The Shang dynasty (Chinese: 商朝; pinyin: Shāngcháo), also historically known as the Yin dynasty (殷代; Yīndài), was the second dynasty of China, succeeding the semi-mythical Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. The Shang dynasty is the earliest dynasty of traditional Chinese history firmly supported by archaeological evidence. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated the dynasty's reign from c. 1600 BC to 1046 BC based on the carbon 14 dates of the Erligang site.

Shang (Yin)

商 (殷)
1600 BC–1046 BC
This map depicts various advanced, stratified societies that existed during the period of the Shang state.
This map depicts various advanced, stratified societies that existed during the period of the Shang state.
Location of the main archaeological sites of the Shang dynasty
Location of the main archaeological sites of the Shang dynasty
  • Bo, Xiao, Xiang, Xing, Bi, Yan
    (1600-1300 BC, Early Shang Dynasty)
  • Yin
    (1300-1046 BC, Late Shang Dynasty)
  • Zhaoge
    (Auxiliary Capital)
Polytheism, Chinese folk religion
• 1675-1646 BC
King Tang of Shang
(dynasty's reign established)
• 1540-1528 BC
King Tai Jia
• 1315-1287 BC
King Pan Geng
(moved the capital to Yīn)
• 1250-1192 BC
King Wu Ding
• 1075-1046 BC
King Di Xin
(last King)
• 1600-1549 BC
Yi Yin
• 1250-1192 BC
Fu Yue
Historical eraBronze Age
1600 BC
• New Capital Yin
1300 BC
1046 BC
1050 BC3,200,000 km2 (1,200,000 sq mi)
• 1050 BC
CurrencyBronze Cowry
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Xia dynasty
Zhou dynasty
Today part ofChina
Shang (Chinese characters).svg
"Shang" in oracle bone script (top left), bronze script (top right), seal script (bottom left), and modern regular (bottom right) Chinese characters
Hanyu PinyinShāng

The King was the supreme ruler of the Shang dynasty. Under the King was the highest government official. At first, there was only one Chancellor. In Wu Ding period, it was increased to three people, called Three Ducal Ministers. Three Ducal Ministers led a decision-making group, providing advice for the King, and handling specific government affairs. In the Shang Dynasty, there was also the Diviners Group, which was responsible for providing religious advice for the King. The Shang Dynasty established relatively complete laws, government and a standing army.[1]

The Shang Dynasty's territory was divided into two parts: internal and external region. Internal region was territory around the capital, directly controlled by the central government. External region was territory in which the dynasty established control through war. In the external region, the dynasty set up military bases, sent a large number of noble officials such as Marquis, Dian, Earl, Baron, and Wei. Cooperation with local power elites was necessary to maintain order, collect information, and extract revenue. The lords had to fulfill certain obligations to the King, including providing military service, paying tribute to the King, garrisoning the frontiers or border region. In oracle bone script, there are "Eastern Censor", "Western Censor", and "Royal Northern Censor", with multiple tasks such as inspection, supervision, and assistance in local affairs. The Censors could participate in local decision-making, and representing the central dynasty in government and military aspects. All lands in the country belonged to the King in nominal terms. Each lord was given land, and his power was legitimised by nominal allegiance to the King.[2] The King had the right to control the land and population possessed by the nobles and vassals, the King also could promote nobles to a higher rank or punish them. From the perspective of the King's power, it can be seen that the Shang dynasty was not an alliance of vassals, but an autocratic monarchy.[3]

The Anyang site has yielded the earliest known body of Chinese writing, mostly divinations inscribed on oracle bones – turtle shells, ox scapulae, or other bones. More than 20,000 were discovered in the initial scientific excavations during the 1920s and 1930s, and over four times as many have been found since. The inscriptions provide critical insight into many topics from the politics, economy, and religious practices to the art and medicine of this early stage of Chinese civilization.[4]

Traditional accountsEdit

Houmuwu Ding, a royal ritual vessel, the heaviest piece of bronze work found in China so far. 1215-1171 BC, National Museum of China.

