The Shang Dynasty: Second in Traditional Historiography, First in Archaeology
There is a semi-mythological dynasty before it, but from an archaeological point of view it could be argued the Shang Dynasty was the first dynasty of China. It was Bronze Age China at its known best, with a benevolent ruler, ready military, and a series of innovations to life and Chinese culture.
According to traditional Chinese historiography, the Shang Dynasty was the second dynasty to have been established in China, having succeeded the Xia Dynasty. However, unlike the Xia Dynasty, the existence of the Shang Dynasty has been acknowledged, as the written sources are supported by archaeological evidence. The Shang Dynasty was eventually succeeded by the Zhou Dynasty.
Shang Dynasty bronze battle axe. (Editor at Large/ CC BY SA 2.5 ) This axe was used in hand-to-hand combat and was also a ritual object symbolizing power and military authority. The tomb it came from likely belonged to a man of wealth and influence.
When Was it and How Long Did the Shang Dynasty Last?
At present, there is no agreement amongst scholars regarding the period during which the Shang Dynasty was in power. The range of dates for the founding of the Shang Dynasty is between 1760 and 1520 BC, whilst its fall is believed to have occurred at some point of time between 1122 and 1030 BC.
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No doubt, there is a discrepancy between the written and archaeological sources. For instance, traditional Chinese historiography states that the Shang Dynasty ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC. Archaeological work, however, has suggested that the earliest evidence for this dynasty’s existence dates to around 1600 BC, and that it existed until 1046 BC.
A New Ruler Reverses Old Ways
According to tradition, the Shang Dynasty was founded by Tang, who was the ruler of a vassal state under the Xia Dynasty. The last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, Jie, is recorded to have been corrupt and tyrannical - hence an unpopular ruler. At the same time, the Shang state was growing in strength under the leadership of Tang, and eventually revolted against the rule of Jie, who was accused of losing the Mandate of Heaven, and therefore forfeited the right to rule. The turning point of this rebellion was the Battle of Mingtiao, during which Jie was defeated by Tang. The last Xia ruler fled from the field of battle, went into exile, and died of illness sometime later.
King Tang of Shang Dynasty ( 商湯王) as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin ( 馬麟). ( Public Domain )
Having established the new dynasty, Tang is recorded to have reversed many of his predecessor’s cruel and unpopular policies. At the same time, he sought to provide aid to the less fortunate members of society. For instance, Tang is reported to have abolished the excessive taxation system that was in place during the reign of Jie. Additionally, Tang is said to have given special gold coins to the poor who were forced to sell their children during times of famine. These coins were to be used to buy their children back.
Shang Dynasty Artifacts Tell Military Tales
Tang also made changes to the military system. Whilst it is known that the rulers of the Shang Dynasty kept a standing army of 1000 strong, Tang reduced the number of conscripts, as well as the amount of service time required of them. Nevertheless, it is known that the dynasty was frequently at war with their “barbarian” neighbors, as indirectly revealed by the oracle bones (which provide a wealth of information on the dynasty and were also used to predict the future).
Tortoise plastron with divination (an oracle bone) inscription from the Shang dynasty, dating to the reign of King Wu Ding. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
When a larger force was needed for such conflicts, the Shang rulers could call on their vassals, including their nobles, subordinate kings, and tribal chiefs, to raise levies from their realms. These vassals are also obliged to equip and arm their raised levies.
These include bronze weapons, many examples of which have been unearthed by archaeologists. However, as bronze was expensive, weapons and armor made of this material were used exclusively by the elite who could afford them. The rank and file were most likely to have been armed with stone weapons and leather armor.
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Dagger-Axe with Curved End, China, Shang dynasty, 12th-11th century BC, bronze haft inlaid with turquoise, nephrite blade. ( Public Domain )
The use of bronze is a distinctive feature of the Shang Dynasty from an archaeological point of view. Apart from weapons and armor, this period is also well-known for its various types of bronze ritual vessels, which have been discovered in many elite tombs.
Other achievements this dynasty is credited with include the development of a calendar system with 360 days (divided into 12 months of 30 days each), the beginnings of Chinese writing, and the invention of a construction technique called hangtu (meaning ‘stamped-earth’), which allowed for the proliferation of cities.
Houmuwu Ding, also known as Simuwu Ding is the heaviest piece of bronze work found in China so far. It was made in the late Shang Dynasty at Anyang (c. 1300 – 1046 BC). (Mlogic/CC BY SA 3.0 )
The End of the Dynasty
Like Jie of the Xia Dynasty, the last king of the Shang Dynasty, Zhou (known also as Xin) was a corrupt ruler. In fact, he is said to have been worse than the last Xia monarch. Consequently, a revolt was led by King Wu of Zhou, who succeeded in overthrowing King Zhou and brought the Shang Dynasty to an end. He then founded the Zhou Dynasty.
Top Image: Pit of oracle bones ( 甲骨) at Anyang Yinxu. The oracle bones are pieces of bone or turtle plastron bearing the answers to divination during the late Shang Dynasty (1766-1050 BC). Source: Chez Cåsver/ CC BY 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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