Shang Dynasty

Shang Dynasty

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The Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BCE) was the second dynasty of China which succeeded the Xia Dynasty (c. 2700-1600 BCE) after the overthrow of the Xia tyrant Jie by the Shang leader, Tang. Since many historians question whether the Xia Dynasty really existed, the Shang Dynasty may have actually been the first in China and the origin of Chinese culture.

The stability of the country during the Shang Dynasty led to numerous cultural advances such as industrialized bronze casting, the calendar, religious rituals, and writing. The first king, Tang, instantly began to work for the people of his country instead of for his own pleasure and luxury and provided a role model for his successors. These men created a stable government which would continue for 600 years but eventually, according to the records of the Chinese historians, they lost the mandate of heaven which allowed them to rule.

The Shang were overthrown by King Wu of Zhou in 1046 BCE who founded the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). The Zhou would be the last before the Qin Dynasty (221-210 BCE) which unified China and gave it its name. By the time of the Zhou and Qin dynasties, Chinese culture was already formed, so if one discounts the Xia Dynasty as a politically motivated fabrication of later historians, one must conclude that the Shang Dynasty is responsible for the foundations of Chinese culture and civilization. If one accepts the Xia as historical reality, then it was still during the Shang Dynasty that the most important aspects of the culture were developed.

King Tang of Shang

Tang ruled the kingdom of Shang, a vassal state under the higher rule of the Xia Dynasty. His years of rule are disputed. Historian Joshua J. Mark notes how "The dates popularly assigned to him (1675-1646 BCE) do not in any way correspond to the known events in which he took part and must be considered erroneous." The last emperor of the Xia Dynasty, Jie, was a tyrant who lived for his own pleasure at the expense of his people. Tang endured this treatment as long as he could for the sake of harmony and peace and because, most of all, it was believed that the Xia ruled according to the mandate of heaven, the principle that the gods gave certain people the right to rule over others. Eventually, Tang came to see that the Xia had lost the mandate and led his people in revolt.

Tang abolished Jie's tyrannical policies and excessive taxes and instituted a new government which worked for the people instead of against them.

At the Battle of Mingtiao, fought in the midst of a huge rainstorm of thunder and lighting, Tang defeated Jie. Jie ran from the field and sought safety in exile, eventually dying from an illness. Tang abolished Jie's tyrannical policies and excessive taxes and instituted a new government which worked for the people instead of against them.

Although Tang, and his successors, kept a standing army of around 1,000 troops at the ready, he lowered the number of conscripts and the amount of time one needed to serve. He also began government-funded social programs for the poor. One of these included giving specially marked gold coins to poor people who had needed to sell their children to survive a famine; the coin was issued so they could buy their children back. The country suffered from famine a number of times during Tang's reign but was on the whole very prosperous.

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Stability & Economy

Historian Justin Wintle notes that "the presence [on both banks of the Yellow River] of vast quantities of loess - an exceptionally fertile alluvial sediment" and the Shang's prudent use of this soil, led to their ability to "grow significantly more food than they, or their dependents, required, thus releasing labor for such enterprises as the Shang tombs, the Great Wall, the Grand Canal and the early proliferation of cities" (6). One of the reasons the Xia dynasty's place in history is questioned by modern historians is that there is no way to really tell if the cities assigned to the Xia are not actually early Shang because the Shang Dynasty built so many.

The Shang initiated the technique of hangtu ('stamped-earth') in constructing these cities. Wintle explains that hangtu "involves compacting soil, usually with up-ended logs or beams, into a hard base which is then used as a platform upon which to erect wooden edifices, or built up using the same process to form walls and ramparts. Its appearance, especially in the north of China, denotes considerable manpower resources" (11). The use of hangtu, and the ornate tombs and public building projects of the Shang, all point to political stability and a thriving economy which allowed people the freedom from subsistence farming to participate in such projects. The best example of this can be seen in the city of Erligang in Zhengzhou.


In 1952 CE the remains of a vast city from the Shang Dynasty were discovered near the modern city of Zhengzhou. This city had walls 32 feet (10 m) high and an amazing 65 feet (20 m) thick which ran for over four miles (7 km) to enclose an area of over one square mile (3 km²). Wintle notes that "nothing of comparable magnitude belonging to the same period has been detected elsewhere in east Asia and it is calculated that to build Erligang would have taken 12,000 men ten years" (16). The excavations also uncovered bronze foundries which were used to craft weapons and statues. The weapons of the Shang military were all bronze and finds at excavations have shown that they were well armed. Still, the arts were as important to the Shang as military campaigns. The bronze statues found at Erligang are far superior in craftsmanship and size to those found anywhere else from the same time.