Many events concerning the Shang dynasty are mentioned in various Chinese classics, including the Book of Documents, the Mencius and the Zuo Zhuan. Working from all the available documents, the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian assembled a sequential account of the Shang dynasty as part of his Records of the Grand Historian. His history describes some events in detail, while in other cases only the name of a king is given.[5] A closely related, but slightly different, account is given by the Bamboo Annals. The Annals were interred in 296 BC, but the text has a complex history and the authenticity of the surviving versions is controversial.[6]

The name Yīn (殷) is used by Sima Qian for the dynasty, and in the "current text" version of the Bamboo Annals for both the dynasty and its final capital. It has been a popular name for the Shang throughout history. Since the Records of Emperors and Kings by Huangfu Mi (3rd century AD), it has often been used specifically to describe the later half of the Shang dynasty. In Japan and Korea, the Shang are still referred to almost exclusively as the Yin (In) dynasty. However, it seems to have been a Zhou name for the earlier dynasty. The word does not appear in the oracle bones, which refer to the state as Shāng (商), and the capital as Dàyì Shāng (大邑商 "Great City of Shang").[7] It also does not appear in securely-dated Western Zhou bronze inscriptions.[8]

Pre-dynastic mythEdit

The origin myth of the Shang dynasty's ruling house, the House of Zi, is described by Sima Qian in the Annals of the Yin. In the text, a woman named Jiandi (簡狄), who was the second wife of Emperor Ku, swallowed an egg dropped by a black strigidae (玄鳥) and subsequently gave birth miraculously to Xie (偰) — also appearing as Qi (契). Xie is said to have helped Yu the Great to control the Great Flood and for his service to have been granted a place called Shang as a fief.[9] The Classic of Poetry described this myth as "Heaven commissioned the strigidae, to descend and give birth to Shang". Shangjiawei (上甲微) was the 9th head of Shang clan since Xie, while he ranked first in the order of the ancestor worship rite of the royal house's descendants. The inscriptions that prayers scripted on oracle bones all begin with "Since Shangjiawei...". The oracle bone inscriptions have a clear lineage arrangement for the Kings of Shang descending from Shangjiawei. It may be because the Shang clan began to invent writing systems during the Shangjiawei period, while the lineage before him might be originated from legend and myth. There are more than 1,100 oracles wrote about him, ranking first among the Kings of Shang, showing that how much people of Shang respected him.[10]

Dynastic periodEdit

In the Annals of the Yin, Sima Qian writes that the dynasty's reign was established 13 generations after Xie, when Xie's descendant Tang overthrew the impious and cruel final Xia ruler in the Battle of Mingtiao. After the establishment of his reign, King Tang ordered his officials to make laws to rule the people and make moral rules and music to establish a harmonious society. In order to consolidate his governance, Tang also changed the nobles' color of clothes. He ordered to use white as the most noble costume color. During the early Shang dynasty, Chancellor Yi Yin helped Tang set up different institutions, resulting in stability in politics as well as economic benefits.[11]

After Tang died, two of his sons succeeded the throne, but they both died early. Therefore, Chancellor Yi Yin ruled as a regent under Tang's grandson, Taijia of Shang. What follows is uncertain. According to the Book of Documents, Yi wrote three essays to Taijia regarding his rule (伊訓 chapter of the Shangshu). After reading the essays, Taijia managed to adhere by them for the first two years, but failed to do so from the third. He started to rule as he pleased, and no longer followed any of the laws that the ancients had followed. He treated his subjects cruelly. He did not listen to Yi's advice. Yi, seeing that Taijia would not give in, exiled the King to the Palace of Tong and became the temporary ruler of China. Alternately (太甲 chapters in the Shangshu), Yi approached Taijia with a number of oral admonitions which were not heeded to, causing Taijia's exile. The measure was successful, the king transformed.

Oracle shell with inscriptions.

After three years, Taijia was released and Yi, along with some officials, returned Taijia back to the capital and returned the throne back to him. He started to use less oppressive laws and ruled the kingdom properly. After Taijia's death, the next king, Woding of Shang, took over. On Woding's eight year as king, Yi died. According to some legends, he was one hundred years old. Woding arranged a funeral for Yi Yin that was made for the king. He sacrificed cattle, sheep and swine, and mourned for three years.[12]

Zi Dragon Ding, a royal ritual vessel, named for the inscription on the interior wall which reads the royal house's name "Zi" and "Dragon". Late Shang dynasty, National Museum of China

