The period of the Shang dynasty of ancient China developed a an important phase in the rise of one of the greatest civilizations of civilization history. It was foundational come the development of later on Chinese civilization.

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By the end of the dynasty, plenty of of the crucial features the the Chinese way of life had been developed, for example ancestor worship, the Chinese script, flood defense systems and also so on.

Before the Shang

The Shang empire ruled end a well-organized and civilized state in northern China between 1766 BCE and 1122 BCE (although over there is debate amounts contemporary scholars regarding the exact dates).

The Shang dynasty was, follow to traditional Chinese histories, the second dynasty of old China, judgment from 1766 BCE to 1122 BCE. The dynasty was hosted to have been started by a rebel king, Tang, who overthrew the last king of the Xia dynasty, the first of old China’s dynasties.

King tang of Shang Dynastyas imagined by by Song dynasty painter Ma Lin

A Xia dynasty?

To day there has actually come under to us no straight historical proof for the visibility of the Xia dynasty. However, there is no reason why such a dynasty may not have actually existed in China’s pre-history. Given that the root of Chinese people go lot further ago than the Shang, there are plenty of factors to think that the Xia dynasty did indeed rule in northern China.

For centuries before the rise of the Shang dynasty, the farming society of northern China had been progressing in social intricacy and technological sophistication, for instance with the arrival of wheel-thrown pottery. By c. 1800 BCE, expertise of bronze casting had gone into the Yellow river Valley from western China, together is shown by the bronze bells and also other objects discovered in late third millennium sites.

The earliest cities in China

During this period, walled communities grew drastically in size and density. The earliest-known city in old China showed up in c. 1800 BCE, at Erlitou, just south the the Yellow River. In the early second millennium BCE, what had actually been a relatively typical walled city of the period suddenly mushroomed into a city part 300 hectares (741 acres) in area (about ten time the area of previously settlements in the region).

This adjust in the bespeak of magnitude of negotiation size was accompanied by various other changes, such together the appearance of elaborate elite burials, routine bronze vessels, and also the visibility of palaces.

Erlitou is only one urban site among several date from this duration of ancient China’s history. Spicy social departments were significantly apparent, and also the power and also status of rulers is displayed by the incident of human sacrifice – always a authorize of overwhelming, usually sacred authority – and also by splendid graves.

The rise the kingdoms

It is clear that warfare became much an ext prevalent during the early 2nd millennium BCE, may be the an outcome of populace expansion.

Throughout history, success in war has constantly been dependent as much upon great organization as upon military valor, and also this was plainly an age in i m sorry tribal chiefdoms were being reinvented into suitable kingdoms. In these, the kings and their officials were able to exercise regulate over comparatively wide areas, collecting adequate tribute native the farming populace to pay because that luxurious courts, wherein power was concentrated.

These courts were serviced by devoted and highly skilled craftsmen – the variety and top quality of the copper vessels recovered from sites of the period is staggering, showing up as they carry out so unexpectedly in the archaeological record.

One the these beforehand kingdoms – in every likelihood that of which Erlitou was the resources – was more than likely ruled by a empire which later generations called the Xia. If so, this state would certainly be genealogical to all the good dynasties that Chinese history that followed.

The Shang Kingdom

The Shang dynasty

If timeless Chinese historiography is followed, the Xia kingdom was conquered in c. 1766 BCE through a ruler of a surrounding state which to be subordinate to the Xia. This ruler was the founder the the Shang dynasty. The resulting kingdom ended up being the most powerful state in northern China.

The heartland of the Shang kingdom lay wherein the Yellow River leaves the mountains and also enters the eastern plains. This is very fertile area, as result of rich soil lugged down through the river system from the mountains. That is additionally conveniently situated close to metal-rich shop in the uplands.

Written records

Under the Shang, old China emerges right into the irradiate of history. Composed records, greatly in the form of inscriptions on oracle bones, or on pottery or bronze vessels, melted light top top the society and national politics of the period. The Shang manuscript was a completely developed mechanism of writing, comparable to that still in usage in China today.


The Shang emperors were, like plenty of rulers of the ancient world (for example, those uncovered in Mesopotamia), high priests and also political and also military leaders. As the oracle bone engravings reveal, among the main attributes falling come the king was to offer sacrifices come his royal ancestors. He additionally led the prayer of the high god, Di.

