of intent, or prayer submitted for the approval of the spirits. As he proposed the charge, the diviner applied a glowing brand, or some other heat source, to a series of hollows that had already been bored and chiseled into the back of the shell or bone. The heat caused stress-cracks to form; the diviner then examined the cracks and interpreted them as auspicious to a greater or lesser degree. A record of the date, the diviner’s name, charge, and the results if any, was then carved into the bone or shell. [4]

We can now set a few facts straight. First, the inscription is not carved on elephant bone, but on a bovine scapula. Second, the inscription was published in 1916; [5] it cannot have been discovered in 1930. Third, Tung Tso-pin’s understanding of this inscription bears no relation whatever to Hurtak and Blum’s; [6] it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. Fourth, the translation treats the Chinese graphs not as members of an extensive written language, but as isolated ciphers to which it arbitrarily assigns meanings for which there is no conceivable etymological justification; it even splits common Shang graphs (7 and 8, 13 and 14) in two. Fifth, having assigned fantastic meanings, it then reads the words in reverse order. [7]

To turn from the world of fantasy to the world of scholarship, what does the inscription mean? The school to which Tung subscribed (represented in English by Joseph Needham) regards it as “the most ancient extant record” of a supernova: “On the seventh day of the month, a chi-ssu day, a great new star appeared in company with Antares” (i.e., Blums’s graphs 5, 4, 2, 1, and the “fire” graph, huo, at the bottom). [8] Another school, represented by Hu Hou=hsuian, takes key words to be sacrifice terms and would translate: “On the seventh day of the month, a chi-ssu day, we performed yu (graph 6) and hsin (graph 5) sacrifice (to) the great star, and ping (graph 1) sacrifice (to) Huo.” Another view, that of Yang Shu-ta, takes hsing (graph 2) to refer to “seeing the stars,” i.e., to clearing weather, so that the record becomes a favorable weather report, “there was a new great clearing.” And still another school, of which Li Ya-nung is the sole exponent, believes that the inscription records the linking of a new great earthwork to the mountains. [9]

The meaning of the inscription may be determined with comparative certainty if we consider its context and rationale. First of all, the large, bold calligraphy and the formulas involved (especially the phrases, “inauspicious … there will be the coming of alarming news … the t’ou-period dividing the night of chi-ssu. . . . “) indicate that we are dealing with a standard “ten-day week” charge, prognostication, and verification from Wu Ting’s reign. On the basis of parallel inscriptions, [10] we may supply some twelve missing graphs (see figure) and reconstruct and translate as follows:

(Preface:)[Crack-making on chia-tzu (day 1), [11] So-and-so divining:]
(Charge:)[“In the (next) ten days there will be no disasters”]
(Prognostication:)[The king reading the cracks said: “There will be] harm; there will be the coming of alarming news. [If it be such-and-such a cyclical day] it will be inauspicious. . . . “
(Verification:)On the seventh day, in the t’ou-period dividing the night of chi-ssu (day 6) [and keng-wu (day 7) [12]], “there was a new great star standing together with the Fire-star.”

It must be appreciated that in the reign of Wu Ting, forecasts of harm could be verified only by unpleasant happenings, such as enemy incursions, toothache, and, significantly for this case, lunar eclipses. [13] In a “display inscription,” [14] such as we have here, the king foretold that something bad would happen; something bad did happen; the king’s role as augur was validated. This being so, records of sacrifice, of clearing weather, or of earth-construction, cannot qualify as possible verifications in this case, for they would not have confirmed the king’s gloomy prognostication. We may safely take the verification to be a record of an ominous celestial event, much like an eclipse, that confirmed the king’s forecast. I do not know if we are justified in identifying, as Needham does, the Fire-star of Shang times with Antares; but since this was the name of the star in Chou and later times, the assumption is plausible.

In conclusion, what was originally a Chinese Bronze Age record of an ominous celestial event became, in the Chicago Daily News, an account of space travel. If this is what “UFOlogists” do to messages we can understand, one wonders what trust should be placed in their readings of, for example, Cro-Magnon cave paintings (“a complete catalog of contemporary UFO designs … an object remarkably like our lunar Module,” etc. [15]) where we can have less check upon their interpretations. Prehistoric and ancient records of space flight may possibly exist, but before they can be accepted as evidence they need, in all cases, to be deciphered first by scholars familiar with the materials, rather than by those who are familiar with UFOs.


[1] The paradigmatic study is Erich von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods? (New York: Putnam, 1970), now in its 45th paperback printing. For other examples, see Aimé Michel, “Palaeolithic UFO-shapes,” Flying Saucer Review 15 (1969), 3-11, and von Däniken’s more recent works.
[2] I am grateful to Professor Chou Hung-hsiang of UCLA for calling the Daily News story to my attention. Ralph and Judy Blum are the authors of Beyond Earth: Man’s Contact with UFO’s (New York: Bantam, 1974).
[3] The origin of the newspaper story is unclear. “I am sorry to report that Ralph Blum apparently has no substantiation to support the Chicago Daily News article…. In fact, when we questioned Mr. Blum about the article, his answer was that he had not seen the Chinese characters before he saw the newspaper article” (letter of 13 August 1974 from Gene M. Phillips, founder of the Ancient Astronaut Society). My letter of inquiry of 15 October 1974 to James Hurtak was neither answered nor returned.
[4] For an introduction to these materials, as well as a brief discussion of their date, see David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1978).
[5] Lo Chen-yil, Yin-hsu shu-ch’i hou-pien (n.p. 1916; reprint [Taipei], n.d.), pt. 2, p. 9. no. 1.
[6] Tung Tso-pin, Yin-li-p’u (Nan-ch’i, Szechwan, 1945), pt. 2, ch. 3, pp. 1b-2a.
[7] The correct order, following Blum’s numbers, would be: 12, 11, 10, 9, 8 … 14 … 3 … 6, 5, 4, 2, 1, and presumably, zero and blast-off!
[8] Joseph Needham, with the collaboration of Wang Ling, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 424.
[9] For a summary of these theories, and citations to the original scholarship, see Ikeda Suetoshi, Inkyo sho kei kohen shakubun ko (Hiroshima: Hiroshima daigaku bungakubu, 1964), pt. 2, pp. 33-35.
[10] See Shima Kunio, Inkyo bokuji sorui, 2d rev. ed. (Tokyo: Kyuko Shoin, 1971), pp. 209.4-210.3, 307.3-308.2, 401.3-402.4; note in particular T’sui-pien 1136b (Shima, p. 308.1) and K’u-fang 1595 (Shima, p. 307.4). (For the full bibliographic citations for the oracle-bone collections to which these and subsequent abbreviations refer, see Keightley, Sources, pp. 229-231.)
[11] The Shang named their days by combining two sets of symbols, known to later ages as “the heavenly stems and earthly branches”; their regular combination (there were ten stems and twelve branches) produced an unending cycle of sixty day-names.
[12] On the t’ou period, see Keightley, Sources, p. 43, n. 79.
[13] For eclipse inscriptions, see Ping-pien 57.1; K’u-fang 1595 (Shima, p. 307.4); cf. Keightley, Sources, p. 174, n. 19.
[14] For a definition of this term, see Keightley, Sources, p. 46. n. 90.
[15] Ralph and Judy Blum, Beyond Earth, pp. 39, 41, referring to the article by Michel cited in 1 above.