In the Records of the Grand Historian, Zhong Ding was listed by Sima Qian as the tenth dynastic King of Shang, succeeding his father Tai Wu. He was enthroned in the year of Xinchou with Bo as his capital. In the first year of his reign he moved his capital to Ao. In the sixth year of his reign he attacked the Blue Barbarians (蓝夷). He ruled for 11 years (other sources say 9 years) before his death. He was given the posthumous name Zhong Ding. After his death, his brothers fought for the throne by their own power. Zhong Ding's younger brother Wai Ren succeeded after Zhong Ding's death, causing chaos in the Shang Dynasty's inheritance of the throne for more than 100 years. According to the Records, because of the royal family's struggle for throne, the Shang dynasty moved their capital five times, with the final move to Yin in the reign of Pan Geng inaugurating the golden age of the dynasty.[13]

Wu Ding was the 23rd King of Shang dynasty and the earliest figure in the histories of the Chinese dynasties who has been confirmed by contemporary records. The annals of the Shang dynasty compiled by later historians were long thought to be little more than legends until oracle script inscriptions on bones dating from his reign were unearthed at the ruins of his capital Yin in 1899.[14] He cultivated the allegiance of neighbouring tribes by marrying one woman from each of them. His favoured consort Fu Hao entered the royal household through such a marriage and took advantage of the slave society hierarchy to rise through the ranks to military general and high priestess. Another of Wu Ding's wives, Fu Jing, was responsible for overseeing agricultural production, as this was the subject she divined about most frequently. [15] In the thirty-second year of his reign, he sent troops to Guifang (鬼方) and after three years of fighting he conquered it. The Di and Qiang barbarians immediately sent envoys to Shang to negotiate. His armies went on to conquer Dapeng in the forty-third year of his reign, and Tunwei in the 50th year of his reign. He died in the fifty-ninth year of his reign according to all the sources available. Widely regarded as one of the best kings of the Shang dynasty, he was given the posthumous name Wu Ding and was succeeded by his son Zu Geng.

Religious reformEdit

The sacrifices hosted by the diviners of the Shang Dynasty were a kind of cruel religious superstition. After King Wu Yi ascended the throne, he realized that this behavior violated humanity. At the same time, in order to get rid of the diviners' restrictions on his power, he was determined to reform. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, he ordered the craftsman to sculpt a puppet, with a majestic appearance and a crown, called a "God of Heaven". After a while, he asked "God of Heaven" to play chess with himself, and ordered another courtier to play chess on behalf of the puppet. The courtier was afraid of Wu Yi, kept giving ground and ended with a big loss. Wu Yi beat the puppet. Wu Yi also made a leather bag, filled with animal blood, hung on a tree branch. He shot arrows one by one at the bag and broke through it. The animal blood sprayed out and Wu Yi called it "Shooting the Heaven".

These actions of Wu Yi negated the religious authority, which led to the decline of diviners' power; he advocated the righteousness and love at the same time. The human sacrifice in the Shang Dynasty were greatly reduced since then. Later, Wu Yi went on a hunting trip between Wei River and Luo River and died of an illness. The diviners who hated him tried to spread rumors, claiming that Wu Yi was punished by the God of Heaven during the hunting trip and was stroke to death by a thunderstorm.[16]

Fall of the dynastyEdit

Zhou was a vassal state of Shang Dynasty in the western region. As the Zhou's threats increasing, King Di Wending killed Zhou's leader Jili, intensifying the conflict between Shang Dynasty and Zhou. During the period of King Di Yi and King Di Xin (last King of Shang), Dongyi barbarians were very strong and often invaded the border regions of the Shang Dynasty. Since his childhood, Di Xin followed his father, Di Yi, participated in many campaigns across the country. He realized the deep contradictions inside and between the ethnic groups and the corruption and incompetence of many nobles. After ascending the throne, he took a series of measures to reform. He strengthened the kingship, expelled, imprisoned, or killed some nobles who were doing evil, and appointed a large number of commoners as officials.[17] After many brutal battles and appeasements, King Di Xin finally conquered Dongyi barbarians. He also sent General Feilian to the north to promote economic and cultural exchanges in the Huaihe River Basin, the Yangtze River Basin, and the northern grassland areas. Punitive expeditions greatly consumed society's manpower and resources, and increased social conflicts.[18] At the same time, Di Xin's brother Wei Zi was dissatisfied with his disqualification to inherit the throne, and the nobles who were punished also hated Di Xin. They allied with Zhou who conspired to usurp the throne. King Wu of Zhou also allied the vassal states of Jiang, possibly tribes such as Yong, Shu, Dong, Qiang, Lu, etc., and rebelled together to fight against the imperial dynasty. At this moment, the elite troops of the Shang were not at the capital due to the crusade against Dongyi. There also were senior noble traitors in the Shang Dynasty as the internal response. The Zhou army annihilated Di Xin’s army. After the Battle of Muye, Di Xin committed suicide by setting himself on fire at the palace.[19] Legends say that Di Xin's army and his equipped slaves betrayed him by joining the Zhou rebels in the decisive Battle of Muye. According to the Yi Zhou Shu and Mencius the battle was very bloody. The classic, Ming-era novel Fengshen Yanyi retells the story of the war between Shang and Zhou as a conflict with rival factions of gods supporting different sides in the war.

