The Shang Dynasty, 1600 to 1050 AD (2023)

Selena Lai de Waka Takahashi Brown
November 2006
available in PDF format( 180,78 KBThe Shang Dynasty, 1600 to 1050 AD (1))

(Video) The Shang Dynasty - Chinese History

Extract fromChinese Dynasties Part 1: The Shang Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, 1600 B.C. until 907 AD

The Shang dynasty marked China's Middle Bronze Age and was a dynasty that made important contributions to Chinese civilization. Scholars do not entirely agree on the dates and details of the early Chinese dynasties, but most agree that the Shang dynasty is the first to leave written records and strong archaeological evidence of its existence. The Shang are the second dynasty of the Three Dynasties period. Legends speak of the ancient Xia dynasty, but no written records from that period have been found to confirm this. Although texts written after the Shang dynasty mention the Xia dynasty, Western scholars argue that they are insufficient to prove that it actually existed. Therefore, most Western scholars consider the legendary Xia to be an early civilization that existed between the Neolithic and Shang cultures. But many Chinese scholars firmly believe that Xia existed, even though no written records have ever been found.

Since the Three Dynasties civilization occupied the Yellow River Valley, this geographical area is often referred to as the birthplace or cradle of Chinese civilization. While this is true in some respects, it must be remembered that the Shang were only one of several contemporary civilizations in China.1It may have been the only one with written records, but that doesn't mean it was the only one in existence. Recently discovered archaeological sites outside the Yellow River Valley reveal distinct Shang cultures, and scholars are now trying to determine how much these cultures influenced each other.

oracle bone

Prior to the discovery of the Shang oracle bones and the interpretation of their bronze inscriptions and inscriptions, scholars had no firm evidence that the Shang dynasty existed. Up to this point, Shang history had been based largely on historical accounts written long after the end of the Shang period. Shang bronze inscriptions were often very short. With so little information, scholars have questioned whether the dynasty even existed. The information and details inscribed on the oracle bones matched the records in texts written centuries later, providing the evidence scholars needed. Oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions mark the beginning of Chinese historiography.

The king, or professional diviners commissioned by the king, used oracle bones to make predictions about the future or to answer questions such as: "Will the king have a son?", "Will it rain tomorrow?", "If we send 3,000 men to battle, will we succeed?" or “Is the long drought caused by ancestor X?”2The scribe carved the question into a bone (usually the shoulder bones of buffalo or other cattle) or a tortoiseshell plastron.3On the other side of the bone, or plastron, he scratched a series of small holes. He then inserted a hot metal rod into these holes until the bone broke; and the king or diviner interpreted the cracks. The scribe then engraved the answer and the final result on the other side of the bone.

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By analyzing inscriptions on oracle bones, other artifacts, and archaeological sites such as tombs and ancient cities, scholars have been able to reconstruct many details of the Shang civilization. They confirmed the names of their kings, their style of government, their military history, their religious beliefs and rituals, and their society.

The kingdom

According to legend, the Shang dynasty was founded around 1600 B.C. Founded by a virtuous man named Cheng Tang, who overthrew the evil king of the legendary Xia. The Shang dynasty was a monarchy ruled by a succession of kings, 29 or 30 in all, for almost 600 years.4The king was served by officials who held specialized positions of authority and function; and the officials belonged to a hereditary class of aristocrats, generally related to the king himself.5

Although the king lived and ruled from a capital, it was not always the same city. Although historical records mention many different Shang capitals, few have been corroborated by archaeological evidence. No one knows exactly why a king would move the capital, but some scholars believe it has to do with internal power struggles within the royal family.

Cheng Tang is said to have established the dynasty's first capital in a city called Shang (near modern Zhengzhou), but later kings moved the capital many times, most recently to a place called Yin (near modern Anyang). Archaeological evidence suggests that the city of Shang was the dynasty's ancestral capital and remained in one fixed location throughout the dynasty. Here the Shang kings kept their most sacred temples, tablets, and ancestral regalia. Kings lived and ruled in the political capital. While the political capital changed many times during the dynasty, the ancestral capital never changed.6

The core of the dynasty was in the northern part of present-day Henan province, in a triangular area between the cities of Anyang, Luoyang, and Zhengzhou, the latter two on the Yellow River. Archaeologists have not only uncovered the remains of several Shang cities, but have also found huge tombs of many Shang kings and their families. Although the dynasty was concentrated in this area, its culture reached further.

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As the oracle bones and other artifacts and records have shown, the Shang kings were constantly at war with outsiders, both near and far. Many of the oracle bones asked questions related to battles, such as the outcome of an upcoming battle or how many men should be sent into battle. The king sent armies of up to 13,000 men to fight battles on behalf of the kingdom. The victorious armies brought in prisoners of war, up to 30,000 at a time, who became workers or ritual sacrifices.7The armies also helped conquer new territories, returning valuable resources to the kingdom.


