11. Shang dynasty: 1765-1122 BCE

China Page

The original Middle Kingdom


To provide context, let us summarize what we have learned about China’s prehistory.

The Yangshao culture developed a typical Neolithic culture in northwest China on the upper Yellow River. The Kansu culture to the west may have influenced their development. Yangshao society was agriculturally based, non-stratified, non-centralized and craft oriented. Their heyday was from 5000 BCE until about 2500 BCE, at which time, the Longshan became the dominant culture of China.

The Longshan culture first appeared along the east coast and the lower Yellow River. This culture probably emerged from military conflict with Mongolian and Manchurian herding cultures to the north. The Longshan culture was a typical transitional culture between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. They were agriculturally based, but had taken a defensive posture of necessity. With this aggressive climate, they began building fortifications around their cities. The family clan led by a warrior leader emerged imparting greater importance to men. Society began its stratification process. Due the success of agriculture and the subsequent population pressures, the relatively small groups came increasingly into contact and conflict with one another.

Shang emerges in-between

For reasons that we shall explore, a third culture with distinctive cultural patterns arose between these two cultures. This culture was the most centralized and militaristic. In time-honored fashion, this society presumably attacked, dominated, and enslaved the peaceful agrarian culture of the northwest, the Yangshao. This aggression first led to the degeneration of their artistic forms and then the subsequent disappearance of their social order. Similarly the Longshan culture was absorbed and dominated by this same culture. This was the mighty Shang dynasty.

Shang: from legendary to historical through oracle bones

Prior to the 20th century, the Shang dynasty was considered to be purely legendary. However, spectacular archaeological finds throughout the 20th century have firmly established its existence. Also oracle bones have been translated. This gives the Shang the distinction of being one of the earliest historical cultures of the world, i.e. with written records.

“Knowledge of the Shang is based on written documents and excavated sites and artifacts, including the pictographic inscriptions that appear on oracle bones. Used to foretell the future, these fragments of tortoise shells and animal bones were often inscribed with questions and answers that reveal a great deal about the concerns of the Shang kings.”1

Classic Chinese Middle Kingdom located on the Chung Yuan

Geographical perspective

Let us set a geographical perspective for the Shang dynasty. The Yellow River is roughly divided into three sections, i.e. the high plateau in the north-west where the Yangshao culture originated and thrived, the lower lying plains in the East towards the ocean where the Longshan culture was located, and in-between where the Shang culture was centered.

“This [center] area, known to the Chinese as Chung Yuan, or central plain, has always been the heartland of the ‘Middle Kingdom’.”2

Chung Yuan

Let us speak a bit of the Middle Kingdom, tradtionally located on the ‘Chung Yuan’. The concept first arose during the Shang dynasty. After conquering the cultures on either side of them, the Shang became the middle kingdom. Their kingdom was centered in the middle Yellow River Valley. As such, they were able to control both the higher Yellow River in the mountains and lower Yellow River towards the ocean. The aggressive Longshan culture had already spread south and north along the coast. The Shang took over the Longshan holdings and expanded them. While situated on the plain of the middle Yellow River, their political influence spread to the south and north. Simultaneously, the northern and southern cultures exerted a cultural impact upon the Shang.

Chinese political dynasties located in the north

The successive Chinese dynasties were always centered in the north. The south, with its Yangtze River basin, was the breadbasket, trading hub, and many times the cultural center, while the political center was always located in the North. Later history provides us an example of the traditional importance of this location to the Chinese. About 1000 CE, the barbaric Shi of Mongolia forced the Sui dynasty to shift the center of Chinese politics south of the Yangtze. After this relocation, many intellectuals moaned in both poetry and literature about how painful it was to be separated from the true heart and soul of China located in the Middle Kingdom of the Yellow River.

Shang First Middle Kingdom

The Shang, as the first Middle Kingdom, set up the polarity between the ruling aristocracy and peasantry that was to dominate Chinese politics unto the present day. It was this dichotomy that was at the heart of the Taoist/Confucian polarity. The Shang in its Middle Kingdom persona transcended the Longshan clan and the Yangshao farming community to rise to the level of centralized government. As Hunters, they were a different culture from both the Herding Longshan and the Farming Yangshao. They were above both the petty family/clan feuds of the Longshan or the peaceful agri-state of the Yangshao. In adopting the bronze technology of the north and west, they transcended all the local peoples militarily and were able to create a centralized state, which transcended family and became an empire for the first time. In the process, the family was subjugated to the state and the peasant farmer was reduced to slave/ serf status.