After the Shang were defeated, King Wu allowed Di Xin's son Wu Geng to rule the Shang as a vassal kingdom. However, Zhou Wu sent three of his brothers and an army to ensure that Wu Geng would not rebel.[20][21][22] After Zhou Wu's death, the Shang joined the Rebellion of the Three Guards against the Duke of Zhou, but the rebellion collapsed after three years, leaving Zhou in control of Shang territory.

Descendants of the Shang royal familyEdit

After Shang's collapse, Zhou's rulers forcibly relocated "Yin diehards" (殷頑) and scattered them throughout Zhou territory.[23] Some surviving members of the Shang royal family collectively changed their surname from the ancestral name Zi (子) to the name of their fallen dynasty, Yin. The family retained an aristocratic standing and often provided needed administrative services to the succeeding Zhou dynasty. The Records of the Grand Historian states that King Cheng of Zhou, with the support of his regent and uncle, the Duke of Zhou, enfeoffed Weiziqi (微子啟), a brother of Di Xin, as the Duke of Song, with its capital at Shangqiu. This practice was known as 二王三恪 ("enfeoffment of three generations for two kings"). The Dukes of Song would maintain rites honoring the Shang kings until Qi conquered Song in 286 BC. Confucius was possibly a descendant of the Shang Kings through the Dukes of Song.[24][25][26]

The Eastern Han dynasty bestowed the title of Duke of Song and "Duke Who Continues and Honours the Yin" (殷紹嘉公) upon Kong An (孔安 (東漢)) because he was part of the Shang dynasty's legacy.[27][28] This branch of the Confucius family is a separate branch from the line that held the title of Marquis of Fengsheng village and later Duke Yansheng.

Another remnant of the Shang established the vassal state of Guzhu (located in present-day Tangshan), which Duke Huan of Qi destroyed.[29][30][31] Many Shang clans that migrated northeast after the dynasty's collapse were integrated into Yan culture during the Western Zhou period. These clans maintained an élite status and continued practicing the sacrificial and burial traditions of the Shang.[32]

Both Korean and Chinese legends, including reports in the Book of Documents and the Bamboo Annals, state that a disgruntled Shang prince named Jizi, who had refused to cede power to the Zhou, left China with a small army. According to these legends, he founded a state known as Gija Joseon in northwest Korea during the Gojoseon period of ancient Korean history. However, scholars debate the historical accuracy of these legends.

Early Bronze Age archaeologyEdit

Map of Shang-style bronzes unearthed spots in China

Before the 20th century, the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) was the earliest Chinese dynasty that could be verified from its own records. However, during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), antiquarians collected bronze ritual vessels attributed to the Shang era, some of which bore inscriptions.[33]

Yellow River valleyEdit

In 1899, several scholars noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling "dragon bones" marked with curious and archaic characters.[33] These were finally traced back in 1928 to a site (now called Yinxu) near Anyang, north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province, where the Academia Sinica undertook archeological excavation until the Japanese invasion in 1937.[33]

Archaeologists focused on the Yellow River valley in Henan as the most likely site of the states described in the traditional histories.

