The Shang Dynasty of Ancient China

Contributed by:
This booklet is based around the Yellow River in central China and is sometimes called the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was a Bronze Age culture, so they didn't know ironworking. The writing was first developed in China in this period and many written texts were incised onto bones found in archaeological excavations.
1. Unit 9: The Shang Dynasty of Ancient China
Ancient Civilizations option 1600BCE – 1046BCE
Period Overview
The Shang Dynasty is the first well-documented, through written texts and archaeology, dynasty in China though
earlier ones are mentioned in Chinese legend. It was based around the Yellow River in central China and is
sometimes called the cradle of Chinese civilisation. It was a Bronze Age culture, so they didn't have knowledge of
iron working. Writing was first developed in China in this period and many written texts were incised onto bones
found in archaeological excavations. The culture was ruled over by a king and his relatives were the government.
Archaeological excavations have revealed towns with palaces, tombs and craft working areas, such as Shang near
modern-day Zhengzhou and Yin near modern-day Anyang.
Life during the Shang Dynasty Changing Times
The majority of the people who lived under the Shang It seems as though successive kings, possibly from
Dynasty were farmers. They grew millet, wheat and competing noble families within the Shang Dynasty,
barley but not so much rice, which was farmed further moved the capital city around over the centuries. The
south. A large irrigation scheme was constructed to earliest capital city may be Shang, which is thought to
bring the water from the Yellow River to the crops. be a city excavated near Zhengzhou. The last capital of
They also kept sheep, pigs and oxen. It seems as if, the Shang is Yin, near modern-day Anyang.
even at this time, the silkworm may have been The development of writing happened within the
domesticated to produce silk. The farmers probably Shang Dynasty and made it easier for the government
lived outside the big cities. to conduct wars, organise craftsmen, and generally
There were also craftsmen who worked in workshops create a bureaucracy.
just outside the city walls. Remains of jade, bone, As time went on, the religion developed from having
pottery, and bronze-working have been found by priests who would conduct divining ceremonies to see
archaeologists in these areas. Most of what they made into the future to the king himself conducting such
would have been for use by the king and his nobles. ceremonies. The questions and method itself didn't
The king and the nobles lived inside the walled cities. change. Tortoise shells or ox shoulder bones were
The palaces had rammed earth floors and pillars to inscribed with a question, often about an upcoming
keep up the roof, whereas lower ranking people lived war, but also about when to plant seeds or whether
in wooden houses. There were temples where animal the king would have a son, for instance, and then a
and human sacrifices were made to the Shang Di, the number of shallow pits would be drilled into the other
supreme god who ruled over the lesser gods of the side. Hot pokers would be thrust into these pits and
wind, sun and moon, among others. Bronze vessels the pattern of cracks would tell the diviner or king the
were used to collect blood from these offerings. answer, which was also inscribed onto the bone.
Possible Enquiry Questions Key Individuals
 History versus. archaeology – which is more  Cheng Tang – said to be the founder of the Shang
reliable? Dynasty, who overthrew the legendary Xia Dynasty
 Why did the Shang kings need to write?  Fu Hao – wife and military general of Wu Ding, buried
 Did people in the Shang period believe in an in style in about 1200 BC
 Who was Fu Hao and why was she unusual?  Di Xin – last of the Shang kings who lost against the
 What's the difference between a king, a priest Zhou
and an emperor?  Sima Qian – author of the Records of the Grand
 Should Chinese objects be returned to China? Historian in 91 BC
2. Timeline of Key Events:
Erlitou phase: 1650 BCE - 1500 BCE
Erligang phase: 1500 BCE - 1300 BCE
Anyang/Yinxu phase: 1300 BCE - 1000 BCE
All dates below are approximate
1600-1500 BCE Capital at Shang near Zhengzhou
1300 BCE Capital moved to Yin near Anyang
1250-1192 BCE Reign of Wu Ding
1200 BCE Tomb of Fu Hao, Wu Ding's wife
Oracle bone inscribed with early writing9
1147-1113 BCE Reign of Wu Yi
1112-1102 BCEReign of Wen Ding
What did the Shang Dynasty
1101-1076 BCEReign of Di Yi
ever do for us? 1075-1046 BCEReign of Di Xin
Modern Chinese writing has evolved directly from the 1046 BCE End of Shang Dynasty
early written symbols developed in the Shang period.
The writing was developed to express calendar dates 1899CE 'dragon bones' used in Chinese
and so is linked with the organisation of the year into medicine were found inscribed
time periods that helps farmers plan ahead. These 1928CE 'dragon bones' traced back to a site
developments are paralleled in the development of near Anyang, which was excavated
writing and calendars in Europe.
Big Concepts Broader Context
Exploring how archaeological evidence and written  The Bronze Age started in Europe around 3000 BC
evidence is different and complimentary. This topic also and continued to about 800 BC.
gives you the chance to talk about the reliability of oral  Writing and the calendar was developed in
histories written down many centuries after the events Mesopotamia around 3500 BC, the earliest in the
world. In Mesoamerica, the two were not
they describe.
developed until about 300 BC.
The nature of government, and change from largely  Early civilisations were:
egalitarian societies to a very hierarchical structure can  the Indus Valley in about 2600-1900 BC;
be explored through this topic.  the Assyrian kingdom in 2400-1800 BC;
The invention of writing and the calendar are notably  the Ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom from 2700 BC
to 2200 BC;
tied into developments in government.
 the Minoan civilisation on Crete from 1900-1100
Places to Visit: Further Information:
Although obviously no sites of significance exist in the British Museum information :
UK, objects from the Shang Dynasty period of China are
found in some British Museums, such as:
 British Museum, London Cultural China:
 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
 Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
 National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh China Culture :
 Museum of East Asian Art, Bath
 Durham University Oriental Museum, Durham
Oracle Bone image [] by Kiss Tamás is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0
Unported License. The licence can be viewed at