Shang Dynasty (商朝) Summery of Reign
Shang Dynasty 1766 BC to 1121 BC
Founder: King Tang, who after overthrowing the tyrannical rule of Jie (the last emperor of the Xia Dynasty) in 1675 BC established the Shang Dynasty.
Capital City: At first located near Shanqui, in the South-East part of modern day Henan Province. Later moved through several other locations among which Zhengzhou, the current day Capital of Henan Province to Yin (殷) near Anyang in North Henan Province in around 1384 B.C. As the main capital of the Shang, as archeologist known it today, was based in Yin (the now Xiaotun Village, in Anyang City of Henan Province), the dynasty is also known as ‘Yin Shang’.
Achievements: Bronze Age in China, starting around 1500 BC. Invention of script and beginning of first recorded history.
Bronze vessels from this age sometimes carry primitive signs understood as to name ownership of the item.
Near Anyang, the Capital of the Shang in North Henan Province, inscribed sea-shells and bones have been uncovered, further supporting evidence for the invention and development of script in the Shang Age. The earliest found oracle bones date from around 1300 BC, forming the earliest evidence of written Chinese language (script). After excavations and archeological research could began in earnest in 1928 AD many Oracle Bones were unearthed, yielding an early Chinese Vocabulary of no less than 2500 words. The 2500 words probably represent the oldest surviving language in the world, being modified and simplified, but still in use today.
The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Classic of History the “Records of the Grand Historian”, edited by a famous Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D) court offcial known as Sima Qian. Another current source are the “Bamboo Annals”, a set of writings on bamboo strips uncovered in a tomb dated to the year in 296 B.C.
As is known today, the Shang Dynasty Ruled for over 600 years and produced 30 Emperors.
In the Shang Era Chinese civilization is concentrated in the fertile lower reaches of the Yellow River and its Basin in what is now Shaanxi Province, South-Shanxi Province and Henan Province. The Shandong Peninsula (Province) has its own population centres and most of North China is in reach of Shang Rule and Culture. The valley of the Huai He, south of the Yellow River, is densely populated (for the time and age).
In Shang Times religion was still in the form of ancestor worship, to which many oracle bone finds are proof. Religion was very important in Shang Society, and Priest were the second high class in society after the Feudal Ruling Class who owed much of their rank to family lineage and military conquest. The King was not an Emperor, although he had his own semi-sacred advisors and small army. The King of Shang too was a divine semi-god like creature who was in contact with nature and the elements. Below him stood an army of Feudal Lords, who in return for their loyalty and success in battle were awarded fiefdoms which they then ruled.
The first city walls of a nation that would later become renowned for their wall building appeared in the preceeding Yangshao Culture (found first in Henan Province) in the yellow river basin. Following in their footseps, cities and their defensive walls were further developed by the Shang. As has been found in extensive excavations of the ancient city of Zhengzhou of the Shang Dynasty, the Shang built an elaborate walled city at Zhengzhou, with massive city walls that were both wide and solid at the base, and very high; at least over 10 meters.
The Shang Dynasty Era Walls are much more sophisticated than any of the rammed earth mounds found and dated to the Xia Dynasty Era.
It was the beginning of a tradition of wall building, something that the Chinese would perfect and put to use on a massive scale.
As the world knowns today, eventually the Chinese People descendent from the Shang Culture would go as far as to attempt to build a defensive wall “around” their entire country (only the north; see – Apart from the building of walled cities, the Shang set forth the path of a number of other Xia Dynasty (Yangshao Culture) cultural traits such as agriculture, bronze working (since 2500 B.C.), jade carving and the primitive farming of the silk worm.
During the Shang Dynasty Era, agriculture is the main source of livelihood but is still in primitive stages. Agricullture is of the utmost importance. The people working the Land however are not peasants, but in fact slaves tied to the lands by their rulers. The Shang Society is a slave owning society where the slaves are vital to economic production. Irrigation works and damming of the yellow river is undertaken on a small scale.
Apart from agriculture, fishing as a source of protein and livelihood grows significantly during the Shang Dynasty.
