Anyang is the modern town where the last capital (Yin) of the Shang dynasty (c. 1766–c. 1122 b.c.e.) of China was located. The discovery of inscribed oracle bones there early in the 20th century and the scientific excavation of the site beginning in 1928 ended the debate on whether the Shang dynasty was historic.
It is located south of the Yellow River in present-day Henan Province. The Shang dynasty, founded by Tang (T’ang) the Successful moved its capital several times until it settled at Yin in 1395 b.c.e. and remained there until its end in 1122 b.c.e.
The last phase of the dynasty is therefore also called the Yin dynasty. After the city was destroyed when the dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou dynasty (c. 1122–256 b.c.e.), the site was known as Yinshu, which means the “waste of Yin.”
The discovery of the Shang era ruins at Anyang came by accident. In Beijing (Peking) in 1900 an antiquarian scholar became ill, and among the ingredients for traditional medicine that were prescribed for him were fragments of old bones carrying incised marks. The apothecary called them dragon bones.
This scholar and his friend made inquiries on the bones’ origins and traced them to Anyang, where farmers had found them in their diggings. They began to collect the bones and decipher the writings on them, which they established as the earliest extant examples of written Chinese.
Archaeological excavations around Anyang found the foundations of palatial and other buildings but no city walls. They also found a royal cemetery with 11 large tombs, believed to belong to kings, which had all been robbed in centuries past.
This authenticates ancient texts that identify 12 kings who ruled from Yin, but the last one died in his burning palace and so did not receive a royal burial. In 1976 an intact tomb belonging to Fu Hao (Lady Hao), wife of King Wuding (Wu-ting), the powerful fourth king to reign from Yin, was discovered.
Although her body and the coffin had been destroyed by time and water, more than 1,600 burial objects were found, some with inscribed writing, which included her name, on elaborate bronze ritual vessels. Bronze vessels, jade, ivory, and stone carvings, and other objects show the advanced material culture of the late Shang era.
More than 20,000 pieces of inscribed oracle bones (on the scapulae of cattle and turtle shells) provide important information on Shang history. Kings frequently asked questions and sought answers from the high god Shangdi (Shang-ti) on matters such as war and peace, agriculture, weather, hunting, pregnancies of the queens, and the meaning of natural phenomena.
The questions, answers, and sometimes outcome contain dates, names of the rulers, and their relationship to previous rulers, including those of the pre-Anyang era. They were preserved in royal archives.
The writing is already sophisticated and must have developed over a long period, but earlier evidence of writing has not been found. It is the ancestor of modern written Chinese and deciphering the characters and information provided from archaeological evidence has enabled historians to reconstruct Shang history.