13. The Shang, Invaders or Indigenous?

China Page

Shang conquers Longshan and Yangshao from the West?

The Shang ‘Middle Kingdom’ was centered between the two Neolithic cultures that preceded it. We find remains of the Shang directly on top of the Longshan and Yangshao cultures. It seemed as if a dominant society conquered and supplanted these indigenous cultures.1 If the Shang came conquering, they stayed and did not return home. If they were just a dominant local ruling house, then they built their structures on top of the locations of the preceding cultures.

Shang armies shatter Neolithic world

Where did this Shang culture come from? There are many similarities between the bronze cultures of the Fertile Crescent and the Shang dynasty, which came later. Due to these commonalties, it was initially thought that the nomadic chariot and bronze cultures of the Near East had somehow crossed the Central Asian Steppes to conquer China. Following is a typical example of this scenario.

“Some time about 1700 BC … the armies of Shang burst over the horizons of this peaceful [Yangshao] Neolithic world. The great lords rode in clanking horse-drawn chariots armed and armored with bronze. The warriors were equipped with bronze dagger-axes, battle axes and spears and with the powerful compound bow reinforced with horn.”2

Evidence overwhelming

The evidence seemed overwhelming. The early Shang finds, at a later stage in their development, showed striking similarities with Middle Eastern cultures. They had the same bronze military technology based upon chariots and bronze weaponry.

Intertwined serpent definitely an import to China from West

Furthermore many of the symbols were the same. There is much dispute, especially from Chinese archaeologists, regarding the origination of the animal motifs. One motif, the intertwined serpents, is found in tombs at Anyang of the Shang dynasty, which seems certainly of Mesopotamian origin.

“One of the motifs which the Chinese archaeologist, Li Chi, points out as being particularly significant in this context is that of intertwined snakes, like the caduceus of Mercury. … This device, which we find at Ur and Lagash in Mesopotamia, is found at An-yang in the tombs of the Shang kings and is interpreted by Li Chi as an importation.”3

Also patriarchy, tumulus graves and heavenly bodies

Besides the aforementioned bronze military technology, possibly the patriarchy, tumulus ‘mound-like’ graves and the worship of heavenly bodies also came from the nomadic cultures of Central Asia.

“By the second millennium BC [the Chinese] were being influenced by the north-western ‘proto-turkic’ peoples, who bridged the huge empty spaces between them and the cultures of Central and Western Asia, and who brought to China itself a patriarchal nomadism, horses and horse-sacrifice, the worship of the heavenly bodies, tumulus graves, and the use of earthen drums.”4

Sacrifice to the Gods

The Shang also brought both the patriarchal empire with a warrior king at the top and sacrifice to the gods.

Shang priest king performs sacrifices

The political organization of the Shang Kingdom started with the emperor at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, similar to other military cultures of Western Asia. His role was similar to the leader of a tribe. The emperor was responsible for the welfare of his subjects. His performance of ritual ceremonies supposedly insured the assistance of ancestors in the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the empire. At the pinnacle of political power, the emperor was responsible for the fertility of both the fields and the nation.

“The type of political organization employed by the Shang people was monarchy in which the king also served as a high priest whose function it was to placate and accommodate the spirits and thereby to insure the fertility of the field and the fecundity of the race. The feudal system of the Chou period had probably not yet developed to its full extent.”5

It was the leaders who spoke to the gods and ancestors through their own medium for the good of the tribe. The sacrificial ceremonies were to catch the attention of one’s ancestors so that he would help out in one’s day-to day affairs

Elaborate sacrificial rites for Shang Ti

Shang Ti, the Supreme Ancestor of the Shang, also had to be appeased by elaborate sacrificial rites.6 These elaborate sacrificial rites were only for the royal family at first. Eventually the clans began participating in elaborate ritual ceremonies for their own ancestors, possibly in emulation of the imperial government, or maybe an extension of the ancestor worship of the Longshan.

Ti, an imported God of sacrifice from the Middle East

Their supreme god, Shang Ti, presumably needed ritual sacrifice to appease his needs, as did many of the ancient gods, especially those associated with the Middle East. It is possible that Ti, as a supreme god, was imported into China from the Near East and then given a Chinese context by being turned into the Supreme Ancestor. This was another reason that foreign invasion was suspected.

Chinese have a history of importing gods

The Chinese have a history of importing foreign gods and religions and then making them their own. This includes Buddhism, which becomes Zen under the influence of Taoism. Kuan Yin, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, was also probably a foreign import. In historical times, Kuan Yin started out in India as a male Bodhisattva of Compassion in Buddhist mythology. The Chinese merged this compassionate Bodhisattva with their fertility goddess and turned him into a her, Kuan Yin.

