The Shang, 1766-1050 BC


The Shang Dynasty, 1766-1050 BC

   In history according to the Chinese, the Shang dynasty began when T'ang, a man of great virtue and wisdom, overthrew the decadent emperor Chieh, the last of the Hsia dynasty. Like the previous dynasty, the Shang eventually declined and ended with the ignominious rule of the last Shang king, Chou; he was overthrown by King Wen and his son Wu who began the third dynasty of China, the Chou.

   Unlike the early accounts of history by the Chinese, there is archaeological evidence of the Shang, who built their cities in northern China around the eastern parts of the Yellow River. For this reason they are called the Yellow River civilization. They were a bronze age people; bronze-working seems to have entered China around 2000 BC (about one thousand years after its invention in Mesopotamia). They also left us a large number of written records. Most of these records are "oracle bones," which were used to divine the future. The question to the oracle would be written on the bone, and then its answer, and then the real outcomes. So a typical oracle bone would read, "Will the king have a son?" (Question) "Yes" (Answer) "This came to pass" (Outcome). These bones, however, contain the names of the kings of the dynasties and prove that the Chinese accounts of Shang history, which were once believed to be myth by Western historians, are incredibly precise.

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Shang Dynasty Map


   The Shang ruled in city-states which were, in turn, ruled over by a capital city. This capital was never fixed; as power shifted, individual city-states would become the capital. The king seems to have served many of the same functions that kings served in other cultures: he was a kind of head priest, the leader of the military aristocracy, and in charge of the economy. Warfare was very common among the Shang cities. At times the cities would battle one another, but on the whole warfare was directed at the non-urbanized populations in northern China.

Writing

   The singular aspect of Shang civilization is their invention of writing. Almost all the written records of the Shang have disappeared, for the court records were kept on strips of bamboo. However, inscriptions on bronze and on the oracle bones still survive so we have specimens of the very first Chinese writings. The writing system was originally pictographic, that is, words were represented by pictures that fairly closely resembled the meaning of the word. The picture for "sun," for instance, looked much like the sun. This pictographic writing eventually developed into the more complex ideographic writing that we are more familiar with. Chinese writing is one of the only contemporary writing systems that still prominently bears traces of its pictographic origins.
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The Story of Writing
Chinese Writing


Religion

   The Shang worshipped a figure they called "Shang Ti," or "Lord on High." This supreme god ruled over lesser gods of the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, and other natural forces and places. Shang-Ti also regulated human affairs as well as ruling over the material universe. This dual function would, in the Chou dynasty, be attributed to a more abstract figure, "t'ien," or "Heaven." The Shang also believed that their ancestors dwelled in heaven after their death and continued to show an interest in their familiy and descendants. The obligations within the family included, therefore, the ancestors. Failing in one's duties to the ancestors could bring all sorts of disaster on a family. All of these divine and semi-divine figures, from Shang-Ti to a family's ancestors, were sacrificed to. However, we know little of the nature or the frequency of these sacrifices. We do know, however, that in the Chou dynasty only the king could sacrifice to Shang-Ti; it is highly likely that Shang-Ti was the "local god" of the Shang kings who was subsequently elevated in order to elevate the Shang themselves. The one disturbing fact of Shang sacrifice is that it certainly involved humans; slaves and prisoners of war were often sacrificed by the hundreds when a king died. Lesser numbers were sacrificed at the founding of a palace or temple.

The Chou, 1050-256 BC

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97