The Coming of the Shang

Episode 4: The Coming of the Shang

The Foundations of Chinese Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

The second Chinese dynasty was that of the Shang (1600 – 1050 BC). The region governed by the Shang Dynasty was small, roughly the size of modern day China’s five northern provinces.

Th Shang best known for introducing written language based on glyphs, a direct precursor of modern Chinese characters. Their kings and shamans* used glyphs on Oracle Bones. To pose questions to the gods and spirits, they chiseled questions into the bones, heated them and interpreted the answers depending on the shape of cracks that formed.

The remains of Shang tombs reveal that both humans and animals were sacrificed when the king died to help make the gods and ancestors stronger. In some cases, victims were the king’s servants and volunteered to be buried alive. In others, they were prisoners of war or criminals who were executed first. In the late dynastic period, victims were expected to commit suicide.

The absolute power of Shang kings was based on their military prowess in keeping rural clans and peasants under control. By 1200 BC, the Shang had adopted horse cavalry and chariots from the steppes nomads on their northern border, as well as the composite bow (see Barbarian Empires of the Steppes). Their infantry were conscripted farmers, and their military technology included bronze tipped arrows and spears and body armor made of bamboo and wood padded with cloth.

Chariot drivers were trained in royal hunts (at a time when northern China was still heavily forested) for bears, tigers, boards and rhinoceros.

The construction of Shang cities was funded by booty confiscated in battle, tribute paid by conquered vassals and tax. They weren’t as dense as Mesopotamian cities (which were as dense as modern Manhattan). Structurally they consisted of a cluster of artisans (potters, jade and bronze workers, textile workers, etc) and industrial zones (which included bronze foundries), surround by agricultural workers’ homes, surrounded by farmland. Bronze tools and dishes were reserved for the elite. Peasants used stone tools.

Yin (modern day Anyang) was the last capitol of the Shang dynasty. It was surrounded by rammed earth walls that took 10,000 workers 10-20 years to construct.

*Shang shamans facilitated worship of the ancestors and the supreme god Di.