The Tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Yin ruins, China. PHOTO BY CHRIS GYFORD.

The structures and artifacts excavated from Yinxu reveal much about the religion, social organization, and technology of the last phase of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). The square architectural design of royal tombs reflects an image of the cosmos as having four corners, for example, and the number and quality of bronze vessels indicates an advanced technology and artistic vision.

The Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) was the second dynastic period of China (although some scholars consider the Xia dynasty [2100–1766 BCE] to be only legendary, thus making the Shang the first) and the first central power of East Asia. Yinxu, located near the modern city of Anyang in Henan Province, was the site of the last capital of the Shang dynasty (sometimes known as the Yin dynasty). Occupied from about 1300 to 1045 BCE, the city was abandoned right after the Zhou people conquered the Shang. Excavation of the Yin Ruins, ongoing since 1928, reveals that it was the greatest of the Bronze Age cultures of China.

The archaeological excavations have uncovered 300,000 square meters of this site, which measure about 6 kilometers from east to west and 5 kilometers from north to south. However, its original boundary has not been defined. Architectural remains, cemeteries, and workshops have been mapped, and thousands of ritual bronze artifacts, mostly vessels, along with jades, stones, carved bones, inscribed oracle bones, and a great amount of pottery have been found. These materials have informed modern onlookers about the social organization, belief system, religious practice, science and technology, artistic invention, life styles of the people, and natural environment of the time.

Discovery and Excavation

The early period of archaeological excavation, from 1928 to 1937, was led by archaeologists Li Chi, Liang Siyong, Dong Zuobin, Shi Zhangru, and Gao Quxun of the Institute of Philology and Histology, Central Academia Sinica. They performed fifteen excavations of around 46,000 square meters and discovered the core of this site: the temple-palace complex at Xiaotun village and the royal cemetery at Houjiazhuang, along with their respective oracle inscriptions and ritual bronzes.

Excavation was resumed in 1950, and the archaeological findings continue to update our knowledge of this civilization. In 1976, the first undisturbed royal tomb, the tomb of Lady Hao, was excavated. It contained more than one thousand ritual bronzes, some seven hundred jade artifacts, and five hundred bone artifacts. Lady Hao can be clearly identified as the third queen of King Wu Ding; about two hundred pieces of oracle inscriptions talk about her as a military commander, mother, and a wife. There were rare goods and tribute goods in her tombs, which came through long-distance trade or from other nations and groups.

The bronze castings of the ritual vessels indicate the advanced technology and social organization of Lady Hao’s time. From mining to casting of ores and artifacts, and from design to distribution and usage, no other nation or people at the time in East Asia or nearby regions reached such an advanced level in the making and use of bronze as the Yin/Shang.

Cosmology of the Shang

With the exception of the tomb of the Lady Hao, all the large royal tombs were looted in antiquity, but the architectural form revealed by the scale and design of the tombs discloses much about the image of the cosmos as conceived by the Shang people. The tombs of eleven of the royals were about 40 square meters each. More than one thousand human sacrificial pits were well arranged in rows next to these tombs. The ramps were not functional but rather were ritualistic in their construction and in their numbers; the number of ramps indicated the social and political rank of the royals buried there. All pits contained four corners that indicated the four directions of the square-shaped universe. The design of the tombs formed a three-dimensional image that some scholars believed was the Shang people’s image of the cosmos. These spatial arrangements are consistent with square-shaped universes with upper and lower worlds that have characterized Chinese belief throughout history.

Human Sacrifice

The way human bodies were treated in the royal tombs reveals the hierarchical nature of the Shang society: gods, king, elites, commoners, slaves, and captives, in that order, from top to bottom. A thousand human sacrificial pits in a neat pattern were located next to the royal tombs. Each pit contained a group of human remains; some had only bodies while their heads were in the royal tombs. Inside the royal tombs (e.g., in tomb HPKM1001), there were remains of more than 100 human sacrifices even after the looting of the tombs. Six lacquered coffins were buried in tomb HPKM1550. These sacrifices were consorts of the king and were elaborately decorated with jade, bone hairpins, and had ritual bronzes buried with them.

An entire army with foot soldiers and chariots was buried in the southwest area of the complex, displayed as in a battlefield with center with left and right wings. Individual human sacrificial pits and sites have been excavated as well. The oracle inscriptions record activities of offerings of human sacrifice, sometimes in great numbers. Most of the human victims were healthy and handsome young men.

The Shang’s ancestors enjoyed offerings along with the gods who decided all matters of the nation, from war to harvest, from giving birth to tooth pain. The living king was a medium between the supernatural and the living worlds, and he reigned above all.

Gender Roles

The choice of sacrificial victims in Yinxu shows that gender was a complicated issue in the Shang dynasty. Both elite and common women could be buried with weapons, and men could be buried with weaving tools or even make-up. Queen Lady Hao had led the Shang army and had conquered some nations. The elite females were in charge of important rituals such as preparing oracle materials, the ceremony of harvesting, and they joined in hunting expeditions. Yet the king had many consorts, and the queens had to wait their turn to receive their offerings in death after their husbands had passed on. Women and children were not used for sacrifices until the last fifty years of Yinxu, indicating that the choice of sacrificial gifts for the gods and the ancestors was a highly selective process in the Shang dynasty.

Perspectives on Shang Culture

The Yin Ruins disclose the nature of the Shang culture, which was one of the most advanced in East Asia. Its complicated social structure, sophisticated religion, innovative art, science, and technology present a level of civilization with well-developed ideology and thought and richness of material production. Yet the ruins also hint at a dictatorial and hierarchical system with strict social, political, economic, and even spiritual boundaries.

Further Reading

Chang, K. C. (1980). Shang civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Keightley, D. N. (2000). The ancestral landscape: Time, space, and community in late Shang China, ca. 1200-1045 B.C. Berkeley: University of California Institute of East Asian Studies.

D. N. (1989). Craft and culture: Metaphors of governance in early China. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Sinology. Section on History and Archaeology, 31–70.

Li Chi. (1977). Anyang: A chronicle of the discovery, excavation, and reconstruction of the ancient capital of the Shang dynasty. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Li Chi. (1957). The beginnings of Chinese civilization: Three lectures illustrated with finds at Anyang. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Thorp, R. L. (2005). China in the early Bronze Age: Shang civilization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Source: Wang, Ying. (2009). Yin Ruins (Yinxu). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2577–2579. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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