Around 3000 B.C. the first known chariots (two wheeled carts) started to appear in Central Asia, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt where they immediatly were used for the purpose of warfare. Where the early models had large solid wheels, the vehicle quickly developed a more agile form, with open wheels, a light frame and often with rims added for added safetly as well as structural strength. The use of the chariot spread quickly throughout the continent, and as crucial archeological finds at Yin (殷), near Anyang in Henan Province have since proven, by around 2100 B.C. knowledge and adequate use of the chariot had made its way across the Eurasian continent. That is, the
Shang developed their own version of the chariot, larger than the models in use elsewhere, and able to carry three persons.
The chariot is one of the technologies that made the Shang people very succesful, in this case it was put into use in a miltary role.
As the world has learned since first excavations of Yin (殷) at Anyang began in 1927 and 1928 A.D. ,The Shang were China’s first truely cultivated society, to which their many artworks and crafted objects are testament. Other evidence of its technological advances can be found in their horse-drawn chariots, or otherwise in their bronze casting techniques, many of which were also used for the purpose of warfare.
Although in the end of the Yangshao Period, bronze working had been known in Chinese Culture, the Shang were to take its crafting to extra-ordinary heights developing much faster than in other cultures of the early world (Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia, Asia Minor and Greece, etc).
Archaeological work at the Ruins of Yin (殷) (near modern day Anyang), which has been identified as the last Shang capital, uncovered eleven major Yin royal tombs and the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and remains from both animal and human sacrifices.. Through the archeological excavation of, by now, many bronze relics most used for no doubt a ceremonial purpose it is found that artisans of the Shang Dynasty created advanced Bronzes,
masterpieces of bronze casting as well as working that have become the hallmark of the Shang Dynasty Era.
Shang Dynasty Era bronzes are completely distinct from any found in other era’s, not only through their design but further through the elaborate motifs found on their surface, all with a magical design or animal depictions.
To be completely exact, that is Chinese terms, it is said that King Yu of the Xia Dynasty (21 Century B.C. – 17th Century B.C.) had a “Nine Ding”, a ceremonial cauldron made which was an amazing bronze item that came into the possesion of the Shang Dynasty Royal House upon their take over of the Xia Capital. As it would happen, at the end of the 600 year reign of the Shang Dynasty itself, this treasured item would in turn be “inherited” by the Royal House of the Zhou Dynasty.
Meanwhile, however, it seems the interest of the Shang Royals had been roused that much, that after achieving ownership of the item, it was highly reveared and thus became the model of a bronze cult.
To begin with, the “Nine Ding” ceremonial cauldron became a symbol of royalty and of authority in the Shang Culture. As for the original cauldron of the Xia Dynasty, its matter of ownership became the matter of who was the legitimate ruler and thus the ruler of the Dynasty and Nation. The idea and traditional remained in use for the next 2000 years and would last well into the Han Dynasty Era, which still knew its use of ritual vessels, the greater the number, the greater the authority of the owner.
The Shang artisans and metallurgist developed their own unique complicated design, that of the animal head (mask) seen from the front, the T’ao-T’ieh. Other known themes are known as bow-string and Kui-Dragon.
The most famous bronze work from this time, mainly because it is the largest and heaviest ever found, is the Simuwu Quadripod. The gargantuan cauldron was excavated from the Royal Tombs at Yin and weighs a whopping 832.84 kg (about 1836 pounds). According to the customs of the time, the size of the bronzes allowing for the authority of the Ruler, was most probably the ritual object underpinning the authority of the Shang King over his many subjects.
The same master-smiths that created master works of art for their rulers also applied their bronze works to weapons of war such as the battle chariots found in the later found Royal Tombs of the Shang Dynasty at Anyang, the excavations of which are still ongoing.
As can be seen in these finds, the chariots unearthed incorporated various types of bronze items, seen as small parts of the leashes used to lead the horses, and in parts used to strengthen the body of the chariot.
As mentioned, due to the nature of the sites unearthed, excavated bronzes mainly consist of ritual vessels, cooking ware and bronze serving plates used in daily life only by the Shang Elite, but the Shang thus also used various type of bronze weaponry, mainly spears, hacking spears, various types of two-edged swords and daggers.
Other finds are shards of exquisitely painted pottery, craft taken since new heights since the introduction of the pottery turn-table, again during the preceeding Xia Dynasty (around 2500 B.C.). It is during the Shang Dynasty Era that the first Chinese Ceramics (porcelain) is created, soon taking off as a new field of artistic mastery.