The Shang royal precinct, v its palaces and also temples, functioned as much as a religious ceremonial facility as a facility of government. It lay at the love of the imperial capital, v its workshops and also houses, the totality surrounded by a stamped earth wall.

The kingdom’s heartland

The capital, and the land which instantly surrounded it, was managed directly by the king. More away, lot of the land to be under subordinate lords, who owed obedience to the king.

These nobles had actually to view to it that tribute fan to the king was collected and sent to the capital. They provided soldiers because that the royal military from amongst their retinues of warriors, and also from your peasants. And they sent laborers to work-related on royal projects, such as building temples or imperial palaces, or overwhelming defenses. The lords also had the duty of advising the king as to what plans he should follow.

A Confederation

This within area of low grade lordships was surrounding by an external ring the semi-independent kingdoms and also tribes, that owed the Shang king some type of loyalty.

Rulers that were defeated by the Shang had to send to the Shang king. Occasionally he would take some or all of their are away them and also give it to one of his very own followers. More normally he left beat rulers in charge, on condition that they went to the Shang capital and bowed under to him as their overlord. In return, they obtained badges the office, and were permitted to administer their areas as long as they remained loyal come him. As soon as required, they would certainly send soldiers to fight in the Shang army.


The Shang kingdom thus formed a confederation of kingdoms and also chiefdoms, neighboring a well-organized core. In ~ its heart stood the resources (see below).

The confederation covered much of northern China, getting to at times right into the Yangtze Valley. At the peak, the must have actually been a formidable power, with the Shang king able come muster troops native a an extremely wide area, in enhancement to the military recruited indigenous his very own domain. Waxing and waning in size, the Shang confederation endured for numerous centuries. This durability have to have developed from an impressive inner cohesion.

Shang imperial capitals

The Shang kings shifted their funding from time to time. Excavators identify the city of Zhenzhou with among the very first capitals of the Shang dynasty, probably the capital traditionally recognized as Bo or Ao.


This city to represent a step up indigenous Erlitou in regards to size and also material culture. Through its comprehensive suburbs it covered 25 sq. Km. (9.7 sq. Miles). At its center lay a moated palace, near richly-endowed tombs for the ruling family members which contained beautifully-crafted bronze routine vessels and jade and also bronze ornaments.

The city center was enclosed by stamped earth walls, getting to a width of 36 m (118 ft) in ~ the base, and probably date to c. 1650 BCE. External these walls were workshops for bronze, bone and also ceramic work; dwellings for the specialist craftsmen work in them; and also other residential areas. The Shang period saw good advances in craftsmanship, a solution to a need for advanced goods native a wealthy and also privileged administrate elite.


Zhenzhou was superseded as funding by the city uncovered in ~ Huanbei (probably old Xi’ang). Here, a substantial palace precinct in the center of the walled area incorporated at least 25 separation, personal, instance buildings.


The final Shang resources of Anyang was approximately the very same size as Zhenzhou. The facility contained the usual royal residence precinct, finish with ancestral temples. In the royal graves, jade ornaments and ritual objects abound. Few of the tombs contained finish light two-wheeled chariots.

The Shang army

The Shang army fought frequent wars with bordering barbarians, consisting of nomads native the inner oriental steppes. Engravings on oracle bones consistently express anxieties around such barbarians, who lived past the frontiers the the civilized world of the Shang and also their allies.


It seems that the Shang kings kept a pressure of about a thousand troops at your capital and also would personally lead this pressure into battle.

When a larger pressure was required, the king referred to as on his noble to raise troops from your territories and contribute them to the imperial army. The lords were obligated to furnish these troops with all the crucial equipment, armor and weapons. Subordinate kings and chiefs would likewise be request to add contingents.


In this means the Shang can quickly muster armies an ext than ten thousand strong. Most of this troops would be peasants conscripted as soldiers for the term of a campaign. They would fight as infantry, armed with a selection of stone and copper weaponry consisting of spears, pole-axes, composite bows, and leather helmets.


The elite warriors that the army, however, were the members that the aristocracy, the nobility and the course just listed below them who created the retinues that kings and lords. They offered bronze weapons and wore bronze armor, far too expensive to equip the plain troops with.

