The earliest extant characters in China are jiaguwen carved on tortoise shells or animal bones, mainly during the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC).
Jiaguwen of the Shang Dynasty was discovered in 1899 by Wang Yirong, a scholar of the Qing Dynasty. The inscriptions were unearthed in Anyang of Henan Province that was the capital in the late Shang Dynasty.
Before the discovery, villagers of the Xiaotun Village in Anyang of Henan Province often found tortoise shells and animal bones carved with strange characters. They did not know what they were and sold them as medical materials to drugstores. Wang Yirong discovered these tortoise shells and animal bones among some Chinese medicine he had bought. After research, he believed that the characters carved on tortoise shells and animal bones were those of the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago.
So far, altogether more than 100,000 pieces of tortoise shells and animal bones have been excavated from Anyang; about 4,500 Chinese characters have been discovered on tortoise shells and animal bones, among which 1,700 have been affirmed. These characters were mostly prayers by Shang rulers at divination and sacrificial rites, as well as simple records. Jiaguwen is mainly the pictograph with regular strokes and beautiful form, showing it had undergone a long development process. They provide important materials for research into the origin of Chinese characters.
In the past, people generally considered jiaguwen of the Shang Dynasty as the earliest kind of Chinese characters. In 1980s, a few tortoise shells and animal bones carved with characters were unearthed in suburban Xi'an. Archaeologists confirmed these characters were about 4,000 years ago, even earlier than jiaguwen.