Arts and Crafts were highly developed during the Shang Era using materials such as Jade, Bronze, Gold, Porcelain, Marble, Limestone, Wood and Silk. The unrivaled beauty and artistic value of the finds surpass any found in the West, where similar skills developed only some 2000 years later. Other advances included the invention of many musical instruments and observations of Mars and various comets by Shang Dynasty astronomers.
Apart from the first archeological site found near Anyang and the subsequently discovered un-plundered royal tombs nearby, there are several other known Shang Dynasty historic sites.
First among these is the site of the Erlitou culture found in the year 1959 A.D. was in Yanshi, a village situated some ways south of the Yellow River near the famous “Ancient Capital” of Luoyang in Henan Province. Radiocarbon dating performed on finds from this location suggests that the Erlitou culture flourished ca. 2100 BC to 1800 BC. Apart from leaving us lavish tombs and spectacular bronze castings, they built large palaces, the level of sophistication suggesting the existence of a dynastic kingdom preceding the Shang, and so is usually identified with the Xia Dynasty of traditional histories.
After the year 1500 B.C. the Shang Culture had developed far enough to sound in an entirely new era which shows a prospering, richer and even more sophisticated Culture than previously.
Large Walled cities had come into existence, such as one found at Zhengzhou, the current Capital of Henan Province. The earth walls at the Shang Dynasty city site of Zhengzhou which were erected in the 15th century BC, were not mere earthen mounds bu true walls that were 20 metres (66 ft) wide at the base and as high as 8 metres (26 ft). The walls of this “Shang Dynasty City of Zhengzhou” formed a roughly rectangular wall a whapping 7 kilometres (4 miles) around the ancient city.
The rammed earth construction of these walls was an inherited tradition, since much older fortifications of this type have been found at Chinese Neolithic sites of the Longshan culture (c. 3000–2000 BC).
Another main feature of the Shang is their script. Although some say or hold that script was developed at an even earlier time, the first ever “Chinese” script, that is using pictogramps to communicate meanings, was developed by the Shang Dynasty.
As we know today through the finds of so called oracle bonus, and later through the many items unearthed at the Shang Royal Tombs at Anyang, the Shang eventually developed a script that consisted of some 2000 to 2500 (depending on way of interpretation) seperate signs.
So far, the majority of the scripts uncovered have been found on turtle shells and oracle bones, both items used frequently in acts of what is known as “divination”, the calling on the spirits to foretell some kind of future or event. Only a few of the bronzes have been found to carry scripts.
Most of the information contained in the scribles on bones and shells handle matters of eartly existence, such as harvest, marriage and warfare but some also relate to (pre-)astronomical obervation of solar and lunar eclipses.
Although Chinese script has much evolved since, its origins can clearly be traced back to the earliest script of the Shang Dynasty, and in fact some of the signs remain remarkably alike.
The oldest extant direct records dating from The Shang Dynasty were uncovered at the Royal Tombs of Shang at Anyang and start around the year 1200 B.C., describing matters of affairs during the reigns of the last nine Shang kings. Curiously, as has been found via the various sources, The Shang had a fully developed system of writing, preserving over 2000 different signs and leading to questions of its origins. The complexity and sophistication of this writing system indicates an earlier period of development, but direct evidence of that development is still lacking. No script, inscriptions or carvings have been succesfully dated to the Xia Dynasty, leaving no knowledge of a primitive script dveloped before the Shang took power.
What was also uncovered at Anyang, apart from the Royal Burials and their accompanying burial items was a variety of human burials which seem to have been human sacrifices.
The Shang have become a brutal and warring people who nevertheless had a thriving culture and a centrally organized state in which the Shang Ruler, in power from the Capital Yin (near Anyang), distributed power through no less than 6 other Capital Cities, all of whom were the home of subjugate rulers, aristocrats who had a further following of hierachy of officials who together managed trade as well as warfare. The advanced bronze casting techniques of Shang gave them a military advantage as well, with the first bronze spears and swords created in China.
The Tombs of Shang rulers contain multitudes of human sacrifices, presumed to have been house-hold slaves or prisoners of war, aligned inside the Tombs along with chariots and ritual objects for use in the afterlife. Among these, due to the strict structure of Shang Society in which the ruling class had complete control over the production of the artisans, especially bronzes and jade objects.
Chinese people, the Yin, reach the Americas floating on rafts from islands in the pacific following the Japan current to Alaska and the North-american west coast. Their ancestry can be traced in the features and DNA make up of native American people of today.