Besides work in bronze, the craftsmen of the Shang Dynasty were also expert in stonework, especially jade. Grave goods of very ornate jade workmanship have been found, including bodies covered in jade shingles, like armor plate. In textiles, the artists were equally skilled. Work in silk and other woven materials was of a very high quality which is clear from the clothing of carefully preserved bodies from Shang Dynasty tombs.

Bone workshops were also discovered at Erligang. Bone workshops in ancient China were industrial centers where artisans created objects from bone and stone for ceremonial or decorative purposes, and their presence at Erligang, along with the bronze foundries and artifacts, indicates enormous wealth. Throughout early Chinese history, artisans usually worked from rural homes to make their pieces in bone or stone; an industrial complex of the size at Erligang would have meant that the city could attract skilled craftsmen from other areas to live and work in the city.


The prosperity and stability of the Shang Dynasty not only produced a thriving economy and great works of art but also allowed for development of religious thought and ritual. Mark writes:

Prior to the Shang, the people worshipped many gods with one supreme god, Shangti, as head of the pantheon. Shangti was considered 'the great ancestor' who presided over victory in war, agriculture, the weather, and good government. Because he was so remote and so busy, however, the people seem to have required more immediate intercessors for their needs and so the practice of ancestor worship began.

The Shang Dynasty not only developed ancestor worship but also the link between the people and the king and the king and the gods. This led to a completely harmonious understanding of life where the planes of the divine and the human, the rulers and the ruled, were intertwined. Religious thought cannot develop when one is concerned for one's safety or family, and so, this is further proof of the stability of the Shang Dynasty and of the validity of the later records claiming it was a time of great happiness and prosperity for the people.

Taoism is thought to have developed during this time and the folk religion (including ancestor worship) which grew out of Taoist teachings. These religious developments included a belief in an afterlife and allowed one to call on one's ancestors for help in one's life. It also meant that the king who ruled over the land was not ruling by chance or whim but by the will of the all-powerful gods and in harmony with one's ancestors. Joshua J. Mark comments on this:

When someone died, it was thought, they attained divine powers and could be called upon for assistance in times of need. This practice led to highly sophisticated rituals dedicated to appeasing the spirits of the ancestors which eventually included ornate burials in grand tombs filled with all one would need to enjoy a comfortable afterlife. The king, in addition to his secular duties, served as chief officiate and mediator between the living and the dead and his rule was considered ordained by divine law. Although the famous Mandate of Heaven was developed by the later Zhou Dynasty, the idea of linking a just ruler with divine will has its roots in the beliefs fostered by the Shang.

The Calendar, Writing & Music

The traditional Chinese calendar was lunar, based on the moon, but the farmers needed a solar calendar so they could tell when the best times were to plant and harvest their crops. During the Shang Dynasty a man named Wan-Nien measured time over a one-year period by measuring the shadows throughout a day using a sun-dial and a water clock. He established the two solstices of the year and, after that, the two equinoxes and so created the calendar known as the Wan-lien-li or the "perpetual calendar". Before Wan-Nien, the Chinese believed there were 354 days in a year but Wan-Nien proved there are 365.

The exact date of Wan-Nien's work is unknown but when it comes to the invention of writing there is a little more certainty. Writing developed in China gradually through the use of oracle bones. Oracle bones were shells of turtles or bones of animals which were used in divination. If a person wanted to know their future they would go to a fortune teller who would carve a question on a bone or shell. If one wanted to know whether to attend a friend's wedding, the fortune teller would write "I will go to my friend's wedding" on one part of the shell and "I will not go to my friend's wedding" on another part. These were not necessarily words but could have been symbols, pictograms. The shell or bone would then be placed in a fire until it cracked. The fortune teller would interpret that crack to answer the question.

This practice led to the development of writing as people had more complex questions for the oracle bones than whether to attend a wedding. By c. 1250 BCE writing had developed in recognizable form. As Wintle puts it, "the first unambiguous appearance of a Chinese script in the form of inscribed oracle bones" comes from the city of Anyang at this time (17). The script found on these bones is archaic but is definitely Chinese script and able to be read.

