Shang Dynasty

The Shang is the first truly historic Chinese dynasty (c. 1766–1122 b.c.e.). It is also called the Yin, after its last capital city, where the last 12 kings ruled c. 1395–1122 b.c.e. Traditional accounts of the Shang came under doubt until the discovery of inscribed oracle bones unearthed near a modern town called Anyang in present-day Henan (Honan) Province in 1900.

Systematic digging at Anyang beginning in 1928 revealed an extensive city and more than 100,000 oracle bones; the writing on some of them is the oldest deciphered from which later written Chinese evolved. Numerous sites excavated since show that by the mid-third millennium b.c.e. an interrelated culture had spread over a wide area in China.

However, the core of Shang civilization lay across northern China from the western edge of the Yellow River valley to the coast in Shandong (Shantung) Province, with the core region in modern Henan.

Tang (T’ang) the Successful founded the dynasty, overthrowing the last tyrant king of the Xia (Hsia) dynasty, named Jie (Chieh, c. 1766 b.c.e.). According to tradition, Tang established his capital at Ao or Xiao (Hsiao).

The dynastic name Shang derived from the name of its sacred city, near Shangjiu (Shang-ch’iu) in eastern Henan. Ruins beneath the present city, called Zhengzhou (Chengchow), correspond to early Shang in time. Shang kings moved their capital five times, the last capital being Yin, which gave its name to the last phase of the dynasty.

Although a Shang-era city wall has been uncovered at Zhengzhou, which would be consistent with the site being a capital city, the absence so far of contemporary written records or royal tombs there preclude definite identification of this and other sites as the various dynastic capitals.

The fact that later Shang-era remains in Zhengzhou were of poorer quality than the earlier layer suggests the moving of the capital to other locations. It is not clear why the capital moved five times, exhaustion of tin mines near to each capital could have been a motive because the Shang was a Bronze Age culture. Bronze was power in ancient China, and tin is a key alloy in bronze.

The Shang Capital at Anyang

Mature Shang civilization excavated at Anyang shows that Yin was divided into several sections totaling over 16 sq. miles. The royal palace complex had a huge tamped earth platform above a drainage system, on which there were placed regularly spaced stone or bronze bases that once supported timber pillars.

The palaces and ritual buildings once had walls of wattle and-daub construction. Smaller houses nearby presumably served for storage or to accommodate other persons. There were also bronze foundries, stone and jade workshops, pottery kilns, and living quarters for workmen.

The royal cemetery consisted of 11 large graves, each for the 11 kings who ruled from Yin, excluding the last one, who died in his burning city and did not get a kingly burial; they are surrounded by more than 1,000 smaller graves. The large graves are square or oblong and had ramps that led to the burial chamber 30 feet underground.

Although all had been looted, it is apparent that they were richly furnished with objects to serve the owner in the next life. Besides objects, dogs, horses, chariots, and human sacrificial victims also accompanied the grave owner to the next world.

Archaeologists estimate that it required 7,000 working days to excavate each of the large graves. In 1976 the intact tomb of Lady Fu, a wife of the powerful king Wuding (Wu-ting) was excavated. It contained more than 1,600 precious objects of jade, bone, ivory, bronze, and other materials and sacrificial victims.

Buildings once stood atop the underground graves where rituals were held for the dead, but they have long perished. Beyond the city core at Yin and other sites were the semisubterranean dwellings of farmers.

There was no city wall around Anyang, but a wall of pounded earth 30 feet high, 65–100 feet wide, and 4.5 miles long protected Ao. Archaeologists estimated that it took 12 years for 10,000 workmen, each working for 330 days a year, to complete the task. This suggests that the Shang government was rich in human and material resources.

Oracle Bones

The use of tortoiseshells and scapula bones of bovines for divination was peculiar to China. They were used during the Neolithic, Xia (Hsia) dynasty, and early Shang, but only during the Yin phase of the Shang dynasty was writing found on the oracle bones.

Shang kings consulted the high god, called Shangdi (Shang-ti), and their ancestors very frequently for advice on many subjects, including the weather, crop conditions, war and peace, the rulers’ health, their wives’ pregnancy, and hunting.