Military – A copper axe that the Shang dynasty.Reproduced under an imaginative Commons 2.5

The aristocrats would as such have tackled a disproportionately big share of the fighting. This would have actually been accentuated in later Shang time by the advent of chariots. The style of the light two-wheeled chariots present overwhelming evidence for a western asian origin for this new military technology, with the wanderers of main Asia acting as the intermediaries

Chariots, as well as being efficient fighting platforms, operated as mobile command units. They came to be indispensable tools of war, against which infantry troops uncovered it an extremely hard to make a stand.

Fighting effectively as chariot-borne warriors required a good deal of training, the moment for which only aristocrats can afford to give. For this reason later Shang warfare would have depended even more upon the military skills of the aristocracy than in ahead times.

Shang religion and thought

The so late Shang duration is famous for the oracle bones used for divining the future. Part 100,000 the them have been recovered from the period. Kings, officials and others would have questions composed onto bones or shells, which would certainly then be heated. Priests would then study the cracks formed by the heat and also interpret them to provide the questioner an answer.


Oracle bones have been discovered from ages preceding the Shang, though without the questions and interpretations enrolled on them. The an extremely existence of this oracles display that divination was already a well-established practice by the time literate civilization arisen in China.

The interpretations burned invaluable irradiate on Shang politics, religion and also society. Hunting, war, rainfall, the success of the harvest, the wellness of members of royal family members – these were the predictable concerns of the Shang rulers. By the time of the oracle bone inscriptions which have been found so far, Shang politics power remained in decline, and also a feeling of anxiety and threat have the right to be detected in countless of the inquiries which had actually been put and the created interpretations given.

Oracle bone script, the faster known form of Chinese.Reproduced under patent 3.0

Relationship to later on religion beliefs and practices

The texts additionally show the the veneration that ancestors to be also already a vital element in ~ Chinese culture.

Another indication the many aspects of modern Chinese thought were already present in Shang times was the the royal graves were to adjust in accordance v the principles of feng shui.

There were thus clear continuities between thought and spiritual practices at this beforehand stage in China’s history and with those of later periods. However, there were additionally differences. One function of Shang religious practice (as somewhere else in the bronze Age) was person sacrifice, which was exercised on a large scale by the Shang royal court. This dropped out of common use under the Zhou dynasty.

Another difference was the the king sacrificed to the high god, Di, responsible for the rain, wind, and thunder. It seems that Di’s prestige in the faith of this period was an ext important 보다 it would later on become, as soon as the more impersonal ide of “Heaven” came to be dominant.

Shang culture and economy

The economy of the Shang kingdom was, just like all pre-modern economies, based upon agriculture. By much the majority of the population were peasants who operated by agriculture the land.

The majority of the populace of the Shang kingdom resided in villages in the countryside, quite than in the funding itself.


Most lived as peasants, farming tiny plots the land. This soil was controlled by lords to whom the peasants added a big share of the plants they grew.

The peasants were also called ~ above to execute a variety tasks such together building and also repairing dykes to protect against erosion or protect against flooding; digging ponds and also channels because that storing and directing water to wherein it to be needed, and also so on. They likewise had to fight in the royal military or work-related on significant royal projects must their lords require them to carry out so.

To execute these points the peasants had actually to work together in big groups, which had to be supervised by village headmen and also overseers because that the neighborhood lords.

The Aristocracy: Nobles and Warriors

The noble of the Shang kingdom were the lords who stood next listed below the king in status, wealth and power. They regulated the localities (called “fiefs” by modern scholars) right into which lot of the Shang kingdom was divided.

They live in far greater high-end than the majority of the population. They spent their time in administering your localities, training for war and also fighting on campaigns, attending the king in ~ court, advising him in matters of government and also assisting him in religious ceremonies, or in presiding end the rites to execute with their own ancestors. Castle may likewise have been connected in the worship of local deities whose existence has long been forgotten.

Below these lords in social standing, but well over other groups such as the peasantry and craft workers, to be a class of warriors. These made up the retinues that the nobles, both in their own localities and when their mr joined the king on campaign. Such warriors would have formed a permanent element within the imperial army.

Urban classes: scribes, priests, craftworkers and also traders

Apart from the peasants and lords, over there were additionally groups of civilization who lived in the capital and were attached come the service of the king and his court. One group was consisted of of scribes or priests. This played a vital role in the spiritual rites the the kingdom, and also must have enjoyed a high social status.

Other groups were the bronze workers and other experienced craftsmen who produced the good objects i beg your pardon adorned the palaces and also temples; and the job – possibly slaves (see below) – affiliated in the mining, refining and transporting that the tin, copper and lead ores which went to make bronze.

