The Shang Dynasty — Bronze Age China


The Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) was the second of the three ancient Chinese dynasties, preceded by the Xia Dynasty and succeeded by the Zhou Dynasty. Based around the Yellow River valley, the Shang capital was Anyang. It was the first dynasty with written records — inscriptions on bones and bronze objects.
Quick Facts About the Shang Dynasty

It invented writing in the form of pictograms and to have written records.
It moved the capital five times, with the last one being Yin (modern-day Anyang).
Most of the information we know about the Shang Dynasty came from the oracle bones found in Yin.
Bronze works were developed during the Shang Dynasty.
Women played a very important role in society during the Shang Dynasty.

The History of the Shang

It was written that King Tang of the Shang tribe (1675–1646) watched the last Xia ruler falter.

The last Xia king was named Jie, and he lived in luxury and decadence while ruling oppressively. So King Tang started attacking the Xia people, and heemployed wise men to help him.

There was a rebellion and Tang conquered the Shang in 1600 BC. Jie’s own people sided with the Shang. It is said that Tang ruled well because he lowered taxes and outlying tribes became vassals. Their territory increased so that it included territory far to the south and reached to the sea to the east.

The last Shang king was named Shang Zhou. His fall mirrors the fall of the last Xia emperor. It was thought he lost the Mandate of Heaven. Aneighboring tribe was called the Zhou. Like King Jie andthe Xia Dynasty, he was defeated by the Zhou rulers because his own people rebelled. His own troops and slaves joined the Zhou in the last battle.

The new Zhou ruler was named Zhou Wu. He allowed Shang Zhou’s son to rule the Shang people as vassals. The Zhou rulers also dispersed prominent Shang people to other places.

Shang’s Government

The Shang Dynasty was the peak of the slavery trade among the three ancient Chinese dynasties. The ruling class consisted of slaveholders.

The government also had many levels of leaders. The closer they were to the king, the higher the position they deserved. Vassals could rule areas of land but they needed to pay tributes to their king and provide soldiers when war broke out.

The Shang people believed in human sacrifice, and many slaves were usedas the sacrificial objects.

Development of Technology and Culture

Bronze Works

The Ruins of Yin are a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage attraction and a museum area. The displays of Shang hieroglyphs trace the development of Chinese characters.

In 1976, archaeologists opened an undisturbed tomb called Tomb 5. It was the tomb of Lady Fu Hao. She had a military career, and a historian named Robert Thorp said that the assortment of weapons in her tomb correlate with oracle bone inscriptions.

The bronze vessels and tools showed that the Shang people had a high level of bronze metallurgy. They were able to cast large pots.

Other Civilizations

According to historical accounts, a civilization developed around the Yellow River under the reign of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. There is no mention of any other advanced civilizationsin the region.

However, archaeologists have uncovered other Bronze Age cultures, such as the Sanxingdui Civilization (2000–1250 BC), that belie the legendary account that the civilization of the people in the region only developed along the Yellow River.

Writing Is Invented

Writing in the East Asia region can be dated back to the hieroglyphs that were used in the Shang Dynasty. Not much is known about Shang Dynasty writing. No documents have been found, just thousands of hieroglyphs written on bronze objects and oracle bones. You can see many of them in the Writing Museum in Anyang.

The hieroglyphic writing system later evolved into the ideographic and partly-phonetic Chinese characters that are used today. Read more about Chinese writing.


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