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1.9: Violence and Ritual

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    Shang wealth and power stemmed from violence. Historian and archaeologist Li Feng calls the Shang regime “hegemonic” rather than “legitimate,” because of the reliance merely on violence or the threat of violence. They had no ideology – no set of ideas that justified their dominance, or that could bind the other groups to them voluntarily and for a long time.18 All Shang activities involved force. For defense they had walls of pounded earth, which meant that workers had to dig out huge quantities of soil with shovels of stone and wood; carry it to the site; cut down trees with stone axes to make planks to hold the dirt in place; and pound it down, layer after layer, inside the plank forms, until it was so hard that the walls can be excavated today, clearly different from the soil surrounding them. For the four-mile long wall encircling Zhengzhou, built in about 1450 BC, one archaeologist estimated it took 10,000 laborers twelve and a half years to build it. Someone with a sharp weapon was overseeing them.

    Figure 1.6. Shang bronze axe, c. 1200 BC, with taotie mask on blade and inlaid pattern on haft. Can you figure out how the wooden handle was attached? Source: Metropolitan Museum. Public Domain.

    With their bronze weapons and chariots, the king and the noble clans spent much of their time in raiding the little villages and in wars against the other communities. The largest Shang armies numbered 3,000 to 5,000 men, but these were not well-organized armies with clear hierarchical control. Rather, each aristocrat had his or her own chariot and his own warriors surrounding the chariot. If a nobleman thought a battle was going poorly, he might withdraw to save his footsoldiers, whom he fed from his own estate. When Shang warriors defeated others in war, or simply raided their territories, new scholarship on the isotopes in bones suggests that captives were brought into Anyang and its suburbs as slaves. They were worked as hard as possible on a meager vegetarian diet, until they either died naturally or were sacrificed.

    Hunting used the same bronze weapons. Nobles and their soldiers chased deer and wild boar; and of course even ordinary people could hunt birds and rabbits with wood and stone as they had been doing since long before the Agricultural Revolution. Occasionally the hunt encountered leopards, tigers, elephants, and rhinoceros. Big hunts also used fire to encircle animals; the fires helped destroy forest and open new fields for farming. Most meals were stews of boiled millet (a grain with smaller seeds than wheat) with a few vegetables and maybe a bit of meat thrown in. (People ate twice a day, at about 9-10 in the morning and 4-5 in the afternoon.) Besides being everyone’s basic food, millet was made into ale. Ale is safer to drink than plain water, because fermentation kills germs. It also enhances sociability (when drunk in moderation), so it played a central role in the shared clan sacrifices to royal ancestors on which Shang aristocrats lavished time and resources, including an average of 65 human sacrifices a year.

    Human sacrifices accompanied another ritual activity that has left traces: funerals. Long before a king died, construction of his tomb began. When he died, a hundred or more people were killed with and for him – some as noble “accompaniers in death,” each with his own burial goods and human sacrifices, and some war captives, slaughtered without honor. Looters found nearly all of the tombs long ago, but the intact tomb of one queen, Lady Hao or Fu Hao, yielded to archaeologists an amazing wealth of grave goods, including steppe-style bronze mirrors, weapons, earrings, and large numbers of bronze ritual vessels. The royal tombs were deeply buried, meant never to be disturbed. The funeral may have been political theatre demonstrating the wealth and power of the deceased king or his successor, but a belief that the ancestor needed those things and people in the afterlife must also have motivated the lavish tomb goods.

    This page titled 1.9: Violence and Ritual 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.

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