The Shang worshiped "Shang Di", the supreme god who ruled over the lower gods of the sun, moon, wind, rain, and other natural forces and places.8They also worshiped their ancestors because they believed that although their ancestors lived in heaven after they died, they were still actively involved in family and descent matters. Kings communicated with their ancestors through oracle bones and often made sacrifices to them. As in many other societies, animals were sacrificed to royal ancestors and various nature gods.9Using sacrifices to ask the ancestors or gods for help and feeding the ancestors or gods to keep them strong.10They believed that if they did not worship their ancestors properly, their family and kingdom would suffer many calamities.

Because the Shang believed in the afterlife and ancestor worship, they thought very seriously about burial and what should accompany the deceased to his grave. The huge and ornate tombs of the Shang royal family are testament to their strong beliefs. Among the many treasures buried in the tombs of important people were the remains of many other people. Some were nameless individuals captured during the battle and used as human sacrifices in burials. Others were relatives or subordinates of the deceased. This practice of burying people of lower rank reflected the Shang belief that those related by blood or service in life to a king or lord should continue that relationship in death.11

Shang contributions to Chinese civilization

The Shang made many contributions to Chinese civilization, but four particularly define the dynasty: the invention of writing; the development of stratified government; the advancement of bronze technology; and the use of chariots and bronze weapons in warfare.

The invention of writing
Oracle bone inscriptions are the oldest known form of Chinese writing. By comparing and equating the inscriptions with modern Chinese characters, scholars have shown that the Shang had already developed all the principles of the modern writing system in use today. In fact, the Chinese script has changed relatively little since it was first developed 3,500 years ago.

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Because the Shang documents were originally engraved on long-deteriorated strips of bamboo and silk, the oracle bones and bronze inscriptions contain the only written history of the Shang era. Since the Shang bronze inscriptions were very brief and did not say much, most of what is known about the Shang dynasty comes from the oracle bones. Towards the end of the Shang, bronze objects were also inscribed with script.

A stratified government and society
The Shang political system was hierarchical, meaning it had many hierarchical levels and many specialized functions and jobs, all inherited from a noble family. Shang society was also hierarchical with many different levels of social standing.

The invention of writing had a profound impact on Shang rule and their ability to rule. Government's ability to organize on a large scale has increased, whether it is to oversee top-down administration; to govern the many territories of the state; organize the extraction of large quantities of ore for tanning; carry out large military campaigns; build walls and palaces; or build elaborate tombs for yourself.

brass technology
The Shang dynasty existed during China's Bronze Age. Back then, bronze represented power, wealth and luxury. Looking at how the Shang used bronze, it is clear that only those with a certain level of power in the empire had access to the use of bronze items. Shang bronzes fall into two categories: weapons or ceremonial vessels for food and wine. The vast majority of the pieces are ceremonial vessels and speak of a society and culture that valued rituals such as funeral rites, celebrations, and worship of gods and ancestors. Bronze was not used for common tools like hammers or hoes.

Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of Shang bronze pieces ranging from small objects to huge food and wine containers weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The craftsmanship and workmanship of the bronze pieces demonstrate the Shang's mastery of bronze technology. The Shang perfected a technique known as mold casting, an intricate process of creating a clay mold. carve a design on it; pour molten bronze into the mold; Break the mold; and add handles as a final step. The actual shape, design, and decoration of ritual vessels have changed over time in accordance with the changing meaning of rituals and belief systems.

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The use of chariots and bronze weapons in war
The advancement of bronze technology and the use of bronze weapons gave the Shang army a great advantage over their enemies and completely changed the way they fought wars. They used newly developed weapons such as the bronze-tipped halberd and spear, the compound bow; and above all they used horse-drawn carriages.

The chariot, probably introduced to western Asia, completely changed the way battles were fought. The carriages allowed commanders to monitor their troops efficiently and over long distances. They also gave soldiers a significant advantage over their opponents, making them highly mobile and fast. Since warfare was the center of life during the Shang dynasty, these weapon developments were very important in allowing the Shang to maintain their military supremacy.

O Fim do Shang

The Shang dynasty ended around 1050 BC. when the conquerors of the Zhou state invaded the capital and successfully overthrew the Shang dynasty. The Zhou conquerors claimed to overthrow the Shang dynasty on moral grounds. They said that the Shang king was evil and that heaven no longer wanted him to rule. They blamed the downfall of the Shang on excessive alcohol consumption, the indulgent lifestyle, and immoral behavior of their king. The sinking remained a warning to kings and emperors for years to come.


  1. Michael Loewe y Edward L. Shaughnessy, Editores,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, California: Stanford University Press, 1975), 29.
  3. David N Keightley,Sources for Shang history: the oracular bone inscriptions of Bronze Age China(Berkeley, California: 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“, emThe Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaugnessy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 232.
  5. squatting, 30
  6. Chang, 212.
  7. Chang, 194.
  8. Richard Hooker, „Antigua China: The Shang“ (1996), , 1.
  9. Patricia Buckley Ebrey,Cambridge Illustrated History: China(Cambridge, Großbritannien: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 25.
  10. Ebra, 25.
  11. Keightley, "The Shang: China's First Historic Dynasty," 286.


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