Shang State, Longshan Clan, Yangshao Artist

The Shang dynasty was the first in a long line of Chinese dynasties. The Shang represented the beginning of state worship that was at the heart of Confucianism. The preceding Longshan culture represented the beginning of the Chinese clan or family and ancestor worship that was also to play such a big part in Confucianism. The Yangshao culture represented the decentralized artistic culture that Taoists yearned for. The interaction of these first three Chinese cultures set the stage for many of the basics of Chinese culture.

First great civilization of China

Typical Bronze Age civilization

Archaeologically, the Shang dynasty follows the Longshan black pottery culture. According to Chinese legend, this dynasty began in 1765 BCE. Although they are known for their bronze, their dynasty began before bronze technology. They were, however, a typical Bronze Age culture from the beginning. They exhibited all the typical traits of Bronze Age civilizations, i.e. technologically advanced, militarily based, centralized, and lack of human rights due to social stratification.

Is the Shang civilization civilized?

The Shang is considered the first great civilization of China. Civilization, civilized, civil - all have a positive connotation such as refined, modern, sophisticated and good. Contrast the opposites: primitive, savage, uncivilized, barbaric, all with pejorative connotations. The root word of civilization is the Latin word ‘civis’, which means city. As such, civilization really only refers to large groups of cities, and, by extension, to the citification of culture. Certainly citified citizens of civilizations have added all the positive connotations to the word ‘civilization’. Indeed, as we shall see, not all groups benefited from the development of civilization. Indeed the idea of civilization as a generally forward movement for humanity tends to be a myth, especially in these ancient times.

Grolier 1997 on the Shang dynasty

Our culture’s ‘civilized’ bias has extended to general historical analysis. Let us see what Grolier’s Encyclopedia has to say about the Shang.

“The Yangshao and Longshan cultures laid the foundations for the first true Chinese civilization, the Shang dynasty, which controlled a loose confederation of settlement groups in the Henan region of North China from the 16th century BC to c. 1027 BC. Shang civilization was characterized by an advanced system of writing, a sophisticated bronze metallurgy, the first Chinese calendar, and cities.” 3

As evidence of our citified bias, this standard reference book only reports upon the positive aspects of the Shang dynasty, leaving out the militarization and social stratification of society.

Positive Shang accomplishments

This description of the Shang is typical. The Shang government presumably emerged from the preceding Neolithic cultures. They developed a high degree of civilization including writing, large cities, a calendar, and, we can add, monumental architecture, to the list. They created beautiful bronze works, never surpassed. Furthermore they controlled the flooding of the Yellow River for the benefit of the citizenry. These developments were presumably indigenous. From this description, we get the idea of an enlightened civilization emerging from within to control the forces of nature and allow the development of culture, including the arts and writing.

Shang Expanded Imperial China

We can add to this list of accomplishments. In terms of the Chinese empire, the Shang dynasty expanded the influence of Chinese imperial culture. They consolidated the prior Yangshao and Longshan cultures. Further they expanded Chinese influence south into the rich Yangtze River Valley. The Shang ‘Middle Kingdom’ was the beginning of the consolidation of Imperial China under a single Emperor.

Typical Social Stratification of Bronze Age military aristocracy

Let us temper this tidy neat little package with some reality. While the technological advances of the Shang are undeniable, simultaneously human rights, and as usual, women’s rights, take a huge step backwards. The Shang represents a typical Bronze Age military aristocracy. Typically a Bronze Age culture is created when a Herding or Hunting culture conquers and enslaves a Farming culture. The dominators become the military overlords of the agricultural peasant base, establishing a hereditary aristocracy.

We call it a Bronze Age culture, not because of bronze, but because of the domination of an agrarian society by a military aristocracy. Although bronze was not necessary for widespread domination, it certainly helped. The beginning of the Shang aristocracy preceded bronze technology. Let us put the magnificent achievements of the Shang in context, to understand the cultural developments that follow.

