Shang Dynasty



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The Shang dynasty in China began when Tang of Shang, a man of great virtue and wisdom, overthrew the decadent emperor Jie, the last of the Xia dynasty. Like the Xia dynasty, the Shang eventually declined and ended with the ignominious rule of the last Shang king, Di Xin. Jiang Ziya, defeated the Shang dynasty at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BC. Di Xin gathered all his treasures around himself in the Palace, and then set fire to his palace and committed suicide. Di Xin in history also known as King Zhou. The name “Zhou” actually appeared after his death.

Unlike the earliest history by the Chinese, there is archaeological evidence of the Shang dynasty, who built their cities in northern China around the eastern parts of the Yellow River. For this reason historians often called the Yellow River civilization. Compare to other greatest civilizations Chinese entered in the Bronze Age later. Bronze-working seems to have entered China around 2000 BC (about one thousand years after its invention in Mesopotamia). Shang dynasty also left a large number of written historical sources. Most of these records are “oracle bones,” which were used to divine the future. The question to the oracle would be written on the bone, and then its answer, and then the real outcomes. So a typical oracle bone would read, “Will the king have a son?” (Question) “Yes” (Answer) “This came to pass” (Outcome). These bones, however, contain the names of the kings of the dynasties and prove that the Chinese accounts of Shang history, which were once believed to be myth by Western historians, are incredibly precise.

The Shang ruled in city-states which were, in turn, ruled over by a capital city. This capital was never fixed; as power shifted, individual city-states would become the capital. The king seems to have served many of the same functions that kings served in other cultures: he was a kind of head priest, the leader of the military aristocracy, and in charge of the economy. Warfare was very common among the Shang cities. At times the cities would battle one another, but on the whole warfare was directed at the non-urbanized populations in northern China.

Culture and religion of the Shang dynasty

The singular aspect of Shang civilization is their invention of writing. Almost all the written records of the Shang have disappeared, for the court records were kept on strips of bamboo. However, inscriptions on bronze and on the oracle bones still survive so we have specimens of the very first Chinese writings. The writing system was originally pictographic, that is, words were represented by pictures that fairly closely resembled the meaning of the word. The picture for “sun,” for instance, looked much like the sun. This pictographic writing eventually developed into the more complex ideographic writing that we are more familiar with. Chinese writing is one of the only contemporary writing systems that still prominently bears traces of its pictographic origins.

Tomb Fu Hao YinXu.
Tomb Fu Hao YinXu. Image source: Wikimedia

At the excavated royal palace of Yinxu, large stone pillar bases were found along with rammed earth foundations and platforms, which according to Fairbank, were “as hard as cement. These foundations in turn originally supported 53 buildings of wooden post-and-beam construction. In close proximity to the main palatial complex, there were underground pits used for storage, servants’ quarters, and housing quarters. In the spring of 1976, the discovery of tomb at Yinxu revealed a tomb that was not only undisturbed, but one of the most richly furnished Shang tombs. With over 200 bronze ritual vessels and 109 inscriptions of Lady Fu Hao’s name, archaeologists realized they had stumbled across the tomb of the militant consort to King Wu Ding, as described in 170 to 180 Shang oracle bones.

The Shang worshipped a figure they called “Shang Ti,” or “Lord on High.” This supreme god ruled over lesser gods of the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, and other natural forces and places. Shang-Ti also regulated human affairs as well as ruling over the material universe. This dual function would, in the Zhou dynasty, be attributed to a more abstract figure, “t’ien,” or “Heaven.” The Shang also believed that their ancestors dwelled in heaven after their death and continued to show an interest in their familiy and descendants. The obligations within the family included, therefore, the ancestors. Failing in one’s duties to the ancestors could bring all sorts of disaster on a family. All of these divine and semi-divine figures, from Shang-Ti to a family’s ancestors, were sacrificed to. However, we know little of the nature or the frequency of these sacrifices. In the Zhou dynasty only the king could sacrifice to Shang-Ti; it is highly likely that Shang-Ti was the “local god” of the Shang kings who was subsequently elevated in order to elevate the Shang themselves. The one disturbing fact of Shang sacrifice is that it certainly involved humans; slaves and prisoners of war were often sacrificed by the hundreds when a king died. Lesser numbers were sacrificed at the founding of a palace or temple.