China History

The Shang Dynasty (China)

The Shang Dynasty transitions from mythology to official recorded history, establishing foundational historical narratives.

shang dynasty of china history

According to Từ Hải and ancient historical records, the Shang Dynasty began around 1766 BC and ended in 1122 BC. However, according to Eberhard (as cited), these recorded dates are incorrect. The Xia Dynasty lasted approximately 300 years, from 1800 to 1500 BC (estimated) rather than from 2205 to 1766 BC, and the Shang Dynasty started around 1450 and ended about 1050 BC.

Land and Dynasties

The previous article was about the prehistoric era and the origins of the Chinese nation, starting from this part we enter the historical era, as the history of the Shang Dynasty was written by later generations and those writings match the results of archaeological excavations. By 1964, 41,000 inscriptions on oracle bones had been printed and published, and among the 3,000 inscribed characters from that period, more than 1,000 characters were identified by three Chinese scholars: Le Tchenyu, Wang Kouowei, and Teng Tsepin.

The civilization of the Shang era was already advanced, but the circumstances under which the “nation” of Shang was established, and how the Chinese people transitioned from the Xia civilization to the Shang civilization, are still subjects lacking in documentation.

We only know roughly that King Tang of Shang, after defeating King Jie, founded the Shang Dynasty, united many tribes, and the land of Shang included the provinces of Shaanxi, Shandong, Hebei, and Henan of today.

Initially, the capital was in the region of Bo, but due to the encroachment by nomadic tribes from the West, it had to be relocated seven times, the last time to Yin (Yin meaning hill) in the East, near Anyang, changing the state’s name to Yin, and during this time, they had to frequently battle the surrounding tribes.

Confucius in the Analects praised King Tang for his wise use of the noble Yi Yin (in Chapter XII-22) and his high sense of responsibility: if the people committed crimes, he blamed his own governance rather than the people (in Chapter XX-1).

This can be partly believed as any founding king is likely to possess some virtues.

The Shang Dynasty had a total of thirty kings (according to oracle bone inscriptions), which roughly corresponds to the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, with only a difference of five kings. The first thirteen kings passed the throne to their brothers, a rare occurrence of father to son succession. However, for the last four generations of kings, the throne was passed from father to son, establishing a precedent for all subsequent dynasties.

Society in Shang Dynasty

The Shang society was characterized fundamentally by two aspects:

1) Initially, it followed a matrilineal system, hence upon the death of a king, the throne was passed to his maternal brother, and towards the end, it transitioned to a patrilineal system, with the throne being passed to the son.

2) Religion was polytheistic, involving deities of rivers, mountains, rain, wind, thunder, especially fertility gods. Above all was the Supreme God, anthropomorphic, creator of humans and all things; followed by the Earth Goddess, depicted as a woman who births and nurtures all beings.

The king not only ruled over the people but also served as the high priest.

To ensure abundant harvests and successful seasons, humans and animals were sacrificed during rituals. Excavations in Anyang from 1950 have shown that a large number of people were sacrificed, especially during royal burials. One tomb unearthed contained over 300 human skeletons, some intact and some beheaded, likely belonging to queens, concubines, royal attendants, guards, charioteers, and some female officials.

Over a thousand years later, Mozi criticized this practice in his section on “Against Lavish Funerals,” arguing that following extravagant funeral practices (such as burying valuables with the dead, using gold and jewels to adorn corpses, binding clothes with silk ribbons, and burying chariots and horses in tombs) resulted in emptying the treasuries. For emperors and lords, the number of people who were buried alive with them could reach several hundred, and for generals and high officials, several dozen or a few at least.

This practice persisted for a long time, until nearly the end of the first millennium BC, when human sacrifices were gradually replaced with straw effigies, large statues resembling real humans made of stone, wood, or clay, and eventually, by small clay figures and paper money (spirit money) burned at funerals. This practice of burning spirit money still hasn’t completely disappeared today.

Some believe that this practice of live burial is evidence of a slave system in Shang society, but this is not the case, as those who were buried alive were often not slaves but rather close confidants of the deceased.

In the excavations at Anyang, a significant number of oracle bones were found, used for divination. The Shang kings worshipped their ancestors in private temples called “tai miao.” For any important matter, they would pray to their ancestors for protection or consult them through divination.

They used turtle shells and the shoulder blades of oxen or horses, drilling holes in them that would crack when heated. The pattern of the cracks would then be interpreted to predict yes or no, good or bad outcomes.

Sino character in Shange Dynasty

This excerpt is from the book “East Asia – The Great Tradition” (Modern Asia Editions – Tokyo – 1962). The three characters on the left, 辛卯鬼, mean “spirit of the Xin Mao day,” the three in the middle, 今日辛, translate to “today, Xin,” and the two on the right, 亦雨, mean “also rain.” The two characters at the bottom, 不雨, mean “not rain.” The passage translates to: On the Xin Mao day, a query was made to the spirits: “Today, on Xin, will it rain or not?” The spirits indicated that it would not rain.

We see that the characters used today still bear resemblance to those from that time, especially characters like 卯 (mao), 今 (now), 日 (day), 雨 (rain), and 不 (not).

The character 雨 (rain) and 日 (sun/day) are clearly pictographic: raindrops descending from clouds; the circular shape of the sun.

The Shang Dynasty referred to their king as “emperor” and the heaven as the “Supreme Emperor.”