Extreme manifestation

One of the characteristics of the Bronze Age society is social stratification with warrior kings at the top and the peasantry at the bottom. The woman is degraded to the status of property. The Shang society encompassed all of these features.

Shang class structure reflects philosophical traditions

Many have characterized the Shang social structure as a slave culture. While there has been much discussion on this point, the fact is that the lower classes, whether serfs or slaves, were treated poorly. The Shang society was highly stratified with the peasant farmer at the bottom and the Shang aristocracy at the top. In the lower middle were the crafts people serving the aristocracy4.

“The Shang dynasty was a hereditary kingdom and displayed marked distinctions in social status. Although the question of whether the Shang kept slaves is controversial, distinctions between commoners, nobility, and the royal family are unmistakable. The state depended upon numerous specialists, including military officers, court retainers, diviners, bureaucrats, and professionals who produced pottery, bronze vessels and weapons, jade ritual objects, jewelry, and many other articles for the nobility and royal family.”5

These three classes remain fairly consistent throughout Chinese history. Other classes were added, but as an addition to the three existing classes. In terms of tendencies, the ruling class participated in the emerging Confucian tradition; the arts and crafts class became Taoist, while the peasantry participated in a mish-mash of indigenous traditions.

Human sacrifice in the Tombs of the Shang

One way that this extreme social stratification manifested was in the form of human sacrifice. This is especially seen in the tombs of the rulers. As in Egypt, the most spectacular architectural remains of the Shang dynasty are their tombs. As in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the ruler was accompanied to the afterlife with the things of this life so that he could continue his existence, undisturbed. As in the rest of the Eurasian continent this meant sacrificing harem, servants, and horses with the death of the ruler. Presumably, they would accompany the deceased ruler to his afterlife and serve him there6. In one Shang tomb they found the bodies of 22 men, 24 women, and 50 skulls of decapitated humans.7 The ruler would also be buried with the things of this world including crafts, chariots, and money. These tombs provide us with much of our information about the Shang.

“The Chinese belief that the spirit of the departed must be provided with all he possessed in his earthly life led to immolation and human sacrifice on a gigantic scale.”8

No evidence of human sacrifice in previous cultures

There is no evidence of this type of activity in the Longshan or Yangshao cultures. While the Longshan buried the bones of their ancestors in their houses, they did not seem to sacrifice the women and servants with the master. Hence human rights were one of the costs of the Shang civilization, with human sacrifice as a manifestation. The beauty of their craft and the cruelty of the Shang towards the peasantry typify the Bronze Age governments. Was the sacrifice of humans at the death of the leader an emergent social phenomenon or was it a result of cultural diffusion? Read on.

Bronze for military power, not for agriculture

Accompanying the development of ‘civilization’ is the advancement of technology. One of the prevalent myths surrounding the notion of civilization is that this improved technology benefits all classes of society to some extent. This was certainly not true of Shang bronze technology.

Bronze monopolized by ruling class as a status symbol

 “Bronze was always a rare and costly metal jealously monopolized by the ruling class. As the bronze weapons gave these rulers the physical means of suppressing their slaves and serfs, so the sacred vessels of bronze served as their symbols of status, living proof of their exalted rank and noble lineage.”9

It seems that the Shang aristocracy used bronze technology to make weapons with which to dominate their citizenry. It then came to represent a status symbol of participation in the aristocracy. But it was not used to enhance the lives of the agricultural populace.

Not available for agriculture

“During the Chinese Bronze Age, the metal was used for the weapons the aristocracy needed for its occupations of hunting and war, but despite its superior efficiency, bronze was less often devoted to common tools such as agricultural implements, which were usually made of the traditional Neolithic materials of stone, bone, and wood until the introduction of iron.”10

It seems that bronze was deliberately hoarded by the aristocracy for weaponry with which to suppress the peasantry, instead of being used to assist with agriculture.