The invention of writing aided in the discipline of science as observations could be recorded more accurately. The Oracle Scripts are accounts of eclipses and other celestial events written by astronomers of the time. Their works also show advances in mathematics during the same period and the development of odd and even numbers and principles of accounting. The I-Ching (also known as The Book of Changes) was either written or compiled at this same time (c. 1250-1150 BCE). The I-Ching is a book of divination with roots going back to the fortune tellers of the rural areas and their oracle bones.

Musical instruments were also developed by the Shang. At Yin Xu, near Angyang, excavations have revealed instruments from the Shang period such as the ocarina (a wind instrument), drums, and cymbals. Bells, chimes, and bone flutes have been discovered elsewhere. The founding of the city of Angyang, which would become the capital of the Shang Dynasty, corresponds to the height of its power.

Decline & Fall

The Shang Dynasty may have gone through a brief decline prior to the founding of Angyang, around 1300 BCE, when separate states under Shang rule seem to have broken away economically, if not politically. Archaeologists have come to this conclusion through a study of the trade at the time which indicates a rise in the economy of independent states but not, as before, of the whole region under Shang control. This claim is in doubt, however, as the physical evidence is not decisive.

The two greatest emperors after Tang were Pan Geng, who moved the capital to Yin (so that the dynasty is sometimes referred to as Yin Shang), and Wu Ding. Wu Ding is one of the only Shang emperors whose existence is corroborated by the physical evidence of archaeology. He reigned for 58 years from 1250-1192 BCE and during this time the country developed many of the most important advances listed above as well as those in medicine, dentistry, and the fine arts.

After Wu Ding's reign the dynasty began to decline until the last emperor, Zhou (also known as Xin) who forgot his duty to his people and concentrated on gratifying his own desires. He spent most of his time with his concubine Daji and not only neglected his duties but made his people pay for his luxuries and idleness. He became a worse tyrant than Jie of the Xia Dynasty had been and was finally overthrown by King Wu, of the province of Zhou, at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BCE.

The Shang Dynasty was replaced by the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) which began to dissolve in its final years into the phase known as the Warring States Period (c.481-221 BCE). During this time, the seven states which had been under Zhou control fought each other for supreme rule of the country. The state of Qin (pronounced 'chin') was victorious and China takes its name today from the Qin Dynasty. Unlike the Shang or the Zhou, the Qin began badly and only became worse over time until they were overthrown by the Han. The Shang Dynasty, which was responsible for so many important advancements in culture, was looked back upon as a golden age of prosperity and, in many ways, it was.

The Shang dynasty

The Shang dynasty—the first Chinese dynasty to leave historical records—is thought to have ruled from about 1600 to 1046 bce . (Some scholars date the Shang from the mid-18th to the late 12th century bce .) One must, however, distinguish Shang as an archaeological term from Shang as a dynastic one. Erlitou, in north-central Henan, for example, was initially classified archaeologically as Early Shang its developmental sequence from about 2400 to 1450 bce documents the vessel types and burial customs that link Early Shang culture to the Late Neolithic cultures of the east. In dynastic terms, however, Erlitou periods I and II (c. 1900 bce ?) are now thought by many to represent a pre-Shang (and thus, perhaps, Xia) horizon. In this view, the two palace foundations, the elite burials, the ceremonial jade blades and sceptres, the bronze axes and dagger axes, and the simple ritual bronzes—said to be the earliest yet found in China—of Erlitou III (c. 1700–1600 bce ?) signal the advent of the dynastic Shang.

The archaeological classification of Middle Shang is represented by the remains found at Erligang (c. 1600 bce ) near Zhengzhou, some 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Erlitou. The massive rammed-earth fortification, 118 feet (36 metres) wide at its base and enclosing an area of 1.2 square miles (3.2 square km), would have taken 10,000 people more than 12 years to build. Also found were ritual bronzes, including four monumental tetrapods (the largest weighing 190 pounds [86 kg] palace foundations workshops for bronze casting, pot making, and bone working burials and two inscribed fragments of oracle bones. Another rammed-earth fortification, enclosing about 450 acres (180 hectares) and also dated to the Erligang period, was found at Yanshi, about 3 miles (5 km) east of the Erlitou III palace foundations. These walls and palaces have been variously identified by modern scholars—the identification now favoured is of Zhengzhou as Bo, the capital of the Shang dynasty during the reign of Tang, the dynasty’s founder—and their dynastic affiliations are yet to be firmly established. The presence of two large, relatively close contemporary fortifications at Zhengzhou and Yanshi, however, indicates the strategic importance of the area and considerable powers of labour mobilization.

