The Shang Dynasty : China’s Bronze Age

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This booklet depicts the history of Chinese civilizations, describing its Shang Dynasty, Oracle, kingdoms, religion, their contributions to Chinese civilizations.
1. Fall 2007
question onto a bone (most often the shoulder bones of water
b u ffalo or other cattle) or a tortoise plastron. On the other side of
The Shang Dynasty, 1600 to 1050 BCE
the bone or plastron he would carve a number of small pits. He
then inserted a hot metal rod into these pits until the bone cracked;
The Shang Dynasty marked the middle of China’s Bronze and the king or diviner interpreted the cracks. Then, on the other
Age and was a dynasty that made great contributions to Chinese side of the bone, the scribe carved the answer and the eventual
civilization. Scholars do not fully agree on the dates and details of outcome.
the earliest Chinese dynasties, but most accept that the Shang
Dynasty is the first one to have left behind written records and By analyzing oracle bone inscriptions, other artifacts, and
solid archaeological evidence of its existence. The Shang is the a r c h a eological sites such as tombs and ancient cities, scholars have
second dynasty of the Three Dynasties Period. Legends speak of been able to piece together many details of Shang civilization.
the earlier Xia dynasty, but no written records from that time have They have confirmed the names of its kings, its style of government,
been found to confirm this. Even though texts written later than the its military history, its religious beliefs and rituals, and its society.
Shang Dynasty mention the Xia Dynasty, Western scholars argue
that they are not enough to prove it truly existed. Therefore, most The Kingdom
Western scholars regard the legendary Xia as an early civilization
that existed between the Neolithic and Shang cultures. But many According to legend, the Shang Dynasty was founded sometime
Chinese scholars firmly believe that the Xia did indeed exist even around 1600 BCE by a virtuous man named Cheng Tang, who over-
if written records have never been found. threw the evil king of the legendary Xia. The Shang Dynasty was
a monarchy governed by a series of kings, 29 or 30 in total, over the
Because the Three Dynasties’ civilization occupied the Yellow 4
course of almost 600 years. The king was served by officials who held
River valley, this geographic area is often called the birthplace or specialized positions of authority and function; and the off i c i a l s
cradle of Chinese civilization. While this is true in some regard, belonged to a hereditary class of aristocrats, usually related to
one must keep in mind that the Shang was but one of several the king himself.
c o ntemporary civilizations in China. It may have been the only
one with written records, but that does not mean it was the only one While the king lived in and ruled from a capital city, it wasn’t
in existence. More recently discovered archaeological sites far away always the same city. Although historical records mention many
from the Yellow River valley reveal distinctly different cultures different Shang capitals, only a few have actually been confirmed
from the Shang, and scholars are now trying to determine how with archaeological evidence. No one knows exactly why a king
much these cultures influenced each other. would move the capital but some scholars think it had to do with
i n t e rnal power struggles within the royal family.
Oracle Bones
Cheng Tang is said to have established the dynasty’s first capital at
Before the discovery of the Shang oracle bones and the a town called Shang (near modern-day Zhengzhou), but later kings
interpretation of their inscriptions and bronze inscriptions, moved the capital many more times, the last being a place called
s c h o lars had no firm proof that the Shang Dynasty existed. Up to Yin (near modern-day Anyang). Archaeological evidence suggests
that point, Shang history had been based heavily on historical that the town of Shang was the ancestral capital of the dynasty that
accounts written long after the Shang period ended. Shang bronze remained in a fixed location throughout the dynasty. It was where
inscriptions were usually very short. With so little information, the Shang kings kept their most sacred ancestral temples, tablets,
scholars questioned whether the dynasty even existed. The and regalia. The political capital was where the kings lived and
information and details inscribed onto oracle bones matched what ruled from. While the political capital moved many times during
was recorded in texts written centuries later, thereby providing the the dynasty, the ancestral capital never moved.
evidence scholars needed. The oracle bone inscriptions and the
bronze inscriptions mark the beginning of written Chinese history. The core of the dynasty was located in the northern part of
modern-day Henan province, in a triangular area between the cities
The king or professional diviners hired by the king used oracle of Anyang, Luoyang, and Zhengzhou, the latter two of which are on
bones to make predictions about the future or to answer questions the Yellow River. In addition to uncovering the remains of several Shang
such as, “Will the king have a son?”, “Will it rain tomorrow?”, “If cities, archaeologists have found huge tombs of many Shang kings
we send 3,000 men into battle, will we s u cceed?”, or even “Is the and their families. Even though the dynasty was centered in this
long drought caused by ancestor X?” The scribe carved the
2. area, its culture reached places much farther away. system used today. In fact, Chinese writing has underg o n e
r e l a t i v ely few changes since it was first developed 3,500 years
As the oracle bones and other artifacts and records revealed, the Shang ago.
kings were constantly at war with outsiders near and far. Many of the
oracle bones bore questions related to battles, such as the outcome Since Shang documents were originally recorded on strips of
of a future battle or how many men to send into battle. The king sent bamboo and silk that have long since decomposed, the oracle
out armies of as many as 13,000 men to fight battles on behalf of the bones and bronze inscriptions bear the only written history from the
kingdom. Victorious armies brought back prisoners of war—as Shang era. Since Shang bronze inscriptions were very short and did
many as 30,000 at a time—who either became laborers or ritual not say much, most of what is known about the Shang Dynasty is
sacrifices. The armies also helped gain new territories and from the oracle bones. Toward the end of the Shang, writing was
bring back precious resources for the kingdom. also inscribed on bronze objects.