After 1950, the remnants of the earlier walled settlement of Shang City were discovered near Zhengzhou.[33] It has been determined that the earth walls at Zhengzhou, erected in the 15th century BC, would have been 20 m (66 ft) wide at the base, rising to a height of 8 m (26 ft), and formed a roughly rectangular wall 7 km (4 mi) around the ancient city.[34][35] 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).[34]

Upper: Archaeological excavation site of a royal tomb with 4 tomb passages, 1930s at Yinxu
Lower : One of the royal tombs with one tomb passage at Yinxu
Bronze 'jia'. Handle shaped in bull's head and 'taotie' masks on the body. 1200 BC (circa), British Museum

In 1959, the site of the Erlitou culture was found in Yanshi, south of the Yellow River near Luoyang.[34] Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Erlitou culture flourished ca. 2100 BC to 1800 BC. They built large palaces, suggesting the existence of an organized state.[36] In 1983, Yanshi Shang City was discovered 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) north-east of the Erlitou site in Yanshi's Shixianggou Township. This was a large walled city dating from 1600 BC. It had an area of nearly 200 hectares (490 acres) and featured pottery characteristic of the Erligang culture.

The remains of a walled city of about 470 hectares (1,200 acres) were discovered in 1999 across the Huan River from the well explored Yinxu site. The city, now known as Huanbei, was apparently occupied for less than a century and destroyed shortly before the construction of the Yinxu complex.[37][38]

Chinese historians were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, and readily identified the Erligang and Erlitou sites with the early Shang and Xia dynasty of traditional histories. The actual political situation in early China may have been more complicated, with the Xia and Shang being political entities that existed concurrently, just as the early Zhou, who established the successor state of the Shang, are known to have existed at the same time as the Shang.[32] It has also been suggested the Xia legend originated as a Shang myth of an earlier people who were their opposites.[39] The other opinion argues that the successor state was one of the vassals of the reigning dynasty.

Jade deer, Shang Dynasty, Shanghai Museum

Other sitesEdit

The Erligang culture centred on the Zhengzhou site is found across a wide area of China, even as far northeast as the area of modern Beijing, where at least one burial in this region during this period contained both Erligang-style bronzes and local-style gold jewelry.[32] The discovery of a Chenggu-style ge dagger-axe at Xiaohenan demonstrates that even at this early stage of Chinese history, there were some ties between the distant areas of north China.[32] The Panlongcheng site in the middle Yangtze valley was an important regional center of the Erligang culture.[40]

Accidental finds elsewhere in China have revealed advanced civilizations contemporaneous with but culturally unlike the settlement at Anyang, such as the walled city of Sanxingdui in Sichuan. Western scholars are hesitant to designate such settlements as belonging to the Shang dynasty.[41] Also unlike the Shang, there is no known evidence that the Sanxingdui culture had a system of writing. The late Shang state at Anyang is thus generally considered the first verifiable civilization in Chinese history.[7]

In contrast, the earliest layers of the Wucheng site, pre-dating Anyang, have yielded pottery fragments containing short sequences of symbols, suggesting that they may be a form of writing quite different in form from oracle bone characters, but the sample is too small for decipherment.[42][43][44]

Genetic studiesEdit

A study of mitochondrial DNA (inherited in the maternal line) from Yinxu graves showed similarity with modern northern Han Chinese, but significant differences from southern Han Chinese.[45]

Absolute chronologyEdit

The earliest securely dated event in Chinese history is the start of the Gonghe Regency in 841 BC, early in the Zhou dynasty, a date first established by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian. Attempts to establish earlier dates have been plagued by doubts about the origin and transmission of traditional texts and the difficulties in their interpretation. More recent attempts have compared the traditional histories with archaeological and astronomical data.[46] At least 44 dates for the end of the dynasty have been proposed, ranging from 1130 BC to 1018 BC.[47]

  • The traditional dates of the dynasty, from 1766 BC to 1122 BC, were calculated by Liu Xin during the Han dynasty.[48]
  • A calculation based on the "old text" of the Bamboo Annals yields dates of 1523 BC to 1027 BC.[48]
  • David Pankenier, by attempting to identify astronomical events mentioned in Zhou texts, dated the beginning of the dynasty at 1554 BC and its overthrow at 1046 BC.[48]
  • The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project identified the establishment of the dynasty with the foundation of an Erligang culture walled city at Yanshi, dated at c. 1600 BC.[49] The project also arrived at an end date of 1046 BC, based on a combination of the astronomical evidence considered by Pankenier and dating of arcaeological layers.[50]

Late Shang at AnyangEdit

Oracle bones pit at Yin

The oldest extant direct records date from approximately 1200 BC at Anyang, covering the reigns of the last nine Shang kings. The Shang had a fully developed system of writing, preserved on bronze inscriptions and a small number of other writings on pottery, jade and other stones, horn, etc., but most prolifically on oracle bones.[51] The complexity and sophistication of this writing system indicates an earlier period of development, but direct evidence of that development is still lacking. Other advances included the invention of many musical instruments and celestial observations of Mars and various comets by Shang astronomers.[52]