Panlongcheng in Hubei, 280 miles (450 km) south of Zhengzhou, is an example of Middle Shang expansion into the northwest, northeast, and south. A city wall, palace foundations, burials with human sacrifices, bronze workshops, and mortuary bronzes of the Erligang type form a complex that duplicates on a smaller scale Zhengzhou. A transitional period spanning the gap between the Late Erligang phase of Middle Shang and the Yinxu phase of Late Shang indicates a widespread network of Shang cultural sites that were linked by uniform bronze-casting styles and mortuary practices. A relatively homogeneous culture united the Bronze Age elite through much of China around the 14th century bce .

The Late Shang period is best represented by a cluster of sites focused on the village of Xiaotun, west of Anyang in northern Henan. Known to history as Yinxu, “the Ruins of Yin” (Yin was the name used by the succeeding Zhou dynasty for the Shang), it was a seat of royal power for the last nine Shang kings, from Wuding to Dixin. According to the “short chronology” used in this article, which is based on modern studies of lunar eclipse records and reinterpretations of Zhou annals, these kings would have reigned from about 1250 to 1046 bce . (One version of the traditional “long chronology,” based primarily on a 1st-century- bce source, would place the last 12 Shang kings, from Pangeng onward, at Yinxu from 1398 to 1112 bce .) Sophisticated bronze, ceramic, stone, and bone industries were housed in a network of settlements surrounding the unwalled cult centre at Xiaotun, which had rammed-earth temple-palace foundations. And Xiaotun itself lay at the centre of a larger network of Late Shang sites, such as Xingtai to the north and Xinxiang to the south, in southern Hebei and northern Henan.

Ancient Shang Dynasty Art

The Shang Dynasty is regarded as the second dynasty to rule in China. It is said to follow the Xia Dynasty however, historians are uncertain if the Xia was an historical or mythical dynasty. Additionally, conflicting dates are given for the Shang Dynasty, but most historians agree that they likely ruled between 1600 B.C. and 1046 B.C. Art of the Shang Dynasty comes primarily in the form of bronze objects and oracle bones. The art of the Shang Dynasty was also made from stone, ceramics, and precious materials like jade.

According to scholars the people of the Shang Dynasty were likely Huaxia people who lived around the Yellow River where the dynasty was based. Agriculture and animal husbandry were key aspects of their civilization. The dynasty was ruled by hereditary kings who were frequently at war with nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes. The art of the dynasty, particularly its oracle bones (shards of bone or turtle shell containing Shang script used for divination purposes) bear witness to specific aspects of the civilization like its rituals of human sacrifice and ancestor worship.

Objects that date from the Shang period provide many clues about Shang culture. Bronze casting became more sophisticated during this period as did pottery making. Bronze and ceramic items frequently feature the geometric designs that the Shang are known for. Shang artisans also invented musical instruments, wove silk, and created lacquerware. Artistically rendered objects often held religious significance, but many items were simply household in nature like water vessels and wine jugs.

Aside from geometric designs, the artistic relics of the Shang era were also decorated with animal faces known as taotie motifs. Scholars are uncertain about the religious importance of the animal designs or whether they were strictly ornamental. Animals also figured prominently in the jade carvings that were famously produced during the Shang Dynasty. These sophisticated carvings depict dragons, tigers, birds, and other animals. Owning jade discs also indicated an individual’s standing in Shang society.

Archaeologists have learned much about the Shang from their ornate burials that showcased considerable decorating and contained many artistically rendered items like weapons, pottery, and jade objects that were believed to be needed in the afterlife. The calligraphy of the Shang was also extremely well developed for such an ancient civilization and it often decorated tombs and artistic objects. Ritual bronzes that date to the Shang Dynasty are among the most sought after objects of antiquity. Before the twentieth century, historians were uncertain if the Shang was a real dynasty, but archaeologists have uncovered their artistic past which not only proves the existence of the Shang, but it also served to explain this early Chinese people.