Religion A Stratified Government and Society
The Shang political system was organized into a hierarchy,
The Shang worshipped the “Shang Di,” who was the supreme god meaning that it had many levels of rank and many s p e c i a lized
that ruled over the lesser gods of the sun, the moon, the wind, the functions and jobs, all passed down within a noble family. Shang
rain, and other natural forces and places. They also worshipped society was also hierarchical with many different levels of social
their ancestors because they believed that although their ancestors rank.
lived in heaven after their death, they were still actively involved
in the affairs of family and descendants. The kings communicated The invention of writing had a profound effect on Shang
with their ancestors using oracle bones and made frequent sacrifices to government and its ability to rule. It increased the government’s
them. As in many other societies, they sacrificed animals to royal ability to organize on a large scale, whether it be to oversee a
ancestors and to various nature gods, using sacrifices to ask the hierarchical administration; rule the state’s many territories; organize
ancestors or gods for help and to feed the ancestors or gods to keep the mining of large quantities of ore for bronzework; wage
them strong. They believed that if they failed to properly worship l a rge military campaigns; construct city walls and palaces; or
their ancestors, their family and the kingdom would experience build elaborate tombs for themselves.
many disasters.
Bronze Technology
Because the Shang believed in the afterlife and ancestor worship, The Shang Dynasty existed during China’s bronze age. At that
they thought very seriously about burial and what was to time, bronze represented power, wealth, and luxury. By looking at
accompany the deceased to his or her grave. The vast and the way bronze was used by the Shang, it is clear that only those with
e l a b orate tombs of the Shang royal family are signs of their strong any degree of power in the kingdom had access to using bronze
beliefs. Among the many treasures buried in important people’s objects. Shang bronzes fall into two categories: weapons or
tombs were the remains of many other people. Some were ceremonial vessels for food and wine. By far, most of the pieces
nameless individuals who had been captured during battle and are ceremonial vessels and speak of a society and culture that
used as human sacrifices at burials. Others were relatives or valued rituals, such as rituals for burial, celebration, and
l o w e r-ranking dependents of the deceased. This practice of worshipping gods and ancestors. Bronze was not used for
burying lower-ranking people reflected the Shang’s belief that c o mmon tools, such as hammers or hoes.
those related to a king or lord by blood or service in life were
expected to continue that relationship in death. Archaeologists have dug up thousands of Shang bronze pieces,
ranging from small objects to huge food and wine vessels
weighing as much as 2,000 pounds. The artistry and workmanship of
Shang Contributions to Chinese Civilization the bronze pieces reveal the Shang’s mastery of bronze technology.
The Shang perfected a technique known as piece-mold casting, a
The Shang made many contributions to Chinese civilization, complicated process that involved creating a mold out of clay;
but four in particular define the dynasty: the invention of writing; carving a design into it; pouring molten bronze into the mold;
the development of a stratified government; the advancement of cracking the mold away; and adding handles as a final step. The
bronze technology; and the use of the chariot and bronze weapons actual shape, design, and decoration of ritual vessels changed over
in warfare. time according to changing importance of rituals and belief systems.
The Invention of Writing The Use of the Chariot and Bronze Weapons in Warfare
The oracle bone inscriptions are the oldest known form of Chinese The advancement of bronze technology and the use of bronze
writing. By comparing and equating the inscriptions to modern weapons gave the Shang military great advantage over their
Chinese characters, scholars have shown that the Shang had enemies and completely changed the way they fought wars. They
already developed all the principles of the modern writing used newly-developed weapons like the bronze-tipped halberd and
3. spear, the compound bow; and most importantly, they used
horse-drawn chariots.The chariot, which had most likely
been introduced from western Asia, completely changed
the way battles were fought. Chariots allowed commande r s
to supervise their troops efficiently and across great
d i stances. They also gave soldiers a significant edge over
their opponents by making them highly mobile and fast.
Since war was central to life during the Shang Dynasty,
these developments in weapons were very important in
allowing the Shang to maintain its military supremacy.
The End of the Shang
The Shang Dynasty ended in about 1050 BCE , when
c o nquerors from the state of Zhou invaded the capital and
successfully toppled the Shang Dynasty. The Zhou conquerors
claimed to overthrow the Shang Dynasty for moral reasons.
They said that the Shang king was evil and that heaven no
longer wanted him to rule. They blamed the Shang’s down-
fall on its king’s excessive drinking, indulgent lifestyle, and
immoral behavior. The downfall remained a cautionary tale
to kings and emperors for years to come.
1 Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, editors, The
Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of
Civilization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1999), 14.
2 Charles O. Hucker, China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to
Chinese History and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press, 1975), 29.
3 David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle Bone
Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 1978), 6.
4 Kwang-Chih Chang, Shang Civilization (New Haven CT: Yale
University Press, 1980), 6; David N. Keightley, “The Shang:
China’s First Historical Dynasty,” in The Cambridge History of
Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., edit-
ed by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaugnessy, (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999), 232.
5 Hucker, 30.
6 Chang, 212.
7 Chang, 194.
8 Richard Hooker, “Ancient China: The Shang” (1996),
, 1.
9 Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History: China
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 25.
10 Ebrey, 25.
11 Keightley, “The Shang: China’s First Historical Dynasty,” 286.