Their civilization was based on agriculture and augmented by hunting and animal husbandry.[53] In addition to war, the Shang also practiced human sacrifice.[54] Crania of sacrificial victims have been found to be similar to modern Chinese ones (based on comparisons with remains from Hainan and Taiwan).[55][56]Cowry shells were also excavated at Anyang, suggesting trade with coast-dwellers, but there was very limited sea trade since China was isolated from other large civilizations during the Shang period.[57] Trade relations and diplomatic ties with other formidable powers via the Silk Road and Chinese voyages to the Indian Ocean did not exist until the reign of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty (206 BC–221 AD).[58][59]

Royal courtEdit

Fuhao Xiao Zun, bronze wine vessels shaped in owl, originally unearthed from the tomb of Queen Fuhao as a pair of two. One is being kept by the National Museum of China, the other is being kept by the Henan Museum.

At the excavated royal palace of Yinxu, large stone pillar bases were found along with rammed earth foundations and platforms, which according to Fairbank, were "as hard as cement".[33] These foundations in turn originally supported 53 buildings of wooden post-and-beam construction.[33] In close proximity to the main palatial complex, there were underground pits used for storage, servants' quarters, and housing quarters.[33]

Fu Hao turquoise-inlaid ivory cup, 1200 BC, Shang Dynasty

Many Shang royal tombs had been tunneled into and ravaged by grave robbers in ancient times,[60] but in the spring of 1976, the discovery of Tomb 5 at Yinxu revealed a tomb that was not only undisturbed, but one of the most richly furnished Shang tombs that archaeologists had yet come across.[61] With over 200 bronze ritual vessels and 109 inscriptions of Lady Fu Hao's name, Zheng Zhenxiang and other archaeologists realized they had stumbled across the tomb of King Wu Ding's most famous consort, Fu Hao, who is mentioned in 170 to 180 Shang oracle bone inscriptions, and who was also renowned as a military general.[62] Along with bronze vessels, stoneware and pottery vessels, bronze weapons, jade figures and hair combs, and bone hairpins were found.[63][64][65] The archaeological team argue that the large assortment of weapons and ritual vessels in her tomb correlate with the oracle bone accounts of her military and ritual activities.[66]

The capital was the center of court life. Over time, court rituals to appease spirits developed, and in addition to his secular duties, the king would serve as the head of the ancestor worship rite. Often, the king would even perform oracle bone divinations himself, especially near the end of the dynasty. Evidence from excavations of the royal tombs indicates that royalty were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The Shang king, in his oracular divinations, repeatedly showed concern about the fang groups, the barbarians living outside of the civilized tu regions, which made up the center of Shang territory.[clarification needed] In particular, the tufang group of the Yanshan region were regularly mentioned as hostile to the Shang.[32]

Apart from their role as the head military commanders, Shang kings also asserted their social supremacy by acting as the high priests of society and leading the divination ceremonies.[67] As the oracle bone texts reveal, the Shang kings were viewed as the best qualified members of society to offer sacrifices to their royal ancestors and to the high god Di, who in their beliefs was responsible for the rain, wind, and thunder.[67]

Bronze Jue, used to serve warm wine


Shang religious rituals featured divination and sacrifice. The degree to which shamanism was a central aspect of Shang religion is a subject of debate.[68][69]

There were six main recipients of sacrifice: (1) Di (the High God), (2) nature powers like the sun and mountain powers, (3) former lords, deceased humans who had been added to the dynastic pantheon, (4) pre-dynastic ancestors, (5) dynastic ancestors, and (6) royal wives who were ancestors of the present king.[70]

Queen Fuhao Jade Phoenix, 1200 BC, Shang Dynasty, National Museum of China

The Shang believed that their ancestors held power over them and performed divination rituals to secure their approval for planned actions.[71] Divination involved cracking a turtle carapace or ox scapula to answer a question, and to then record the response to that question on the bone itself.[68] It is unknown what criteria the diviners used to determine the response, but it is believed to be the sound or pattern of the cracks on the bone.[citation needed]

The Shang also seem to have believed in an afterlife, as evidenced by the elaborate burial tombs built for deceased rulers. Often "carriages, utensils, sacrificial vessels, [and] weapons" would be included in the tomb.[72] A king's burial involved the burial of up to several hundred humans and horses as well to accompany the king into the afterlife, in some cases even numbering four hundred.[72] Finally, tombs included ornaments such as jade, which the Shang may have believed to protect against decay or confer immortality.