Shang Religion

Shang religion was characterized by a combination of animism, shamanism, spiritual control of the world, divination, and respect and worship of dead ancestors, including through sacrifices.

Learning Objectives

Explain the religious foundation of Shang Dynasty culture

Key Points

  • The Shang believed in spiritual control of the world by various gods. They also practiced ancestor worship. They appealed to the gods, including the supreme god Shangdi, and consulted their ancestors through oracle bones.
  • The Shang established a lunar calendar using 29-day months, and 12-month years.
  • There appears to have been a belief in the afterlife during the Shang Dynasty, evidenced by human and animal bodies and artifacts found in tombs.

Key Terms

  • animism: The belief that spirits inhabit some or all classes of natural objects or phenomena, and that an immaterial force animates the universe.
  • shamanism: A shaman is a person who is seen to have access to and influence in the world of spirits, and who typically enters a trance state during rituals, and practices divination and healing.
  • oracle bones: Inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals, dating to the Shang Dynasty of ancient China.
  • divination: The practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.

Shang Religion

Shang religion was characterized by a combination of animism, shamanism, spiritual control of the world, divination, and respect and worship of dead ancestors, including through sacrifice. Different gods represented natural and mythological symbols, such as the moon, sun, wind, rain, dragon, and phoenix. Peasants prayed to these gods for bountiful harvests. Festivals to celebrate gods were also common. In particular, the Shang kings, who considered themselves divine rulers, consulted the great god Shangdi (the “Supreme Being” who ruled over humanity and nature) for advice and wisdom. The Shang believed that the ancestors could also confer good fortune, so they would also consult ancestors through oracle bones in order to seek approval for any major decision, and to learn about future success in harvesting, hunting, or battle.

Shangdi: One depiction of Shangdi, the Supreme Being who ruled over humanity and nature.

Oracle Bones and Divination

The oldest surviving form of Chinese writing is inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—so-called oracle bones. Oracle bones were pieces of bone or turtle shell used by the ancient Chinese, especially Chinese kings, in attempts to predict the future. The ancient kings would inscribe their name and the date on the bone along with a question. They would then heat the bone until it cracked, and then interpret the shape of the crack, which was believed to provide an answer to their question.

Questions were carved into oracle bones, such as, “Will we win the upcoming battle?”, or “How many soldiers should we commit to the battle?” The bones reveal a great deal about what was important to Shang society. Many of the oracle bones ask questions about war, harvests, and childbirth.

Oracle Bone: This oracle bone from the Shang Dynasty dates to the reign of King Wu Ding.

The Afterlife

It appears that there was belief in the afterlife during the Shang Dynasty. Archaeologists have found Shang tombs surrounded by the skulls and bodies of human sacrifices. Some of these contain jade, which was seen to protect against decay and give immortality. Archaeologists believed that Shang tombs were very similar to those found in the Egyptian pyramids, in that they buried servants with them. Chinese archaeologists theorize that the Shang, like the ancient Egyptians, believed their servants would continue to serve them in the afterlife, so aristocrats’ servants would be killed and buried with them when they died. Another interpretation is that these were enemy warriors captured in battle.

The Burial Pit at the Tomb of Lady Fu Hao: This tomb is located in the ruins of the ancient Shang Dynasty capital, Yin.

The Lunar Calendar

The Shang also established a lunar calendar that was used to predict and record events, such as harvests, births, and deaths (of rulers and peasants alike). The system assumed a 29-day month that began and ended with each new moon twelve lunar months comprised one lunar year. Priests and astronomers were trained to recalculate the lunar year and add enough days so that each year lasted 365 days. Because the calendar was used to time both crop planting and the harvest, the king had to employ skilled astronomers to predict dates (and successes) of annual harvests this would help him maintain support from the people.

Culture and religion of the Shang dynasty

The singular aspect of Shang civilization is their invention of writing. Almost all the written records of the Shang have disappeared, for the court records were kept on strips of bamboo. However, inscriptions on bronze and on the oracle bones still survive so we have specimens of the very first Chinese writings. The writing system was originally pictographic, that is, words were represented by pictures that fairly closely resembled the meaning of the word. The picture for “sun,” for instance, looked much like the sun. This pictographic writing eventually developed into the more complex ideographic writing that we are more familiar with. Chinese writing is one of the only contemporary writing systems that still prominently bears traces of its pictographic origins.