The usual formula specified the date, the diviner’s name, the king’s name, and the question, all written down on the bone. Then a heated bronze rod was inserted into an indentation predrilled into the bone, causing cracks, which contained the answer, also written down, and often the actual outcome. The used oracle bones had holes drilled on top through which cords were threaded to bind them together.

Bundles of them must have been stored, thus their preservation. The oracle bone inscriptions are the oldest deciphered Chinese writing. They were already sophisticated and therefore must have gone through a long evolutionary process. They contain symbols that are pictographs, ideographs, and logographs, all characteristic of later written Chinese.

The oracle bone inscriptions contain the names of all 30 rulers of the dynasty, proving the traditional accounts correct. They give data on natural phenomena such as eclipses and comets, which help date the events. They also include the names of many officials but without details of their functions.

The oracle bone inscriptions make clear that a king ruled the Shang state, with the throne passing among men of the royal clan that varied from one brother to another and between father and son. The kings had multiple wives, some like Lady Hao, a wife of king Wuding, was very powerful, commanding troops and managing her own estates.

Royal wives came from other clans than the royal one. Officials bearing different titles assisted the king, and they were probably aristocrats, but we do not know their functions. Many oracle bones discuss the king waging wars with 1,000 to 5,000 troops against neighboring "barbarians".

The leaders rode to war in chariots drawn by two or four horses, wielding bronze weapons, leading infantrymen. The main weapons were bronze dagger-axes, swords, compound bows, and arrows with bronze tips. When not warring, Shang kings and nobles hunted for sport and probably for meat; many oracles dealt with hunting and big game.

Metalware and Crafts

While bronze was used for weapons and chariot fittings, the largest use of bronze was to make ritual vessels used in sacrifices to gods and ancestors. The earliest Chinese metalware dates to approximately 2000 b.c.e., and many of the early forms have their prototype in potteryware.

By late Shang the bronze smiths’ works had reached the highest form of artistry and technological progress. Vessels of complex form and decorated with intricate geometric patterns and animal masks weighing up to 1,500 pounds were made by the piece mold method.

They differed from the lost wax method used by metalsmiths in the ancient West. Short inscriptions were also cast into many bronze vessels that bear the personal or clan name of the owner and that clearly designated the pieces for ritual use.

More than 30 different shaped vessels of different sizes were produced for the storage, cooking, serving, and consumption of food and alcohol in ceremonies that honored gods and ancestors. Those pieces that survived were buried with the dead. Jades were used as luxury items such as ornaments and also used in rituals.

Shang craftspeople also excelled in making a high fired pottery that approached stoneware, in using the sap of a lac tree to make lacquerware, and in making silk fabrics. No Shang silks have survived but there are imprints of silk fabric in bronzes that were once wrapped in them.


Farming continued along the lines developed since the Neolithic age, using the same stone and wooden tools, for bronze was too precious for ordinary use. The principal grains of north China were various forms of millet, followed by wheat. Animals provided protein, hides, bones, and antlers. Dogs, pigs, cattle, water buffalo, sheep, and horses were domesticated, used for meat, as draft animals, and in ritual sacrifices.

Many different kinds of fowl were raised, as were fish for food, and turtles for shells used in divination. Hunting of wild animals provided sport and food. Several kinds of fermented alcoholic beverages were drunk in rituals and feasting; they were made from millet. Archaeologists have found a site that was possibly used for manufacturing alcohol.

The many bronze objects for serving and drinking alcohol testify to the frequency of its use. The founding fathers of the successor Zhou (Chou) dynasty accused the last Shang king of many crimes and vices, among them were excessive drinking and warned their people against drunkenness.


In conclusion, the Shang dynasty was directly descended from the Neolithic cultures of northern China and was centered along present-day Henan Province. They unity of conception of Shang art and the unique and independently derived writing system defi ne the Shang people and civilization as distinctive. In its fully mature phase, called the Yin, it headed many states that bore variants of the same culture and were less powerful and sophisticated than Yin.

Shang was a complex and highly organized society, headed by a king, who was supported by his officials, artisans, and farmers. It is uncertain who the sacrificial victims were, whether they were enslaved prisoners of war or retainers who accompanied their superiors in death. The agricultural economy did not seem sophisticated enough to require the labor of slaves.