9 imperial Cauldrons, to be melted down for weapons if necessary

Their exquisite bronze cauldrons typified this attitude towards this special metal. As mentioned earlier Yu, the legendary emperor of the Xia, divided his empire into 9 parts.  He created 9 cauldrons and gave one to the ruler of each state. Why a bronze cauldron? Bronze could easily be melted down for weaponry if necessary.

Bronze means power

“Bronze objects meant power for those who possessed them. In times of war, the bronze from ritual vessels could be used to make weapons; in times of peace weapons might be transformed into ceremonial objects.”11

It is evident that these huge bronze cauldrons were like money in the bank for their owners. Indeed in later times, the First Emperor seized all the bronze once he assumed control in order to prevent resistance. This same bronze in later times was melted down again and turned into weaponry. Thus the bronze cauldron served as a type of status symbol for the aristocracy. We imagine them thinking smugly: “We have enough bronze weapons that we can even cast some of the bronze into ceremonial vessels.”

Even the magnificent crafts of the Shang are associated with weaponry.

Social Organization needed to produce bronze

Centralized government necessary

A distinctive feature of bronze is the social organization needed to produce it.

“The use of bronze is a major watershed in the development of any civilization, requiring a settled, specialized, and tightly organized community. Most of the crafts of earlier periods were based on portable, easily obtainable materials such as clay, stone, shell, and bone. But the production of bronze is a major undertaking. Sources of copper and tin must be located and then protected. The ore must be mined and the metal removed. In the case of copper, this is a mammoth enterprise, since copper accounts for only a very small fraction of the volume of the ore in which it is found. … Melting large batches of metal required elaborate kilns and huge fires of high intensity; controlling the cooling to avoid holes and cracks in the finished object was equally demanding.”12

Smelting, refining, mixing, cooling

It seems that prior to the manufacture of bronze, materials were found or came from animals. In contrast, bronze was made of copper and tin. Some copper occurs naturally, but most copper comes in the form of ore, which must be smelted. The mined ore is heated to high temperatures, which separates the impurities from the copper. Only a little copper comes from the ore. Hence, it is a mammoth undertaking to produce the large quantity of the copper needed to make the bronze. Then just the right amount of purified copper must be mixed with just the right amount of purified tin. This blend was then poured into molds, which had to be carefully cooled to yield a bronze weapon or pot.

Protection of sources for national security

Because bronze was used primarily for weaponry, its sources needed to be protected for national security reasons. When bronze was just used for art, national security was not involved. When bronze was employed in a military fashion, everything changed. Those armies with the best and most bronze weapons are able to dominate the rest.

Exploration for sources of ore

When bronze weapons began to be manufactured from raw materials, cultures began sending explorers and soldiers throughout the globe searching for new sources of copper and tin. Simultaneously, they began protecting these sources. Indeed, it is probable that many explorations of the ancient world were inspired to find sources for copper and tin for the purpose of making bronze weaponry for the warring nations.

Profit -motive main motivation

Sometimes the explorations would be government supported, but many times maritime trading cultures were the ones seeking huge profits. There was a fortune to be made. Some features of humanity remain the same. There are huge profits to be made in the weapons business. And the stakes are high, domination and control versus servitude.

However the general point is that the profit incentive is a powerful motivational force for exploration. When greed is linked with the urge for military domination, it is an irresistible motivating force. It seems safe to say that the militaristic Bronze Age inspired exploration for raw materials and a large social organization to support such an undertaking.


1Grolier 1997 Chinese archaeology: Bronze Age China

2 A History of Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee, Prentise Hall Abrams, 1973, p. 23

3©1997 Grolier Interactive Inc. China, history of: Shang Dynasty

4We will not use the word nobility because of the misleading attribution of the quality of nobleness to the upper class. A hope, not a reality.

5Grolier 1997 Chinese archaeology

6 Is human sacrifice in a royal tomb a human universal or is it the result of cultural diffusion? This author takes the stand of cultural diffusion. We will demonstrate this point further on in other contexts.

7The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p 27

8 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p27

9Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961, p 18

10Treasures from the Bronze Age of China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ballentine Books 1980, pp. 9-10

11Treasures from the Bronze Age of China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ballentine Books 1980, Foreword, Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

12Treasures from the Bronze Age of China, p 9


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments