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Shang Dynasty — Empire of Bronze Age and Oracle Bones

Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) was the first kingdom in Chinese history, directly documented by words in inscriptions on oracle bones.

 

It was also an era marked by the creation of exquisite bronze wares and jade articles, each whispering stories of the ancient empire and carrying a cultural legacy that transcends time.

 

Spanning approximately 554 years of the Shang Dynasty's rule, about 31 kings reigned over 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

Shang Dynasty Facts

 

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

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

 

From then on, all of 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 scripts were about the noble’s diving activities.

 

Witchcraft, ghost, supernatural, and ancestor worship were dominant ideologies during this period.

 

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

 

It dramatically decreased in late Shang, when some monarchs, like King Wu Yi, vigorously challenged the theocracy. 

  • 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. 

 

They were 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 were other civilizations 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 has now 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 successfully assisted Yu the Great in defending the Great Flood and made remarkable contributions. Consequently, King Shun rewarded Xie with his feudatory state 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 valuable information about the Xia Empire. 

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

The Shang Dynasty was established after its final success.

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Turquoise Artifact of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Dragon Shaped Turquoise Artifact of Shang — Harvard Art Museums (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 then.

 

People considered him crazy, while more states started to rebel against the Kingdom of Shang. 

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

 

He was ambitious and intelligent and had vastly extended Shang's eastward and southward realms.  

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 severe losses within his kingdom, rebellions, and betrayals. 

One day, a strong state named Zhou attacked King Di Xin's capital city.

 

After intensive fights, the king failed, and his loyal soldiers were all sacrificed.

Di Xin, the Shang Empire's last king, then wore all 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 ruled by Shang's complied nobles. 

Unearthed Jade Figures of the Shang Dynasty

Unearthed Jade Figures of Shang — National Museum of China

Development and Flourishing of the Shang Dynasty

 

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 Fu Hao, the first female marshal in Chinese history, had achieved glorious military successes.

 

Her mausoleum was discovered; those unique relics tell her extraordinary life and exciting stories. 

This couple led their people, defeated invasive enemies, and 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)

Political Structure and Social Systems of the Shang Empire

 

Population

 

The population of the Shang Dynasty is estimated to have ranged from about 5 million to 10 million people.

 

Political System

 

Specialized officers were assigned various roles within the Shang Dynasty, overseeing sacrifice and worship ceremonies, historical documentation, military activities, divination, astrology, law and judiciary, horse and chariot matters, education, tax collection, agriculture and livestock, business, industry, wine production, ceremony and etiquettes, music, and more.

Official Selection System

 

The Shang Empire operated on an aristocratic hereditary system, where political power and leadership were passed down within privileged and noble families.

 

Tax

 

In the context of taxation during the Shang Dynasty, the system involved citizens contributing to the cultivation of specific public farmlands, which were owned by the royal or noble families. 

Shell Currency of the Shang Dynasty

Shell Currency of Shang

Military Service

 

  • Every individual in the kingdom bore the obligation to enlist in the army, actively participating in the defense of their land and ensuring the safety of their own families.

 

  • Nobles and civilians were eligible to become warriors, whereas enslaved individuals were restricted to miscellaneous tasks.

 

  • The King of Shang held the role of the supreme military commander, and at times, personally led the army into battle.

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)

Shang Dynasty Achievements in Science and Technology

 

  • 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 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. 

Shang Dynasty Art and Artifacts

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

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