My grade-7 Chinese history textbook describes the gigantic bronze ding called 司母戊鼎, and adds a footnote saying it's also called 后母戊鼎:

a photo of 司母戊鼎 (a large "ding") and a description

(alternative image source: 1 2)

Wikipedia writes:

The inscription was originally read as sīmǔwù (司母戊), but since the 1970s scholars have reached the consensus that the first character should be read as hou (后), meaning queen, which is the mirror-image of si (司) in oracle bone script.

I'm curious as to what the two characters actually look like.

Question: What are the oracle-bone characters for 后 and 司 which led to confusion in naming 司母戊鼎 (or 后母戊鼎)?

I honestly don't know how to look up oracle-bone equivalents of modern-day characters. Googling for a bit led to 后:

image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Oracle_bone_script_characters#/media/File:%E5%90%8E.png

  • 2
    For reference, the inscription is located at 《殷周金文集成》1706
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 5:26
  • I'm not sure about "since the 1970s scholars have reached the consensus". Chinese Wikipedia definitely does not say that (中國國家博物館於2011改為「后母戊」,但學界存普遍爭議。)
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 5:35

4 Answers 4


It is uncertain if the character 「后」 existed in Shāng oracle bones. The word itself meaning royal heir > king and royal heir > afterwards was written in Shāng oracle bones with the character 「毓」, and in this time period, it is not confirmed whether this was semantically extended to mean queen.


「毓」 depicts a woman 「每」 or 「母」 giving birth to a child 「子」. The child is drawn upside-down as 「𠫓」 and the dots are similar to 「氵」, indicating amniotic fluid / water breakage when giving birth. A proposal of how this may be related to 「后」 is given below:

字形 部件對應隸定 參考資料

毓 818

⿸女𠫓 ⿸女𠫓 414

⿸尸𠫓 ⿸尸𠫓 1.30.5
后 吳王光鑑
后 - 兆域圖銅版
后 - 老子・乙
后 - 曹全碑
后 -

Explicitly described, 「尸」 may have been corrupted into the shape of 「𠂆」, and 「𠫓」 corrupted into 「⿱一口」. There is no clear trace of this happening, however.

In contrast, 「司」 is generally traced like this:

字形 參考資料

司 430

司 241

司 三集下46.9
司 史墻盤
司 󱩃𧊒壺
司 老子・甲
司 孔龢碑

Please pay attention to the time span of where these characters occur. The shape of 「后」 we currently use is only uncontroversially found in the Spring and Autumn period, and by then, it would never have been confused with 「司」.

The debate here is whether characters which look like


(or its mirror image) in the Shāng to Western Zhōu periods should be read as 「后」 (queen). As mentioned earlier, it is uncertain whether hòu (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*ɢˁ(r)oʔ/) meant queen in this period.

For an opinion by Qiú Xīguī on reading these oracle bone characters as 「司」 and not 「后」, see 《裘錫圭》說"㚸"(提綱). In summary, the thesis 朱鳳瀚《論卜辭與商周金文中的“后” 》 proposes multiple occurrences in oracle bones of characters which look like


should be read as "Queen ⿱立勹"


just like how 「珷」、「玟」 should be read as "King Wǔ" and "King Wén" in bronze inscriptions, respectively. Qiú Xīguī thinks this proposal is far-fetched and lacks evidence, and instead suggests that all of these characters have 「司」 as a phonetic component, pointing to evidence of interchangeability of 「司」 with 「㠯」 (related: Why is there a 女字旁 in the character 始?).

As a final note regarding this specific dǐng vessel, the article points out that


In bronze inscription texts, 「司辛」 (temple name of Fù Hǎo) is combined with a 「女」 (or 「母」) component, and several academics have pointed out that the inscription is still read as 「司辛」 and not 「司母辛」, so the same goes with reading the inscription as 「司戊」 when it appears to be 「司母戊」.



the controversy is quite old, since 1946


enter image description here

What are the oracle-bone characters for 后 and 司

well, in oracle bone script, only “司” existed. and it can be written facing left, or right. “后” emerged only in late spring and autumn period.



in 小學堂, you may find the character “司” in oracle bone script:


enter image description here


enter image description here

that, “甲241“ is the mirror image (flip horizontally) of “鄴3下.34.7”

“甲241“ is like the character “后”, actually, it should be read as “司”, in oracle bone script.

have fun :)


Wiktionary is coming along on this front and often has the oracle bone and seal script origin for common characters. This is present for . WT notes that 司 is a lateral inversion but unfortunately doesn't have the glyph origin for 司 itself.


To look for an oracle bone script, you can use 小学堂-甲骨文.

Although the two glyphs seem like mirror images of each other, it's not a settled issue. Most oracle bone scripts do not distinguish left and right, so mirror images are often the same character, except for those that have a clear directional implication, which I don't see any in this glyph. Many sources believe that the two are the same glyph. I agree.

In the early 20s when I was still in school, it's unanimously called 司母戊鼎, but I vaguely remember that years ago there was a wave of media propagating that the correct reading should be 后.

On the one hand, National Museum of China has changed the official name to 后母戊鼎. This video (in Chinese, no subtitle) also supports 后母戊鼎 and talks in detail about each appearance of 后(司)in oracle bone scripts.

On the other hand, I checked 《字源》 which reads


It supports that 后 doesn't exist in (currently discovered) oracle bone scripts.

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