Dallas L. McCURLEY

Shang dynasty jade from the collection of the Shanghai Museum. Jade carvings represent some of the highest achievements in Bronze Age material culture. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

1766 BCE–1045 BCE China’s first historically chronicled dynasty

The Shang inherited the ancestor cult and the use of bronze for ritual purposes from advanced precursors. Much of the information on them comes from inscriptions written on oracle bones used in divining. Later dynasties perpetuated the Shang legacy through continuing practices of ancestor worship, elaborate burial ritual, the calendar, divination, writing, and the layout of the capital’s administrative and ritual center.

Despite mythical accounts of an early Neolithic dynasty known as the Xia (2100–1766 BCE), the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) is the first dynasty clearly identifiable as such from the archeological evidence. At Erlitou in present-day Henan Province, however, remains were found in 1959 of what was arguably China’s first full state formation, and has indeed been identified by some scholars with Xia. Certainly the Erlitou culture (c. 2100–1500 BCE) passed to the Shang a number of material innovations and cultural motifs. Among these was the form of a capital city and ritual center. Covering some three square kilometers, Erlitou was an urban complex bigger than any of the multiple city-states which had preceded it. At the center was a “palace-temple” compound where, among other religio-political ceremonies, feasts were apparently held in honor of the ancestors. The same compound also housed workshops, whose output included bronze drinking vessels for use at these feasts. The aim of the ancestral cult was to take the relationship of authority that had once bound subjects to their king and make it operative across the divide between life and death. The ancestors’ spirit-power was therefore presumed to be very great. At the same time, however, they were taken to be dependent on their descendants for the performance of rituals to keep their memory alive and provide them with the nourishment they continued to need in the afterlife. This ensured a reciprocity between ancestors and descendants which was continued by the Shang in a much more elaborate ritual structure.

The significance of the ritual bronzes introduced in the Erlitou ceremonies was also great, extending through the Shang dynasty and beyond. Most pre-Shang ritual vessels were ceramic. The bronzes, however, were harder and more enduring, and spoke, moreover, of a highly exclusive, even magical production process, redolent of power at every level—not least because Erlitou, occupying the Yiluo alluvial valley with the Huang (Yellow) River just north of it, and generally surrounded by mountains, was well-situated for agricultural yield and natural defenses but entirely lacked the copper, tin, and lead needed for bronze. The need to acquire the materials for its all-important ritual productions in the form of tribute from neighboring polities drove Erlitou’s military and diplomatic expansion. The Shang, which took from Erlitou both the ancestor cult and the use of ritual bronzes—Shang tombs display a greater quantity of bronze than any other world culture—also relied on forced tribute for their basic ritual materials.

Early Shang

From c. 1800 to 1500 BCE, Erlitou underwent a protracted decline; over the next century or so, performance of religio-political authority reached new heights in Zhengzhou, 100 kilometers east of Erlitou and apparently the site of an early Shang capital. According to the founder of Chinese historiography, the Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE), there were several Shang capitals; movement from one to the other may have been occasioned by religious obligations, military disadvantage, or food imperatives. It seems that the center of the dynasty’s power was secured above all in the person of the king, whose political authority in turn was reaffirmed in the state worship of the royal ancestral line, rather than through persistent dwelling by the people in a specific geographical locale.

The dynasty resided in Zhengzhou during what is sometimes called the Erligang period, named after a section of the present-day city. Like Erlitou, Zhengzhou enfeoffed (invested with a fief or fee) neighboring polities to acquire the raw materials for a thoroughgoing commitment to ritual performance. This Shang capital, building on the Erlitou model, had two city walls, an inner and an outer; the former enclosed a palace-temple area, the latter three cemetery sites, two bronze foundries, a bronze casting area, and a bone workshop. The inner wall, in other words, bound together the political elite and the craft specialists on whose skill their ritual authority was dependent, and the outer served above all to exclude the city’s other inhabitants. Both human and animal sacrifices were staged for dwellers in the inner area; the human victims may have been common inhabitants of Zhengzhou or prisoners taken in warfare, perhaps for the express purpose of ritual killing.

In the bronze foundries and casting area, craft specialists used key technical innovations to increase and standardize the number of bronze vessel types, as well as to add visual designs. The principal motif found on the Zhengzhou bronzes, and indeed on all subsequent Shang ritual vessels, was later given the name taotie, although the Shang name for it is unknown. At Zhengzhou it began as scarcely more than a pair of eyes in a narrow band of linear ornamentation; through the decades the latter increased in area, the patterns becoming denser and busier. The taotie seems to have figured in some pervasive kind of metamorphic magic. On all the vessels used to prepare food and drink for offering to the ancestors, for example, officiants and audience would have been aware of taotie eyes watching: the eyes of some kind of tutelary spirit, perhaps, or an opener-up of links between the performers on earth and the absent-present dead of the spirit world. These eyes stood out amidst the dynamic whorls which unfurled around them; the whorls themselves, suggestive of endless metamorphosis and later known as “cloud and thunder patterns,” may have constituted a visual aid to the participants’ imagining of the transformational action under way, in which humans and spirits engaged with each other.

Early Shang power extended as far as the city of Panlongcheng, 450 kilometers south of Zhengzhou, and conceivably to other sites further yet from the middle Huang River valley; at any rate, bronzes using Zhengzhou techniques and often in the Zhengzhou style spread over a rather large area, although this could indicate a sharing of techniques by a number of linked “nodal” sites rather than implying dominance by a Shang center. Zhengzhou itself fell into decline toward the end of the fifteenth century BCE, perhaps as a result of conflict among members of the royal house. Knowledge of developments during the years from circa 1400 to 1200 BCE remains sketchy. At the next and final Shang capital, however, a wealth of prototextual materials abruptly appears, opening up the historical record.