The Shang kingdom lay at the center of a network of long-distance trade routes, yet exactly exactly how the traders fitted into this culture is unknown. It is most likely that some were closely linked with the royal court, perhaps also royal servants.


A last group to point out was slaves. Uneven in later on periods the Chinese history, over there seem to have actually been plenty of slaves in Shang China. Castle are portrayed in paintings, functioning in gangs in fields under the whip that overseers. Lock probably also worked in the devastating conditions linked with mining. Your lives, just like slaves throughout world history, must have been people of misery and also hopelessness. Numerous ended as victims of human being sacrifice.

Shang Art

Although knowledge of metallurgy may have actually arrived in China indigenous the west, a tradition of making beautiful copper artifacts emerged independently in China. Also the an approach of produce was distinctive from that used in other parts that the world. Whereas in the middle East and elsewhere craftsmen used the lost-wax process, the beforehand Chinese craftsmen offered a more cumbersome procedure known together piece-mold casting.

This enabled them to carve or stamp decorative patterns directly onto the inner surface of the mold before it is fired. They can thus achieve a greater degree the intricacy in your decoration – an possibility which lock exploited to the full.

Early Chinese bronzes are some of the finest in the world, beautifully designed and decorated. They come in a good variety of develops – hollow-legged tripod cookers, four legged cauldrons, deep bowls, shallow basins, narrow bottle-shaped goblets and so on, all presumably provided in religious and court rituals.

One that the commonest decorative aspects was a collection of animal motifs in i beg your pardon the sleep is collection between the eyes. These are recognized as taotie. Various other vessels to be decorated with dragons, birds, cattle and also geometric shapes.

The heritage of bronze working continued on right into later dynasties, but the Shang and early Zhou periods represented the high suggest for this details art kind in China. From then on it went into decline, and by the Han empire (202 BCE to 220 CE) that had involved an end.

The handmade of making Jade objects to be at a very high level in Shang times. In this lock were illustration on a heritage of craftwork which be Shang times went back more than 2000 years.

Beyond Shang’s borders

As we have seen, the Shang empire kingdom walk not type a combined state structure spanning a large area of China. Even in northern China there were countless other kingdoms and tribes. Some of these were long-term allies of the Shang; others to be at times allies, at times enemies, of the Shang. Rather lay mostly past the with of the Shang.


Shang social influences, however, spread far more comprehensive across China. The Shang kingdom lay at the facility of a network that long-distance trade routes. This is shown by the cowrie shells which served as a unit that currency. All were imported, part from dry seas thousands of kilometers come the south. Tortoise shells provided for divination purposes, and the jade used in ornamental objects, are also imported native the south.

Southern China

The rice-growing an ar of southern China, focused on the Yangtze Valley, had arisen a level of civilization to rival the of the Shang. Large, wealthy urban centers had actually emerged contemporary with Zhenzhou, focused on Sanxingdui. They presented a distinctive southern bronze occupational tradition, for example spreading tigers onto handles of bronze vessels. However, they do not it seems ~ to have actually used writing, either their own or imported native the north.

The end of the Shang dynasty

We have actually seen the the Shang political system created a kind of confederation of states in which numerous semi-independent rulers recognized the overlordship of the Shang king. Among these claims was the kingdom that Zhou, which put on the western frontiers of the Shang-dominated area, and may not have been fully assimilated into it. At time it shows up to have acknowledged Shang suzerainty, however at various other times was among Shang’s enemies.

In c. 1122 BCE (1045 BCE by part reckonings), the an effective and ambitious king the Zhou sent out his army, which follow to traditional accounts contained 300 chariots, to defeat the Shang army in the fight of Muye. The critical Shang king committed self-destruction in his burning palace. The victor moved the funding to the city of Zengzhou, and that period known in Chinese background as the Zhou dynasty had begun.

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Further study

Civilization of old China

The development of state establishments in old China

The economic climate of old China

Society in old China

Thought and culture in ancient China

Individual dynasties:

Zhou dynasty China

Qin dynasty China

Han dynasty China

Divided China

To location the Shang empire in the broad context of the totality of Chinese history:

The history of China

To watch maps charting the rise and also fall of ancient Chinese dynasties, walk to our TimeMap the World background pages on ancient China.