Ancestors link between mortals and Shang Ti

Also, the oracle bones revealed that the Shang would request that their ancestors intercede upon their behalf with Shang Ti. Their ancestors who had been their protectors for so long were now summoned as ‘liaison with’ or ‘protector against’ the invading Shang god.

“Aided by a priestly class, the Shang kings prayed to their ancestral spirits to intercede on their behalf with the most powerful of the Shang gods, Shangdi (Shang-ti), to bring rain for good crops and other blessings. Records of these priestly divinations have survived in the form of oracle bones.”7

Warrior cultures force fertility cultures underground

Patriarchal cultural succession

It was typical of conquering cultures to reserve leadership for their own kind. They would typically institutionalize their leadership through a patriarchal dynastic succession. This occurred all over the Eurasia-African land mass, from Egypt to England to China and in-between. As usual throughout the Eurasian continent, the warlike, sky god based Bronze Age culture supplanted the craft oriented, earth goddess based Neolithic culture. Bronze weaponry replaced the fine pottery of the Neolithic. As we’ve seen, population pressures upon the different cultures resulted in the militarization of culture. This created a military society, which glorified the Warrior at the expense of the Artist and Craftsperson.

Neolithic cultures go underground

While patriarchal military cultures supplanted egalitarian agrarian societies, the Neolithic cultures did not become extinct. Instead they went underground to be passed around as mystery cults, for fear of persecution by the warlike establishment.

Roots of Taoism in the Neolithic fertility cults

One of the themes of this book is that Taoism has its roots in the fertility cults of the forest and agrarian societies that preceded the militarization of culture that accompanies the formation of civilization. This is exhibited by both the imagery and intention of Taoism. Later in this paper, we will examine the content of Taoism, connecting it with the nature-worshipping fertility cultures that preceded the militaristic warrior societies.

Ruling Class & Peasantry of Different cultures

While Imperial China from Shang times on participated in the culture of the warrior aristocracy, the subculture of the populace was rooted in the preceding fertility-based cultures. As an example of this type of melding, the European farming populace still celebrates rites that hark back to their Neolithic agrarian roots. Similarly, the Chinese also had a bi-polar culture that developed during the Shang rule.

All preliminary evidence points one way

The Shang dynasty had the same bronze military technology that was employed in the Middle East to dominate Neolithic agricultures. They had many of the same rituals and symbols, as did the West Asian cultures. The Shang accomplishments seemed to spring full-blown without development. Further, the Shang followed trends that had been seen in the west centuries earlier. All the preliminary evidence pointed to the theory that a Bronze Age culture from the west had invaded China and been absorbed by her people. Certainly there are historical precedents for this. The Mongols in this millennium conquered China, ruled her for a few centuries, and were then deposed, leaving few traces.

Abundance of Evidence for indigenous origination

Nobody holds the view that the Shang was a Bronze Age civilization invading from the West anymore. For one, the Shang did not acquire the military technology that included the chariot and bronze weaponry until a few hundred years into their reign. While there is an incredible similarity between the Shang and the cultures of the Near East, there is also contrary evidence indicating an indigenous origination of the Shang.

Shang same race stock as Neolithic tribes

For instance, the Shang peoples were the same racial stock as the Neolithic cultures that they supposedly conquered.

“The earliest evidence yet discovered shows them [the Shang] to be a group of bronze owning aristocrats living off the agricultural labors of their serfs and slaves. … They spent their time in hunting, warfare and elaborate ceremonial. … Their skeletal remains show that the Shang were not racially different from the Neolithic tribes people whom they conquered and enslaved.”8

Racial & Cultural continuity, from Yangshao to the Shang

Racially, the Shang were Mongoloids, like the preceding Yangshao and Longshan cultures. The Shang bones are indistinguishable from the Longshan. The Shang were not invaders from the Middle East. In addition to racial similarities, the Shang also shared cultural similarities with the Yangshao and Longshan cultures.

“As even the earliest inhabitants of China belonged to the Mongolian race, we may assume that the Shang people who were also Mongolians were racially akin to the people of the Prehistoric pottery cultures. In addition to that, the Shang civilization shows many common cultural traits such as the use of cowry shells.”9

Continuity between Yangshao, Longshan to Shang through li, tripod

As we saw earlier, the Shang were probably a continuation of the Longshan culture in many ways. They had many cultural traits in common, including divination from bone cracks, ancestor worship, and a patriarchy. Additionally one of the primary Chinese shapes, the empty legged tripod, the li, the Shang share with both the Yangshao and Longshan cultures.