Extant written records left by the Shang cover the reigns of the last nine kings (Wu Ding, c. 1200 BCE, through Di Xin, c. 1045 BCE), usually known as the Late Shang period. The writing, which has every appearance of a script wit
h some history of development (although the details of that history are still unknown), exists as brief inscriptions on bronze ritual vessels and also as myriad oracle-bone inscriptions, recording an extensive divinatory practice that by the dynasty’s end was the exclusive preserve of the king. The oracle bones, consisting of cattle scapulas and turtle shell plastrons, were “asked” questions concerning ritual matters, the conduct of military campaigns, royal hunts and other excursions from the capital, all aspects of agricultural production, the king’s health, any potentially ominous royal dreams, tributes from surrounding polities, and many other things. The divinatory method was to apply a hot poker to hollows carved into the bones, causing roughly T-shaped cracks to appear on the opposite side. The king interpreted these according to the degree of angle between perpendicular and cross-bar, and uttered a prognostication based on the divination’s verdict. Following this, the day of the divination, the name of the diviner, the questions asked by the diviner, and the king’s final verdict were inscribed on the bone or plastron, which was stored away with its fellows as records of state.

Late Shang Capital and Sphere of Influence

The Late Shang capital of Anyang was settled along a bend in the Huan River some 180 kilometers north of Zhengzhou; by the dynasty’s end, Anyang covered an area of more than 20 square kilometers. The royal cemetery of Xibeigang was on the eastern side of the Huan; to the southeast, on the river’s other side, the district of Xiaotun included an elite residential area, a palace-temple complex, two altars, a hall of ritual vessels, the great bronze foundry where these vessels were cast, and multiple quasi-subterranean (pit-house) servants’ quarters. The city was located in the area known as Zhong Shang (Central Shang). Outside this state heartland lay “the lands” (tu), inhabited mainly by enfeoffed allies; beyond these were the fang, whose inhabitants tended to be hostile. As concepts, moreover, tu and fang comprised not only the geographical regions and the people who inhabited them, but also the spirit powers believed to inhere in the regions. The tu powers were considered by the Shang broadly benevolent; they presided over regions where much of the grain destined for Anyang was grown, and were regularly offered harvest tribute. The fang powers were liable to send baleful, drought-bringing winds into Central Shang, and had to be pacified with Shang sacrificial rites as well as harvest offerings. These rites may have required the king’s journeying to the region(s) in question, as did the frequent military and diplomatic ventures in which the Shang kings engaged.

Within the often ad hoc nature of the dynasty’s alliances and enmities, the dynasty contrived to take in sufficient tributes to meet their ritual requirements, whether in the form of human victims for sacrifice or bones and plastrons for the all-important divination ceremonies; Xiaotun, the administrative center of Anyang, also received a share of the grain production of various labor units, which figured in rituals devoted to commemorating and perpetuating agricultural fertility. State rites were scheduled in accord with a formidably complicated calendar, which resulted from combining two sequential sets of terms (later called zhi, “[Earthly] branches,” and gan, “[Heavenly] stems”) according to a formula that produced sixty ganzhi pairings. Each of these pairings designated a day in a cycle made up of six ten-day weeks; in turn, six of these sixty-day cycles produced the greater cycle of a 360-day Shang ritual year. The magnitude of the task of having everything in place—musical instruments (notably bronze bells), trained performers, objects for burning, sacrificial victims—to accord with this intricate temporal scheme meant turning, again, to writing; evidence shows that the Shang kept records of the constantly changing stock of ritual materials. It is also known that their protobureaucratic system included variously titled officials, although it is not certain that the titles related to specific responsibilities. It would seem clear, however, that the Late Shang was driven to an increasing degree of managerial efficiency in order to cope with the many and many-leveled demands of staging a variety of ritual performances on a daily basis, as well as managing a range of practical activities that included settling new sites, building ever greater bronze foundries, and keeping track of the incoming tributes as more and more of the land fell under the sway of organized agriculture.

At the height of their power, Shang influence extended over a remarkable range. Over five hundred sites that were culturally, although not necessarily politically, Shang have been found in Henan, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Anhui, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei, Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan, Inner Mongolia, and Liaoning; together these make up an area covering much of present-day China.


The fall of the Shang at the hands of one of their enfeoffed polities, the Zhou, did not cut short their influence on subsequent mainstream Chinese developments. The Zhou (1045–256 BCE) and successive dynasties perpetuated the legacy of the Shang (which was, to a degree, the legacy of Erlitou) through continuing practices of ancestor worship, a patrimonial system of inheriting political status, elaborate burial ritual, the calendar based on Earthly branches and Heavenly stems, divination as a means of state advisement, writing, and a layout of the capital’s administrative and ritual center, found even today in such structures as Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Further Reading:

Allan, S. (1991). The shape of the turtle: Myth, art, and cosmos in early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Keightley, D. (Ed.). (1983). The origins of Chinese civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Loewe, M., & Shaughnessy, E. L. (Eds.). (1999). The Cambridge history of ancient China: From the origins of civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wen Fong (Ed.). (1980). The great bronze age of China: An exhibition from the People’s Republic of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Source: McCurley, Dallas L.. (2009). Shang Dynasty. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1941–1944. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Shang Dynasty (Sh?ng Cháo ??)|Sh?ng Cháo ?? (Shang Dynasty)

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