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An introduction to the Shang Dynasty (approx. 1500‒1050 BCE)

Fragment of oracle bone, approx. 1300–1050

Fragment of oracle bone, approx. 13001050. China; Henan province. Shang dynasty (16001050 BCE). Probably cattle bone. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60M502.

The Shang dynasty extends from roughly 1500 to 1050 BCE. According to various histories and traditions, the Shang people originated along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow river. They defeated the Xia under the king Chengtang and established a number of city states. The Shang have been known in the archaeological record from around 1898‒99, when oracle bones drew attention to the site of Anyang, revealing the last capital of the Shang, and confirming the existence of the dynasty. Since then, the period has been divided into two main stages known as Erligang and Anyang. It is believed the Shang moved their capital at least five times, and several dozen Shang sites have been identified. At this point, however, the best known sites are at Anyang and Zhengzhou.

  • Erlitou - either Xia or early Shang?
  • Erligang - represented at Zhengzhou, middle stage
  • Anyang - last capital of the Shang

One of the important factors in determining the history of the Shang is the presence of written records. Writing at this time was mostly pictographic, meaning that a word was represented by a picture that closely resembled its meaning. Over time, this writing would become more ideographic. During the Shang, there were scribes who recorded important events. What has survived are inscriptions on bronzes, and more importantly, inscriptions on oracle bones used by the Shang for divination. Thousands of bones have been recovered, many of them broken. The bones contain not only intriguing questions about what will happen and whether or not certain actions are bound to be effective or not, but also the names of kings. We know, for example, the names of the kings that ruled for a period of 273 years at Anyang.

The oracle bones attest to the importance of ritual divination among the Shang rulers. The oracle bones were used to divine, or determine, answers to various questions concerning agriculture (ie the success of a particular harvest), military expeditions, future events such as pregnancies or military engagements, and very personal matters such as what to do about a toothache. The questions, answers and outcomes were all recorded on the bones, usually plastrons and scapulae of cattle and turtles. A metal rod, or perhaps a burning ember was heated and placed on the bone near where the question had been written. The shape of the crack determined the answer, and the outcome (what followed) was sometimes written on the bone.

Shang kings maintained a tightly controlled state. They acted not only as priests, but also waged military campaigns and controlled numerous workshops for producing ceramics, bone objects and most importantly, bronzes. Cowrie shells, an imported item, were used as currency. The technological advances in the production of bronze did not benefit the average person. Bronze was produced for the ritual and military needs of the state. The casting of bronzes was a laborious process, involving the mining of copper and tin, or lead ores, smelting these into ingots, and then transporting the ingots to the bronze casting workshops. Finally, bronzes were produced with intricate designs using ceramic piece molds. The bronze industry was therefore a complex enterprise involving massive human and material resources. 

The Shang aristocracy were buried in lavish tombs. Those at Anyang are typically cruciform in shape, with one to four ramps leading down to the coffin at the bottom. Although plundered, there is enough evidence to show that coffins were lacquered, and sometimes inlaid. Beneath the coffin was a sacrificial dog or human, or series of human sacrifices surrounding the coffin pit area or on the ramps. Sometimes, the sacrificial victims were beheaded. Whole chariots were buried with the owner. (See Tomb No. 1001 at Anyang). One of the few tombs to survive untouched by looters is Tomb no. 5, believed to be the grave of Fu Hao, one of the consorts of Wu Ding, the fourth king at Anyang. This was an astonishingly rich grave, filled with hundreds of bronzes, jades, and bone objects, as well as thousands of cowrie shells.

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