The Dragon Bones

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

The story of a diviner, a battle and some dragon bones

By Karen Eeckman




CAST: Lady Hao, General Zhi, Diviner

FX: 27 December 1192 BC, China.

Battle in the background. Lady Hao and General Zhi (he’s deadpan for the whole play) are outside the commander's tent. Diviner is by the fire, sorting tools and bones.

GENERAL ZHI The Fu Tang have destroyed the north-east defence wall.

LADY HAO How’s General Wang doing?

GENERAL ZHI He’s undermanned. Close to succumbing.

LADY HAO Send General Gu Hao’s column.

DIVINER I’m ready to proceed with the ceremony.

Beat.

GENERAL ZHI Divination?

LADY HAO A present from the queen consort.

GENERAL ZHI Present?

LADY HAO A figure of speech, General Zhi.

To Diviner: Let’s get on with it. What have we got here? Tortoise shells?

DIVINER Dragon bones. Only dragon bones can predict the outcomes of a war.

Lady Hao scoffs.

LADY HAO Ox bones then. Shall we start?

Diviner begins humming (think of Buddhist monks muttering the sutras).

DIVINER ShangDi, Supreme God Di, you who can predict and influence events on Earth, answer me. Ancestors of the Shang royal house, you who can predict and influence events on Earth, help Lady Hao to deli / ver -

LADY HAO General Hao.

Beat.

DIVINER Help General Hao to deliver the kingdom from these cockroaches of Fu Tang.

Diviner resumes humming. After a while, he stops. Beat.

DIVINER What’s the question?

LADY HAO The question?

DIVINER The question for the spirits.

LADY HAO Oh. Er … Shall I send all the troops against the Fu Tang?

DIVINER Spirits of the Rain, Wind and Thunder, shall Lady Hao -

LADY HAO General Hao.

DIVINER Shall General Hao send all the troops against the Fu Tang?

He hums.

LADY HAO Shall I sacrifice half of my army and take the barbarians from the rear? Shall I send first the archers? Shall I -

DIVINER That’s too many questions for the gods.

LADY HAO Are you kidding?

DIVINER That’s quite a lot of characters for a tiny bone.

LADY HAO You didn’t find larger dragon bones?

DIVINER The queen consort knows about these things. Which question shall I engrave?

LADY HAO Sadly she’s not here. Engrave the second question.

DIVINER Which is ...?

LADY HAO Shall I take the barbarians from the rear.

FX: Diviner starts engraving the question into the bone.

DIVINER Supreme God Di, you who can predict and influence events on Earth, help Lady Hao -

LADY HAO General Hao.

DIVINER - eradicate once and for all the land from this plague. ShangDi, ancestors of the Shan royal house, spirits of the Rain, Wind and Thunder, how can she make you happy?

LADY HAO I thought there were too many questions.

FX: Diviner applies heated metal sticks on the bone which cracks. Beat.

LADY HAO So?

DIVINER The pattern of this fracture here … um …

LADY HAO The ridiculous crack on the top?

DIVINER It announces a fall.

LADY HAO A fall? The barbarians or us?

DIVINER The crack here … It represents the tribe.

LADY HAO Really? What about these parasites?

DIVINER See this hole? They’ll fall.

LADY HAO, sarcastic: The luck is on our side then. I’m so glad.

DIVINER The omen is … Oh!

LADY HAO: What?

DIVINER The sign of the Moon, Lady Hao.

LADY HAO: General Hao. The Moon? It’s high above us, brightening the battlefield.

DIVINER The spirits are angry. The ancestors are angry. ShangDi is angry.

LADY HAO: Stop the emphasis, I got it.

DIVINER The crack is very clear. Look at the shape of the Moon.

LADY HAO: Hmm.

DIVINER A monstrous Moon.

LADY HAO: Ah. Sounds very bad.

DIVINER The spirits need mollification, Lady Hao.

LADY HAO: General Hao! I’m leading an army of 13.000 men, alright? A mollification? Which kind?