Shang dynasty bronze vessel ding (sacrificial vessel)

The Shang religion was highly bureaucratic and meticulously ordered. Oracle bones contained descriptions of the date, ritual, person, ancestor, and questions associated with the divination.[68] Tombs displayed highly ordered arrangements of bones, with groups of skeletons laid out facing the same direction.

Bronze workingEdit

Chinese bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty, with bronze typically being used for ritually significant, rather than primarily utilitarian, items. As far back as c. 1500 BC, the early Shang dynasty engaged in large-scale production of bronze-ware vessels and weapons.[73] This production required a large labor force that could handle the mining, refining, and transportation of the necessary copper, tin, and lead ores. This in turn created a need for official managers that could oversee both hard-laborers and skilled artisans and craftsmen.[73] The Shang royal court and aristocrats required a vast number of different bronze vessels for various ceremonial purposes and events of religious divination.[73] Ceremonial rules even decreed how many bronze containers of each type a nobleman or noblewoman of a certain rank could own. With the increased amount of bronze available, the army could also better equip itself with an assortment of bronze weaponry. Bronze was also used for the fittings of spoke-wheeled chariots, which appeared in China around 1200 BC.[67]


A bronze axe of the Shang dynasty

Bronze weapons were an integral part of Shang society.[74] Shang infantry were armed with a variety of stone and bronze weaponry, including máo (矛) spears, yuè (鉞) pole-axes, (戈) pole-based dagger-axes, composite bows, and bronze or leather helmets.[75][76]

The chariot first appeared in China around 1200 BC, during the reign of Wu Ding. There is little doubt that the chariot entered China through the Central Asia and the Northern Steppe, possibly indicating some form of contact with the Indo-Europeans.[77] Recent archaeological finds have shown that the late Shang used horses, chariots, bows and practiced horse burials that are similar to the steppe peoples to the west.[78] These influences led Christopher I. Beckwith to speculate that Indo-Europeans "may even have been responsible for the foundation of the Shang Dynasty", though he admits there is no direct evidence.[79] Oracle bone inscriptions suggest that the Shang used chariots in royal hunts and in battle only as mobile command vehicles.[80] In contrast, the western enemies of the Shang, such as the Zhou, began to use limited numbers of chariots in battle towards the end of the Shang period.[81]

Although the Shang depended upon the military skills of their nobility, Shang rulers could mobilize the masses of town-dwelling and rural commoners as conscript laborers and soldiers for both campaigns of defense and conquest.[82] Aristocrats and other state rulers were obligated to furnish their local garrisons with all necessary equipment, armor, and armaments. The Shang king maintained a force of about a thousand troops at his capital and would personally lead this force into battle.[83] A rudimentary military bureaucracy was also needed in order to muster forces ranging from three to five thousand troops for border campaigns to thirteen thousand troops for suppressing rebellions against the Shang dynasty.


The earliest records are the oracle bones inscribed during the reigns of the Shang kings from Wu Ding.[84] The oracle bones do not contain king lists, but they do record the sacrifices to previous kings and the ancestors of the current king, which follow a standard schedule that scholars have reconstructed. From this evidence, scholars have assembled the implied king list and genealogy, finding that it is in substantial agreement with the later accounts, especially for later kings.[85] According to this implied king list, Wu Ding was the twenty-first Shang king.[85]

The Shang kings were referred to in the oracle bones by posthumous names. The last character of each name is one of the 10 celestial stems, which also denoted the day of the 10-day Shang week on which sacrifices would be offered to that ancestor within the ritual schedule. There were more kings than stems, so the names have distinguishing prefixes such as 大 (greater), 中 Zhōng (middle), 小 Xiǎo (lesser), 卜 (outer), 祖 (ancestor) and a few more obscure names.[86]

The kings, in the order of succession derived from the oracle bones, are here grouped by generation. Later reigns were assigned to oracle bone diviner groups by Dong Zuobin:[87]