Tomb Fu Hao YinXu. Image source: Wikimedia

At the excavated royal palace of Yinxu, large stone pillar bases were found along with rammed earth foundations and platforms, which according to Fairbank, were “as hard as cement. These foundations in turn originally supported 53 buildings of wooden post-and-beam construction. In close proximity to the main palatial complex, there were underground pits used for storage, servants’ quarters, and housing quarters. In the spring of 1976, the discovery of tomb at Yinxu revealed a tomb that was not only undisturbed, but one of the most richly furnished Shang tombs. With over 200 bronze ritual vessels and 109 inscriptions of Lady Fu Hao’s name, archaeologists realized they had stumbled across the tomb of the militant consort to King Wu Ding, as described in 170 to 180 Shang oracle bones.

The Shang worshipped a figure they called “ Shang Ti,” or “Lord on High.” This supreme god ruled over lesser gods of the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, and other natural forces and places. Shang-Ti also regulated human affairs as well as ruling over the material universe. This dual function would, in the Zhou dynasty, be attributed to a more abstract figure, “t’ien,” or “Heaven.” The Shang also believed that their ancestors dwelled in heaven after their death and continued to show an interest in their familiy and descendants. The obligations within the family included, therefore, the ancestors. Failing in one’s duties to the ancestors could bring all sorts of disaster on a family. All of these divine and semi-divine figures, from Shang-Ti to a family’s ancestors, were sacrificed to. However, we know little of the nature or the frequency of these sacrifices. In the Zhou dynasty only the king could sacrifice to Shang-Ti it is highly likely that Shang-Ti was the “local god” of the Shang kings who was subsequently elevated in order to elevate the Shang themselves. The one disturbing fact of Shang sacrifice is that it certainly involved humans slaves and prisoners of war were often sacrificed by the hundreds when a king died. Lesser numbers were sacrificed at the founding of a palace or temple.

Emperors of Shang Dynasty China

The Shang Dynasty is the first Chinese imperial dynasty for which we have actual documentary evidence. Since the Shang is so very ancient, the sources are unclear. We don't even know for sure when the Shang Dynasty began its rule over the Yellow River Valley of China. Some historians believe that it was around the year 1700 BCE, while others place it later, c. 1558 BCE.

In any case, the Shang Dynasty succeeded the Xia Dynasty, which was a legendary ruling family from approximately 2070 BCE to about 1600 BCE. We have no surviving written records for the Xia, although they probably did have a writing system. Archaeological evidence from the Erlitou sites does give support to the idea that a complex culture had already arisen in northern China at this time.

Fortunately for us, the Shang have left some slightly clearer records than their Xia predecessors did. The traditional sources for the Shang era include the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. These records were written much, much later than the Shang period, however Sima Qian wasn't even born until around 145 to 135 BCE. As a result, modern historians were quite skeptical even about the existence of the Shang Dynasty until archaeology miraculously provided some proof.

In the early 20th century, archaeologists found an early form of Chinese writing that was inscribed (or in rare cases painted) onto turtle shells or large, flat animal bones like the shoulder blades of oxen. These bones were then put into a fire, and the cracks that developed from the heat would help a magical diviner to predict the future or tell their customer whether their prayers would be answered.

Called oracle bones, these magical divination tools provided us proof that the Shang Dynasty really did exist. Some of the seekers who asked questions of the gods via the oracle bones were the emperors themselves or officials from the court so we even got confirmation of some of their names, along with rough dates when they were active.

In many cases, the evidence from the Shang Dynasty oracle bones matched quite closely with the recorded tradition about that time from the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian. Still, it should not surprise anyone that there are still gaps and discrepancies in the imperial list below. After all, the Shang Dynasty ruled China a very, very long time ago.

