Shang Dynasty — Empire of Bronze Age and Oracle Bones

Restoration Map of Palace of the Shang Dynasty

Restoration Map of Palace of the Shang Dynasty

 

What Is Shang Dynasty?

 

Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) was the first kingdom in Chinese history that was directly documented by words in the inscriptions on oracle bones, which had developed exquisite bronze wares and jade articles. 

 

In around 554 years of the Shang's ruling period, about 31 kings had reigned the empire. 

Jade Figurine Wearing A Phoenix Crown of the Shang Dynasty

Jade Figurine Wearing A Phoenix Crown of the Shang — National Museum of China

 

Facts About the Shang Dynasty

 

  • Shang is the first dynasty that has both archaeological evidence and written history.

  • The inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of Shang, which were excavated in the early 20th century, documented many of their important events and divination activities. 

 

From that time on, all history has been documented using Chinese characters, clearly and continuously.

Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells of the Shang Dynasty

Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells of Shang, the Earliest Extant Chinese Writing System

  • Divination was an important belief for the people of Shang; most of the oracle bone inscriptions were about the noble’s diving activities.

 

Witchcraft, ghost, supernatural, and ancestor worship was the dominant ideology during this period.

 

  • Human Sacrifice was quite popular, most of whom were prisoners of war.

 

It dramatically decreased in late Shang, when the theocracy was strongly challenged by some monarchs, like King Wu Yi

  • Bronze vessels were well developed and used in people’s daily lives. 

Ceremonial Bronze Cooking Utensils (Ding) of the Shang Dynasty Decorated with Mythical Animals' Patterns

Ceremonial Bronze Cooking Utensils (Ding) of Shang Decorated with Mythical Animals' Patterns — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Shang Empire had changed its capital city seven times; it was finally settled after King Pan Geng chose and decided to move to Yin (the relic site of Yin is now in the Anyang City of Henan Province in China),  a city with good political and military values.

  • There are some other civilizations in other places in China during this period, like the Sanxingdui Ruins (http://www.sxd.cn/en/) and Tanheli Relic Sites.

  • The first female general Fu Hao in ancient Chinese written history was from the Shang Empire; her well-preserved grave now has been excavated. 

  • Jade wares were quite popular in people's lives, from grand sacrificial ceremonies to accessories. 

Unearthed Jade Wares of Shang — National Museum of China, Shanghai Museum, The Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, etc.

 

Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Shang Dynasty

 

 

Origin and Bird Totem of the Shang Clan
 

More than 4000 years ago, a colorful swallow flew to a young woman and laid an egg in front of her; she got pregnant after eating that egg, and then gave birth to a baby boy named Xie. 

After this boy grew up, he assisted Yu the Great defended the Great Flood successfully and made remarkable contributions. Consequently, Xie was rewarded his feudatory state by King Shun, and named this clan Shang. 

Xie was an excellent monarch with advanced skills in astronomy and agriculture, so his state kept expanding under his rule. 

The following Lords of Shang invented carriages and ox carts, which allowed them to develop the bartering business and accumulate property.

 

As a dependent state, Shang respected the kings of the Xia Dynasty as the most honorable monarch and kept paying tributes. 

Unearthed Owl Shaped Bronze Wine Vessel (Xiao You) of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Owl Shaped Bronze Wine Vessel (Xiao You) — Shanxi Museum

Establishment of the Shang Empire

 

A Lord of Shang, named Tang, was quite ambitious; he moved his capital city to a better place and kept making alliances with those who were dissatisfied with King Si Jie of the Xia Dynasty. 

Then an all-mighty, slave-born minister named Yi Yin made a connection with the queen of King Si Jie and got much useful information about the Xia Empire. 

Lord Tang and Yi Yin together, defeated states that were still loyal to Xia, and then won the final war against King Si Jie. 

The Shang Dynasty was established after the final success.

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Turquoise Artifact of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Turquoise Artifact of Shang — Harvard Art Museums (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Development and Flourishing

 

Because of bad weather, and political conflicts among the ruling class, the Shang Empire kept moving their capital city, until King Pan Geng settled in the City Yin and finished those endless conflicts.

 

Since then, the Shang had stepped into the chapter of prosperity. 

When the crown came to King Wu Ding, a remarkable monarch, the kingdom reached to peak. 

His queen Lady Fu Hao, the first female marshal in Chinese history, had achieved glorious military successes. Her mausoleum now was discovered; those amazing relics are telling her great life and exciting stories. 

This couple led their people and defeated invasive enemies, and largely expanded their territory. 

Bronze Weapons (Ya Chou Yue) of the Shang Dynasty
Unearthed Bronze Weapon Yue of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Bronze Weapons (Yue) of Shang — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Controversial Last King and Ending of the Shang Empire

 

Decades later, a controversial monarch, King Wu Yi, ascended to the throne. He was an Atheist who kept challenging the Theocracy, which was unacceptable at that time. People considered him crazy, while more states started to rebel against the Kingdom of Shang. 

The last King of Shang was Di Xin, who was considered quite controversial.

 

He was ambitious and smart and had largely extended Shang's realm eastward and southward.  

Bronze Softshell Turtle With Four Arrows on Back that Recorded King Di Xin's Archery Etiquette

Bronze Softshell Turtle With Four Arrows on Back that Recorded King Di Xin's Archery Etiquette — National Museum of China 
Inscriptions on it noted that King Di Xin shot four arrows on a large softshell turtle accurately, and rewarded it to an historiographer.

However, those expansion wars also caused serious losses within his kingdom, as well as rebellions and betrayals. 

A strong state named Zhou, one day, attacked King Di Xin’s capital city. After intensive fights, the king failed, and his loyal soldiers were all sacrificed.

Di Xin, Shang's last king, then, wore all of his precious jewelry and clothes and burnt himself in his favorite fancy palace. 

After the Shang Dynasty ended, some of their people refused to surrender and moved northward far away; others stayed and were given lands that were ruled by Shang's complied nobles. 

Unearthed Jade Figures of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Jade Figures of Shang — National Museum of China

 

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Shang Dynasty

 

Population:

 

About 5 million to 10 million.

 

Political System:

 

Specialized officers were assigned to be in charge of sacrifice and worship ceremony, historic documentation, military activity, divination, astrology, law and judiciary, horse and chariot, education, tax, agriculture and livestock, business, and industry, wine, ceremony, and etiquettes, music, etc.

Official Selection System:

 

Aristocratic Hereditary.

 

Tax:

 

People should help the cultivation of some public farmlands, which belonged to the royals.

Shell Currency of the Shang Dynasty

Shell Currency of Shang

Military Service:

 

Everyone in the kingdom had the obligation to fight in their army and protect their family.

 

The nobles and civilians could serve as warriors, while slaves were only allowed to do miscellaneous affairs.

 

King of Shang was the supreme military commander, sometimes the king also led his army and fought in battles.

 

Land System:

 

All farmland belonged to the Kings of Shang; peasants could cultivate land in local communities. 

Unearthed Bronze Dart Head of Fishing Tools of the Shang Dynasty

Bronze Dart Head of Fishing Tools of Shang — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Scientific Achievements and Artifacts of the Shang Dynasty

 

  • Application of the Decimal System and the Four Fundamental Operations of Arithmetic.

  • Formed an advanced calendar system that considered movements of the sun and the moon, and added an intercalary month every a few years to adjust and balance the day numbers of each year. 

 

  • Starting with freshwater fish farming. 

 

  • The specialized handicraft industry led to the development of business and pedlar. 

Gallery of Exquisite Unearthed Bronze Wares of Shang (Photo by Dongmaiying)