Generation Older brothers Main line of descent Younger brothers Diviner group
1 大乙 Dà Yǐ[i] [ii]
2 大丁 Dà Dīng[iii]
3 大甲 Dà Jiǎ 卜丙 Bǔ Bǐng[iv]
4 [v] 大庚 Dà Gēng 小甲 Xiǎo Jiǎ[vi]
5 大戊 Dà Wù 呂己 Lǚ Jǐ[vii]
6 中丁 Zhōng Dīng[viii] 卜壬 Bǔ Rén
7 戔甲 Jiān Jiǎ 祖乙 Zǔ Yǐ
8 祖辛 Zǔ Xīn 羌甲 Qiāng Jiǎ[ix]
9 祖丁 Zǔ Dīng 南庚 Nán Gēng[x]
10 象甲 Xiàng Jiǎ 盤庚 Pán Gēng 小辛 Xiǎo Xīn 小乙 Xiǎo Yǐ
11 武丁 Wǔ Dīng I
12 [xi] 祖庚 Zǔ Gēng 祖甲 Zǔ Jiǎ II
13 廩辛 Lǐn Xīn[xii] 康丁 Gēng Dīng III
14 武乙 Wǔ Yǐ IV
15 文武丁 Wén Wǔ Dīng
16 帝乙 Dì Yǐ[xiii] V
17 帝辛 Dì Xīn[xiv]
  1. ^ The first king is known as Tang in the Historical Records. The oracle bones also identify six pre-dynastic ancestors: 上甲 Shàng Jiǎ, 報乙 Bào Yǐ, 報丙 Bào Bǐng, 報丁 Bào Dīng, 示壬 Shì Rén and 示癸 Shì Guǐ.
  2. ^ There is no firm evidence of oracle bone inscriptions before the reign of Wu Ding.
  3. ^ According to the Historical Records and the Mencius, Da Ding (there called Tai Ding) died before he could ascend to the throne. However in the oracle bones he receives rituals like any other king.
  4. ^ According to the Historical Records, Bu Bing (there called Wai Bing) and 仲壬 Zhong Ren (not mentioned in the oracle bones) were younger brothers of Dai Ting and preceded Da Jia (also known as Dai Jia). However the Mencius, the Commentary of Zuo and the Book of History state that he reigned after Da Jia, as also implied by the oracle bones.
  5. ^ The Historical Records include a king Wo Ding not mentioned in the oracle bones.
  6. ^ The Historical Records have Xiao Jia as the son of Da Geng (known as Tai Geng) in the "Annals of Yin", but as a younger brother (as implied by the oracle bones) in the "Genealogical Table of the Three Ages".
  7. ^ According to the Historical Records, Lü Ji (there called Yong Ji) reigned before Da Wu (there called Tai Wu).
  8. ^ The kings from Zhong Ding to Nan Geng are placed in the same order by the Historical Records and the oracle bones, but there are some differences in genealogy, as described in the articles on individual kings.
  9. ^ The status of Qiang Jia varies over the history of the oracle bones. During the reigns of Wu Ding, Di Yi and Di Xin, he was not included in the main line of descent, a position also held by the Historical Records, but in the intervening reigns he was included as a direct ancestor.
  10. ^ According to the Historical Records, Nan Geng was the son of Qiang Jia (there called Wo Jia).
  11. ^ The oracle bones and the Historical Records include an older brother 祖己 Zǔ Jǐ who did not reign.
  12. ^ Lin Xin is named as a king in the Historical Records and oracle bones of succeeding reigns, but not those of the last two kings.[88]
  13. ^ There are no ancestral sacrifices to the last two kings on the oracles bones, due to the fall of Shang. Their names, including the character 帝 "emperor", come from the much later Bamboo Annals and Historical Records.[89]
  14. ^ also referred to as Zhòu (紂), Zhòu Xīn (紂辛) or Zhòu Wáng (紂王) or by adding "Shāng" (商) in front of any of these names.

See alsoEdit



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  3. ^ 镇豪, 宋 (2010). 商代史卷一 商代史论纲. 中国社会科学出版社. p. 143. ISBN 978-7-04-028311-2.
  4. ^ Keightley (2000).
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  9. ^ Keightley (1999), p. 233, with additional details from the Historical Records.
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Works citedEdit

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Preceded by
Xia dynasty
Dynasties in Chinese history
ca. 1600–ca. 1047 BC
Succeeded by
Zhou dynasty