Ancient History of China II
(Zhang YouBen)



Shang-Dynasty

(1600 B.C. - 1100 B.C.)


The Dawn of the Empire


In 1899 the river Yuan close to Xiaotun, a village northeast of Anyang in the Henan-province, flooded. Large amounts of tortoise shells and bones were discovered beneath the stratums of earth which the water had washed away. Ancient chinese characters were carved on these findings, and no one at that time was able to intepret them. In 1928-37 people discovered great parts of Yin, the last capital of Shang-dynasty near Anyang. It was by then people found out that the findings they made in 1899 really belonged to the royal oracle-archive. More than one hundred thousand tortoise shells and bone-fragments, containing 3500 different characters, constituted this archive. About one thousand of them had been successfully intepreted. The texts are mostly short and contain great information of the line of kings. Because of these memoirs historians had managed to form a true picture of the religious and political relations during Shang.

After the defeat of the last king of Xia-dynasty circa 1600 B.C., the kingdom of Shang took over the assumption of power, and large areas around the river of Huanghe were put under the rule of the new royal house. The oracle-archive contained the reign of eleven kings, starting with Pan'geng, the ninteenth king of Shang and end with Dixin, almost two hundred years later. According to the ancient writings, the king often moved his capital from one place to another, and historians have still not come up with any true explanation to this. The reason might had been the living habits of the people, which means that they probarly were nomads. Another reason could have been the people's great trust to the royal oracle, which rapidly determined when they should leave and where they should settle down. The second and maybe the first of many capitals that had been discovered since the years of 1950, the city of Ao, founded by the tenth king of Shang, was discovered close to Zhengzhou, south of Huanghe and approximately 150 kilometers south of Anyang. Yin, the seventh and the last of the capitals of Shang, was founded by Pan'geng in the year of 1300 B.C.

The kingdom of Shang stretched from the eastern Shaanxi in the west to the central Shandong in the east, and from the southern Hebei in the north to the northern Hubei and Anhui in the south. In the ancient Longshan-culture one could already find villages, surrounded by walls, grow up in the eastern parts of this area. The cities founded by Shang, grew rapidly both in size and amount. One of the reason to this increased urbanization, must had been the introduction of the feudal-society during the last half of the Shang-dynasty. Both members from the royal house and the ordinary families whom they were related to, could take over large areas far away from the capital. These so-called vassal-princes were bounded to pay tax and to support the king with soldiers and weapon during wartime. The supreme authority belonged to the war-caste, and they could use armed force to claim their demands of tax and work from their subjects.

The written sources tells nothing about the inhabitants and their way of living. During the reign of Shang the chinese came to a climax in their bronze-development. According to the archeological findings, historians could not find anything worth-mentioned in the change from the stoneage to the blooming bronze-culture during Shang. The farmers probarly lived in the village-socities as independent peasants, with duties like paying taxes and working for the upper authority. The farmers didn't gain much in their daily work, probarly just enough to keep them from starving. Agriculture was in fact the most important industry at that time, and millet, wheat and rice played a very determined role. Another important industry was cattle breeding, which contributed great results to the development of the economy. While ordinary people worked theirself almost to death, the arictocratic goverment enjoyed themselves with the temptations of life. Among the members of the royal house, hunting was without doubt the most interesting "royal hobby" at that time. Hunting often strengthened the good relationships between the prince and his vassals, and it also contributed to their daily practise in the use of arms.

Shangdi - The Highest Ruler


According to oracle-texts and ancient legends, the royal members of Shang looked upon themselves as descendants of a mysterious god. During the Shang-reign, the king (wang) had the greatest display of power. He had the ability to cross the border towards the supernatural, and people worshipped him as the link between the heavenly forces and the tiny human beings. This position of power gave the king a huge authority to put through a both political and religious dictatorial rule across the country.

The Shang-dynasty included 36 kings during a period of 17 generations. Historians have still not found out how the Act of settlement was determined at that time, but one believed that it was the deceased king's younger brother or his oldest son who usually inherited the throne. The Shang-dynasty was build upon a patriarchal system, and archeological findings have proved that the people worshipped their male ancestors (zu). During the reign of Shang people worshipped both spirits of nature and the soals of their ancestors. Shangdi had the highest rank among all spirits, it was the symbol of The Highest Ruler, a supernatural force which ruled the human world. Alike with the king, Shangdi had a lot of subjects, both heavenly and earthly spirits. It was also believed that the soals of the king's ancestors often paid Shangdi a visit, and it were these soals the Shang-king usually turned to when he wanted to send his prays and questions to The Highest Ruler.

Similarly to other chinese empires, Shang-dynasty was also influenced by superstition. The king often went to the oracle to seek answers to different kinds of things, everything from sacrifices to outcomes of military campaigns. Every time the king faced the oracle, he always had the trusty fortune teller by his side. Once the the royal question was made, the fortune teller took either a tortoise shell or a flat piece of bone out and touched it with a hot iron-stick. When this material was exposed to incredible heat, a lot of cracks appeared on the back of this shell. The fortune teller then intepreted these signs as the answers to the king's questions and wishes. Sometimes both questions and answers were carved on these shells. The answer from the oracle was either yes or no, and the king was told if an effort was worhtly or bad. Usually the oracle didn't answer them right away, the fortune teller often had to figure out when they could recieve it. With the aid from a complicated system; by putting together all of the ten heavenly tribes (tiangan: jia, yi, bing, ding, wu(mou), ji, geng, xin ren, gui) with all of the twelve earthly branches (dizhi: zi, chou, yin, mao, chen, si, wu, wei, shen, you, xu, hai) in a right order, the fortune teller could create a time-cycle and then calculate the exact time to receive the answers from above.

The worship of ancestors during Shang-dynasty involved sacrifices. Different kinds of sacrifice were carried through; one of them (liao) was to burn the victims, another kind (chen) was to drown them. Even though human-sacrifices were rapidly carried through, they usually killed enemy-soldiers instead of innocent civilians. This great worship of ancestors did not only involve bloody sacrifices but it also contributed a lot of human lives to the burial traditions. When a member of the royal family passed away, not only weapons and jewels were buried with him or her, but also a lot of servants and innocent people were beheaded and buried in these graves in hope that they should follow their king to the other side. Also animals were killed and buried along with the deceased. The arcehological findings of decapitated corpses have proven this matter. Archeologists have even found the remainders of an elephant in one of these tombs.

The Great Reign of Shang


Zhengzhou in Henan-province, where the royal family and the aristocracy lived, was both a political and religious center in the kingdom of Shang. Villages across the country were bounded together in a large network of constant deliveries of goods and services, and it all went through this capital and were sorted out. It was the royal clan Zi who who was in charge of this great kingdom, and only members of this clan were appointed regional administrators. The royal administration was based on mutual loyalty, and the kingdom was divided into several large regions, where each one of them was put under rule of nobles. These noblemen were responsible for the defense against foreign attackers, recruiting soldiers to the royal army and collecting tributes. Even though these noblemen were working for the king, they still looked upon themselves as independent chieftains. Between 1400 B.C and 1350 B.C the Shang-capital was moved to Anyang, in the northern part of Henan. This period was later known as the golden age of The Shang Dynasty. Archeological findings showed that there was no city wall surrounding Anyang, and this was a sign of a strong display of power. Anyang was a great city, containing the oldest known trace of large chinese rectangular buildings, some of them could be up to sixty metres long. Archeologists had also found eleven royal shrines nearby, and all of them contained war-machines, gold and of course remainders of human sacrifices.

The Fall of The Kingdom









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