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1.7: The Shang Period (1554-1045 BC)

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    The early twentieth century doubters of antiquity had no archaeological evidence of the Shang dynasty: so they were right to doubt. But as it happened, in 1899 some people in north China dug up a cache of bones, all stuck together in a clump of mud; when soaked and washed, they turned out to have what looked like writing on them, although in a form that no-one could read. An antique dealer snapped them up and sold them to a couple of scholars who collected inscriptions on bronze and stone. Scholars like Wang Guowei began to figure out how to match the characters to modern ones, and realized that they were indeed primary texts from the Shang period.14 Divining the future by means of heating animal bones (pyro-scapulimancy) had been practiced in Mongolia and Siberia from about 3500 BC onwards, and in the archipelago from about 300 BC (where deer, boar, and dolphin bones were used). Shang divination using “oracle bones” fell squarely in this tradition, but they added something.

    The Shang innovation in pyro-scapulimancy was to record the questions about the future, and sometimes their outcomes, in writing on selected bones, after the ceremony. The ritual itself was carried out orally, and the inscriptions were made afterwards. Approximately 73,000 inscribed bones and shells have been excavated, and many more with no words. Once the characters on the oracle bones were recognized as the ancestors of today’s Chinese characters (and Japanese and Korean writing systems), archaeologists began to dig. They found sites that included not only troves of oracle bones, but also royal tombs, walls, and buildings, and beautiful bronze vessels whose making had required a high level of skill and organization and a vast command of resources. Just when the doubters had cast a shadow on it, the Shang sprang back to life. Since Shang written records are still limited, our picture of Shang society relies heavily on archaeology, as well as on reasonable inferences drawn from comparisons with other Bronze-Age cultures.

    The first Shang king, we know from the Shiji and the oracle bones, established the dynasty in 1554 BC. (Dynasty properly refers to the royal family through time, so I will use period to refer to the years during which a given dynasty ruled.) Twenty-two generations of kings followed, with the throne often passing from elder to a younger brother, then back to the elder brother’s son. The Shang royal family controlled only a small area of North China. Like the early Yamato kings we will meet later they moved fairly frequently, and archaeologists are still discovering new Shang cities. The last capital, and the one best understood, was Anyang. Palaces and houses for the elite; ancestral temples; workshops for making bronze vessels and weapons, chariots, jade, and other things; pit dwellings for workers; and villages where farmers lived covered about 9 square miles (slightly smaller than Berkeley, CA) – tiny, but 45 times larger than any other settlement of its time.15

    From the capital, Anyang, the Shang king travelled around a great deal, up to six or seven months out of the year. He traveled up to 200 miles away, but usually only about 125 miles away, and by late in the period normally only a dozen miles from Anyang. The diameter of his sphere of travel represented the area of his most direct control: a network of small settlements spread over an area about one-third the size of California, but with far fewer people, and more trees and animals. The Shang drew materials from much further away, as far as the Yangzi delta and Sichuan. But in no way did Shang constitute a territorial state with firm boundaries; its warriors dominated the more than 30 other groups around them through an unstable mix of war, trade, raiding, and alliance. The southern cultures remained quite different from and independent from Shang, even after adopting bronze for their own styles of bells, ritual vessels, and weapons. Even the closer network of towns and villages that shared more aspects of Shang culture were not necessarily under its control. There was already some specialized regional production: Shang ale may have come from Taixi, 125 miles away.16 Historians routinely consider the Shang the first historical Chinese dynasty (Xia had no writing). But their small area and loose control were only two of the ways in which they differed dramatically from later ruling families.

    This page titled 1.7: The Shang Period (1554-1045 BC) is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.