Chinese historical legend: End of the Shang Dynasty

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 23
Occupation: Student (Communications)
Residence: Shenzhen, China
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

“Zhou Xin, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, he loved women and drinking and his favorite concubine was a woman called Da Ji. We say she is hu li jing, a fox spirit that tricks men. Right, so Da Ji never smiled and the emperor wanted to see her smile, so he—oh wait, I have to tell you, in ancient China they had an alarm system set up, so if the emperor was in trouble, he’d have someone light a bonfire, and people further out would see the fire and light fires too and send armies to help, and then people even further out would see those fires and light their own and send armies, and so on. So Zhou Xin lit the alarm fire to try to make Da Ji smile, and a few days later, soldiers from all over China arrived at the palace, but there was nothing for them to do because it was just a joke, and Da Ji finally smiled. And because only this could make her smile, the emperor did it again and again, and finally the other towns got tired of having to send soldiers to the palace all the time, and they probably got tired of having to get new wood all the time too, so they just stopped sending soldiers when they saw the fire. And then when the palace was actually under attack, no one came, and that’s how the Shang Dynasty ended.”

My informant believes that he learned this story from his father, who has an interest in ancient Chinese history. Interestingly, my informant had never heard of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which was the tale I immediately thought of after he told me this legend. Both the Boy and Zhou Xin waste others’ time and resources for their own amusement, and by the end, people no longer believe their cries for help. As a result, the Boy loses the sheep he was supposed to protect, and Zhou Xin loses the kingdom he was supposed to defend.

This legend takes place on a much larger scale and is set during a real historical period with real historical figures. Zhou Xin was the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and is remembered in history as 商紂王, Shang Zhou Wang, a derogatory title applied posthumously to reflect his unsuitability to be emperor. This legend explains why the Shang Dynasty ended (Zhou Xin’s allies thought the alarm fires were another joke) and gives and example of something Zhou Xin did to earn his pejorative nickname.

From as early as the 4th century BC, Chinese records have sworn on the existence of a Shang dynasty. Sandwiched in time between the mythical Xia and tumultuous Zhou dynasties, the Shang was said to have floated from capital to capital until the great king Pan Geng established a permanent capital in modern-day Anyang, Henan province.

Up until the 20th century, however, these records seemed like mere stories. Then, in 1899, Chinese scholars noticed that the “dragon bones” being sold by local pharmacists and antiquarians were marked with strange characters, much different from the script they knew at the time. It seemed then that conclusive evidence for the Shang dynasty was just around the corner. Still, it wasn’t until 1928 that these “dragon bones” were finally dated to the Shang and traced back to a site near Anyang.

From that moment, the storied Shang dynasty could not hide any longer. Over and over, archaeological remains were dug up, and over and over, those remains were linked to the Shang. Bronze ceremonial tools, musical instruments, and tombs were all discovered, but the real key to the dynasty’s story lay in those first “dragon bones.”

The “dragon bones” were, of course, not dragon bones at all, but rather what one American missionary to China dubbed “oracle bones.” These bones, some actual scapula from oxen and others tortoise shells, had been inscribed with the direct ancestors of modern Chinese characters. Shang dynasty diviners would expose the bones to extreme heat, causing them to crack. The diviners would then interpret the cracks and use them to predict anything from the weather to warfare.

Inscriptions on the oracle bones have confirmed much of what the early historians had written about the Shang and greatly expanded understanding of Shang culture. They have shown that the Shang was a largely agricultural society that engaged in ancestor worship and human sacrifice. While the dynastic line was passed to males only, the Shang may have been more gender egalitarian than many of its succeeding dynasties. In fact, at least 180 oracle bones mention a woman named Fu Hao she was not only a consort of King Wu Ding but also a renowned military general. It is her tomb, near Anyang, that remained untouched by grave robbers and thus contains one of the richest assortments of Shang artifacts to date.

While archaeological evidence of the Shang dynasty has been found as far south as Jiangxi province and as far west as Chengdu, the best place to get to know the Shang is, unsurprisingly, the former capital itself. Anyang is a fairly unremarkable city today, but its museums and tombs offer an unparalleled look into ancient China.


The Shang Dynasty was the earliest well-documented dynasty in China and it ruled from about 1600-1046 BC. A dynasty is a society ruled by a line of kings from the same family. There was probably another dynasty, called the Xia, before the Shang, but archaeologists do not have very much information about it yet.

How do we know about the Shang Dynasty?

There is a wealth of evidence that can tell us about the Shang Dynasty. We know that they had a system of writing in symbols because we have found bones with writing carved into them from this time. These &lsquooracle bones&rsquo were used to ask questions to the gods about things that might happen or about decisions that needed to be made. They provide very useful information about what the Shang Dynasty was like.