The territory of the Shang was relatively small, covering areas that today would approximately equal two provinces, including southern Hebei, eastern Henan, eastern Shaanxi, and western Shandong. Historical records mention thousands of vassal states; however, likely only a few near the capital were directly under Shang control, with those further away being relatively independent tribes. This laid the groundwork for the feudal system that would develop in the early Zhou Dynasty and decline by its end.

Midway through the Shang Dynasty, an important change occurred due to the influence of the nomadic civilization of the Mongolian people: the Chinese began to domesticate horses. With horses came chariots, fundamentally changing military tactics. The chariots of China were closely related to those of Western Asia, possibly Turkey. It’s unclear exactly what the chariots of the late Shang looked like, but they likely weren’t much different from those described by Marcel Granet (in “La Civilisation chinoise,” Albin Michel, 1948) from the Zhou period. These chariots had two wheels, a narrow and short body, closed in front and open at the back. In front was a yoke. Each chariot was drawn by four horses, with the driver sitting in the middle holding the reins, a warrior with a bow on the left, and a warrior with a spear on the right. The horses and the three men on the chariot all wore leather armor. Three wooden shields were placed in front of the chariot to protect the occupants, and each warrior also carried an additional shield. Other weapons within reach of the spearman included long-handled axes and tridents for hooking and stabbing the enemy. The charioteers and warriors belonged to the upper class. Common soldiers, who were civilians, walked and were tasked with digging, bridge building, horse tending, tree cutting, and gathering firewood. They did not participate in battle but stood at a distance to watch.

Historians have traditionally believed that agriculture developed very early in China and that Shang civilization was an agricultural one. This may be incorrect. The Shang had few bronze tools, and people lived more by hunting than by farming. It was not until the advent of iron tools, by the end of the Spring and Autumn period, that agriculture truly began to develop, and the Yellow River basin, followed by the Yangtze River basin, was gradually cultivated.

Shang Dynasty farmers used very basic agricultural tools, unaware of the plow, utilizing only hoes and a type of harrow. Many areas practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, cultivating cereals; they knew how to irrigate fields. They cultivated grains, raised buffalo, sheep, dogs, pigs, and very few horses. Evidence of alcohol production is found in oracle bone and bronze inscriptions depicting a container with three drops of liquid, which later became the character for alcohol (酒).

There was a division of labor: men worked the fields, hunted, and fished, while women raised children, reared silkworms, and wove silk. The character (男), meaning man or male, evolved from the depiction of a field with a hoe to its right, symbolizing a man working the land.

They distinguished between the farming season, spent outside in the fields, and winter, spent indoors; they differentiated between sunny and shaded sides in two illustrations.

early chinese character text

Illustration 1 consists of two parts: on the left, a mountain slope or wall; on the right, the sun rising above the horizon with rays shining down. This image signifies the sunny side, later simplified to the character for yang (陽).

Illustration 2, with a mountain slope on the left and a house roof above clouds on the right, indicates the side shaded from the sun, later simplified to the character for yin (陰).

Thus, from the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese had the concept of yin and yang, and by the end of this era, they utilized the concept of yin and yang to develop the Bagua, divination techniques, and the I Ching. They used the ten heavenly stems (e.g., Jia, Yi, Bing, Ding…) and the twelve earthly branches (e.g., Zi, Chou, Yin; Mao…) to denote days and months (as seen in the divination example above), and they certainly had a lunar calendar.

Farmers lived in the countryside, while craftsmen resided in cities. Technology was relatively advanced. Pottery of high quality, nearly comparable to porcelain, and bronze work featuring animal shapes, including sheep, elephants, rhinoceroses, and birds, were produced; they also cast bronze weapons with considerable artistic skill.

Cities of that time were small. Excavations in Anyang, the largest city of the Shang Dynasty and its final capital, revealed that its perimeter was only 800 meters. The royal palace faced south, consisting of three halls (ming tang), each built of wood with double roofs. The central hall served as the court meeting place, with the ancestral temple of the royal family to the east and the shrine to the Xiang river god to the west.

North of the palace stood a marketplace; the south was reserved for court officials and some craftsmen who made weapons, chariots, and other items from bronze… Bronze artifacts from this period were among the most exquisite in the world.

Writing appeared during the Shang Dynasty on oracle bones and bronzes. In Chapter 2, I discussed the origins of Chinese characters, their benefits and drawbacks, so I won’t repeat that here.

King Zhou

According to ancient historians, the last king of the Shang Dynasty, King Di Xin, also known as King Zhou, was valiant but indulgent (notably with his consort Daji), extravagant, and imposed heavy taxes. He forced his people to build palaces and man-made lakes, was cruel, established severe punishments, and ignored the admonitions of his ministers, much like King Jie of the Xia Dynasty. Like King Jie, he was ultimately attacked by the vassal states, but unlike Jie, who was deposed and exiled, Zhou set his palace on fire and leapt into the flames to his death. According to Eberhard, Zhou was killed by the King of Zhou.

Some scholars, noting the striking similarities between the legends of Kings Jie and Zhou, question the credibility of these accounts. However, Gernet suggests that such accounts could be true, as excavations in Anyang indicate that the late Shang kings were indeed extravagant and brutal; human and animal sacrifices were numerous in rituals and funerals, with a significant number of wine vessels among the pottery and bronze artifacts unearthed. The Zhou Dynasty later criticized the Shang for their excessive fondness for wine and beauty.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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