Monday 27 February 2012

The Shang Dynasty

"Tigress Holding Man" Vessel
This is the first blog to be written since before Christmas so I must ask the readers to be lenient as I am a little out of practice. In a previous blog I referred to an episode in Chinese history. The piece was about an interesting time period but it was somewhat lacking in context to those who are unfamiliar with Chinese history so I have decided to dedicate a few blog posts over the next few months to putting early Chinese history in perspective. I should point out that I am not a great scholar of Chinese history and, although I have read some primary sources, much of my knowledge comes from fairly easily obtainable secondary sources. In other words, I am not an expert and what I write should be treated (as always) with a certain degree of caution.

During the Neolithic period China had a number of fairly sophisticated cultures mainly along the banks of the Huang He River in the north of China. Notable cultures included the Longshan culture, which flourished in the late centuries of the third millennia BC and produced some extraordinary works of pottery. Other cultures such as the Erlitou, rose to prominence after 2000 BC but unfortunately, despite the obvious sophistication of these cultures, we have no reliable written records concerning them, leaving historian to puzzle over the archaeological evidence and the later traditions that may have been based on these cultures.

Territory controlled by the Shang Dynasty
According to traditional accounts written around 100 BC, the first ruling dynasty of China was the Xia, however these rulers have left no definitive archaeological remains. The first rulers who left translatable documents were the Shang. They rose to power around 1700 BC and reigned until around 1000 BC. Their power base was around the Huang He River in northern China. Later Chinese writers viewed China as effectively a single entity that was ruled by successive dynasties, but the situation may have been more complex, with the Shang (also known as the Yin) probably being a dynasty that overlapped with others. The Erlitou culture has been tentatively identified as the Xia Dynasty but until records are found it must be unconfirmed.

Longshan Culture Vase
The Shang culture was highly adept at using bronze and they left behind some truly extraordinary works of  bronze artwork, particularly ritual tripods, jars and drinking vessels. While there are many exquisite artworks surviving from the period I have always admired the vessel of tigress holding a man as one of the most impressive pieces of bronze art that I have ever seen, although the picture shown here does not do it justice.

Their armies used chariots and were armed with bronze weapons and from the quality of that items discovered, these armies must have been formidable indeed. The political organisation was centralised under the figure of an emperor, although the regional lords held considerable power due to the difficult nature of communication over their large realm. The Shang were involved in almost continual warfare with their neighbours, who were represented as barbarians in the Shang documents but who shared certain cultural similarities with the Shang. The Shang moved capitals frequently and the last capital of the dynasty was at Anyang.

Shang Oracle Bone
Later historians, most notably the famed Sima Qian, wrote about the Shang and provide us with some details of their time but these historians wrote nearly a thousand years after the Shang had fallen so, while useful, these records are far from perfect. The best sources for the Shang are the oracle bones. To predict the future the Shang would inscribe tortoise shells with questions and then apply heat to the bones, shattering the hard surface with heat fractures. The patterns of fracturing through the writing was held to give an indication of the answer to the question and the results and details of the prediction were recorded on the shell. While these are obviously fairly small documents nearly one hundred thousand of them have been discovered and the cumulative details given by these records give an extraordinary insight into the culture of the time.

The Shang emperors and other high ranking members of society were often buried in lavish tombs with an assortment of grave goods. Often a number of humans (who may have been slaves, prisoners of war or soldiers to guard the emperor in the afterlife) were killed and buried in the tomb as well. It has been speculated (speculated being the important word here) that the later terracotta armies of later dynasties were a remnant of this tradition but with terracotta soldiers being used as substitutes for actual people. This practice strikes us today as distasteful but it was not an unknown practice in antiquity (certain Sumerian rulers were known to have practiced it).

Trove of Oracle Bones
Unfortunately for historians most of the royal Shang tombs were looted but one exception has so far been found. Unlike the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt (where a very unimpressive figure left behind an absolute treasure trove) the most impressive Shang tomb found was that of Lady Fu Hao. Lady Fu Hao was a wife of one of the later Shang emperors/ She was both an oracle figure and a noted general and her tomb is a godsend for archaeologists.

The later Shang emperors came under pressure fighting the Xirong people who lived east of Anyang and their vassals, the Zhou, became independent and a threat in their own right. Some archaeologists have speculated that there were volcanic eruptions or climate change in the last years of the Shang dynasty, affecting the harvests and causing starvation and discontent. Very little evidence has been found to prove these beliefs so far.

Tomb of Fu Hao
The last king of the Shang, who is confusingly called Zhou (no relation to the rapidly rising Zhou state that he was in conflict with), is remembered as an archetypal bad ruler in China. He had a consort called Daji, who was hated by the people for her random acts of cruelty and King Zhou himself allegedly neglected the empire to engage in a life of pleasure and torture of innocents. While King Zhou was hated, it should be remembered that, if there is a major food shortage, the ruler of a state may acquire a reputation for gluttony by default (see Vitellius and Louis XVI/Marie Antoinette).

The Zhou state rose up against their Shang overlords and the Shang armies were defeated at the Battle of Muye. While later sources state that large contingents of the Shang army defected to the Zhou they also state that the battle was extremely bloody, suggesting that there were few survivors of the loyal Shang soldiers. The triumphant Zhou armies marched on Anyang and the King Zhou, the last King of the Shang Dynasty, allegedly gathered up his treasures into his palace before setting fire to the building and dying in the conflagration. Thus, in 1046 BC the Shang Dynasty came to a violent and dramatic end and the long-lasting Zhou Dynasty began.

Reconstruction of the Shang Palace at Anyang
Despite the bloody ending ascribed to the Shang Dynasty the entire family was not wiped out. The Zhou allowed the relatives to live on as a minor aristocratic family under the new order. Some legends suggest that disgruntled Shang princes may have fled to Korea to join the burgeoning civilisation there. The Shang Dynasty period saw great advances in bronze working and writing styles and their successors, the Zhou Dynasty, were able to start the mass working of iron. But probably the most lasting legacy of the Shang was not their technical accomplishments but the solidity that they gave to the idea of the "civilised state". This concept gradually evolved and became a pivotal part of Chinese culture.

Related Blog Posts:
Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States


  1. Excellent. If you could find more time, or use your time to make more blogs, that would be great.

    1. Yeah! More blogs. pleeeeez

    2. Thanks people! I've another in the works. Will have it published shortly and have more regular updates after that. Been too long!

    3. As for the tigress holding the man, it is not shown very well. Perhaps it is because it is a little African boy in the mouth of the protective mother cat. It is well known by true historians that the first dynasty of China was a dynasty of the earliest inhabitants of China. I have seen a picture of this piece often and up close. We need to continue to bring our values and interest in line with truth. If one is not afraid, find a better pic.