There are also many surviving artefacts from the period, most of which have been discovered in tombs. People in the Shang Dynasty used to be buried along with their possessions, believing that they could take material goods with them to the afterlife. Weapons, cooking vessels, jewellery, chariots and even human skeletons have been found buried alongside the bodies of rich people from Shang times. From these artefacts, archaeologists have been able to piece together a picture of what life was like in the Shang Dynasty.

How was the Shang Dynasty established?

Historians believe that the Shang Dynasty was founded when King Tang rose up and overthrew the evil King Jie of the Xia Dynasty. Tang was a good and compassionate king and was well supported by his people. He lowered taxes and he taught people how to manage animals well. Because of his wisdom, the dynasty began to expand. People built settlements around the Yellow River valley and farmers grew crops to feed the people. Richer people, like priests, warriors and kings, would dwell in huge cities protected by earthen walls.

What was it like for people living in the Shang Dynasty?

The Shang Dynasty became thriving and successful, increasing in wealth and power over a few hundred years. People learned how to make bronze and this period was part of what historians call China&rsquos &lsquoBronze Age&rsquo. Bronze production helped the people of the Shang Dynasty increase their wealth and it provided the army with powerful weapons that they could use to conquer enemies and expand the Shang territory.

People would also build dirt roads to connect the cities and would trade in bronze and other high quality goods like jade. They also used tiny shells called cowrie shells as a form of currency. Rich people, like the famous Lady Fu Hao, would be buried with a tomb filled with treasures ready to take on to the afterlife.

The Shang people believed in a high god called Shangdi, who ruled over the nature gods like the gods of the sun, moon and rivers. They also worshipped their ancestors, believing that their dead relatives could intercede to Shangdi on their behalf and directly influence what happened in their daily lives. People would hold special festivals to honour their ancestors and would make sacrifices of food, wine, animals and even humans.

How did the Shang Dynasty come to an end?

When the final king of the Shang Dynasty, King Di Xin, was in power people started to become very unhappy. He was a cruel king who tortured people for fun. King Di Xin raised taxes to fund his own extravagant lifestyle and this made people very poor and resentful.

Around the same time, a tribe called the Zhou decided to attack the Shang Dynasty. The Shang army was away fighting another battle and King Di Xin called together an army from slaves, prisoners and peasants. However, his people were so resentful that many of them chose not to fight for him but to join the Zhou warriors instead. The Zhou king, King Wu, stormed the palace and declared the Shang Dynasty over, establishing the reign of the Zhou Dynasty instead.

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Due to the cruel rule of the Xia Dynasty, in 1600 BC, Tang defeated the army of The Xia Dynasty and established the second dynasty in Chinese history: the "Shang" Dynasty.

When Tang established the Shang Dynasty, although the social pattern did not change, the establishment of the Shang Dynasty injected new vitality into the society at that time and perfected the mechanism of the ancient class society. Therefore, many ancient Chinese books fully affirmed the establishment of the Shang Dynasty, and believed that it was the inevitable result of the development of the times. During the development of the Shang Dynasty, the oracle bone inscriptions that appeared,it was the earliest known mature scripts in China. In addition, bronze technology has also been rapidly developed, and people have produced many bronze production tools and living utensils.

Beginning with the tenth ruler Zhong Ding, the Shang royal family began to appear in chaos and Shang moved the capital many times. The twenty-second generation of ruler Wu Ding grew up in the countryside since he was a child, and understood the suffering of the people. He chose talented people to vigorously reform politics at the same time, he sent troops many times to quell the intrusion of nomads. Gradually the power of the Shang Dynasty developed to its peak. However, since the 24th generation of ruler Zu jia, social conflicts have intensified, and the Shang Dynasty has gradually declined. The twenty-seventh ruler Wu Yi practised tyranny, and was electrocuted to death while hunting in the river. By the time of the thirtieth ruler Zhou, the struggle between royal power and aristocratic power had reached its peak. Zhou was extravagant and torture indiscriminately, causing everyone to rebel. When the crisis deepened, Zhou also used large-scale external troops, expended a lot of manpower and material resources, and accelerated the demise of the Shang dynasty. Ji Fa, a leader of western region, took the opportunity to develop and destroyed the Shang Dynasty in about 1046 BC.

The Shang Dynasty was founded in about 1600 BC and died in about 1046 BC, lasting a total of about 554 years.

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