DIVINER The sacrifice of ten horses. The luck of the war will turn instantly.

LADY HAO, annoyed: Ten horses? I need them to fight.

DIVINER Er … Obviously, if you want to make sure to soothe the ancestors, a human sacrifice would have more strength.

LADY HAO: A human sacrifice. Where am I going to find somebody to sacrifice? I’ve lost too many men already.

FX: Clamour in the distance.

LADY HAO: What’s that din?

GENERAL ZHI An eclipse!

DIVINER The sign of the Moon: I warned you.

LADY HAO, sarcastic: I can see you master astronomy very well. A good skill in this job. If only you had warned me earlier, I would have known what use to make of it. I bet the queen consort knew.

DIVINER The sky is darkening!

LADY HAO: Obviously: the eclipse!

DIVINER The gods are angry!

GENERAL ZHI General Hu Gao’s column is annihilated. We’re losing the battle.

DIVINER We have to carry out the sacrifice right now.

LADY HAO Fine. General Zhi, cut the throat of a soldier.

GENERAL ZHI Beg your pardon?

LADY HAO The Dragon Bones talked, General Zhi. The gods are angry, we need a sacrifice.

GENERAL ZHI, incredulous : To win the battle?

LADY HAO Apparently.

FX: General Zhi grabs the first guard he finds. The guard struggles, General Zhi cuts his throat. The guard falls onto the ground.

LADY HAO I hope that will soothe the gods.

Sarcastic: Are the bones saying anything else? Do they have some military skills to teach me?

FX: New clamour.

LADY HAO What again?

GENERAL ZHI The west wall has just collapsed.

LADY HAO Send the chariots. Diviner, the sacrifice didn’t work.

DIVINER Er … The vision was very clear, the Fu Tang will lose.

LADY HAO They’re not.

DIVINER The bone mentioned the sacrifice of ten horses.

LADY HAO I need those horses. Tell the spirits to think military strategy.

DIVINER I’ll read another oracle.

LADY HAO I’ll do the divination myself. Never better served than by yourself.

DIVINER You can’t. I’m the official diviner.

LADY HAO I declare myself high priestess.

DIVINER What? But -

LADY HAO Let me see … Hmmmm … We need another human sacrifice.

GENERAL ZHI We need all the men we’ve got left, General Hao.

LADY HAO The Diviner has just lost his usefulness.

DIVINER What?

LADY HAO You’re serving the gods’ goal, Diviner. General Zhi, slaughter the diviner.

DIVINER I’m the best diviner of the court, I’ve -

LADY HAO Yet you didn’t see your own sacrifice coming. To death!

DIVINER Lady Hao, please, I beg you -

LADY HAO General Hao! Enough!

FX: General Zhi cuts the throat of Diviner, who falls on the ground.

The battle gets closer.

GENERAL ZHI We’re still losing.

LADY HAO I’ve never believed in this nonsense.

GENERAL ZHI You’ve just declared yourself high priestess.

LADY HAO Winning general and high priestess … I shall become first queen consort.

GENERAL ZHI You need to win for that.

LADY HAO Hmm … What did the Diviner say? The parasites will fall into a crevasse … There’s a cliff on the east, isn’t there?

GENERAL ZHI Indeed.

LADY HAO Let’s make the cockroaches think we’re fleeing. And we’ll ambush them.

GENERAL ZHI You’re listening to the Dragon Bones now?

LADY HAO When what they say suits me. And I have no better idea.

GENERAL ZHI Seems a plan like any other.

FX: General Zhi disappears in the battle.

LADY HAO He knows too much. I’ll think about sacrificing him. In the ambush, maybe.

The End



Karen Eeckman for Cradles and Labels

Voices from the Vault is a series of plays inspired by objects in London museums, and intended to be performed as a podcast.

The Dragon Bones is based on a Chinese oracle bone held at the British Library, on the reverse of which is recorded an eclipse that was visible in central China (according to NASA's calculations) shortly before midnight on 27 December, 1192 BC. Lady Hao was a real general and high priestess from the Shang dynasty.