“The li tripod found in all three native cultures, testifies to their close relationships and is of some significance in the development of later Chinese Bronze Age culture.”10

The li tripod is also found in southern Manchuria, indicating the close relationship between the Chinese and areas to the north. As an opposition, the li tripod is also found in southern China, but without the hollow legs, which make it such a useful design. It seems as if the form might have been copied without an awareness of the function.

Longshan/Shang, semi-lunar knife and pounded earth construction

Additional similarities are found in the use of the rectangular or semi-lunar knife by both the Longshan and Shang. This type of knife is unique to Mongoloid peoples. Finally, the Longshan and Shang both used pounded earth for construction.

Persistence of older cultures in the hinterlands

Further, both Yangshao and Longshan culture continue in the borderlands of the empire even unto the later centuries of the Chou dynasty.

“The persistence of older cultures in isolated enclaves and in the border regions, the survival of the gray pottery, the continued use of Yangshao and Longshan shapes for vessels, and of oracle bones and jade ritual artifacts all suggest a large measure of continuity between the prehistoric culture and that of Shang China.”11

Shang did not come from Near East

The continuity of culture between the Shang and the earlier cultures of China negates the possibility of a large-scale invasion from the West via Central Asia. Nobody holds the theory of western invasion anymore.

“The last Neolithic culture of North China was the direct ancestor of the Shang dynasty (c.1600-c.1027 BC), which in part also drew upon the Neolithic cultures of western and eastern China. The Shang dynasty did not arise, it now seems, as a result of contact with the ancient Near East, as some scholars have contended. Known from several sites, most importantly Anyang and Zhengzhou (Cheng-chou), the emergence of the Shang civilization marked the first appearance of writing, bronze metallurgy, monumental architecture, and a genuinely urban way of life in China.”12

Under this perspective, first the Yangshao emerged in the upper Yellow River with their craft-oriented egalitarian agri-culture. A little later the Longshan culture emerged on the lower Yellow River with a distinctly different culture based upon herding animals, fortified cities, evidence of social stratification, warfare and ancestor worship. Later still, the Shang, a third culture, emerged from between these two cultures. Located in  the middle of the Yellow River Valley, they are considered the original Middle Kingdom. Deriving from the preceding Longshan and Yangshao cultures, the Shang culture evolved into the first Chinese civilization, developing all sorts of great things, including writing and cities.

Longshan vs. Shang ancestor worship: Family vs. State

Another similarity that was shared between the Longshan and Shang cultures was ancestor worship. While there is evidence that both cultures practiced ancestor worship, there was a great difference in its manifestation culturally which was to have long-term effects. Further this difference was probably an internal emergent process rather than of external influence. Let us talk a little about the difference between the Longshan and the Shang in their ancestor worship. We have no written evidence of what was really going on during the Longshan. Thus again we are speculating in order to set up an important differentiation.

Idealized Longshan

During the idealized Longshan, the country had broken up into a clan structure. Each family was centered in a certain area, not unlike Scotland in medieval times. Presumably these clans might have a loose allegiance to other clans, but their first allegiance was to their own clan. Like the Scottish clans, these clans were continually at war with each other. It is easy to imagine the beginnings of ancestor worship in this smaller clan structure. Ancestor worship would bind the clan together and inspire the living members to superhuman feats to honor their deceased family members.

Clans must organize to control flooding

These clans, loosely bound and constantly fighting, would not have been able to effectively consolidate to deal with the constant flooding of the Yellow River. Thus under the indigenous origination theory, one of the clans would have risen to prominence and leadership in order to deal with this collective problem. Managing the Yellow River marked the beginning of the Chinese state.

Shang Ti becomes god of country

The Shang called their supreme ancestor Shang Ti. There was a big difference between Shang Ti and the individual ancestors of the local clans. While the power of individual ancestors primarily lay within the individual clan and their dealings, Shang Ti was the supreme ancestor of the Imperial dynasty. Thus ancestor worship under the Shang was transformed into state worship instead of family worship.

Clan or State Loyalty?

These clan loyalties eventually came into conflict with the imperial mindset.. In the third century BCE, the First Emperor attempted to destroy these family clans believing they were a hindrance to the unity of the state. It seems the Emperor feared that clan loyalty was greater than state loyalty.

Longshan Clan, Shang State

While there was a relative continuity between ancestor worship of the Longshan and Shang, it manifested in quite different ways. In the Longshan, this worship focused upon individual families, while in the Shang ancestor worship morphed into the beginning of state worship. Could this emphasis upon honoring ancestry with ceremonies, have eventually led to the typically Chinese obsession with history, i.e. family, city, state history.


An abundance of evidence suggests that the Shang emerged from pre-existing Neolithic agri-cultures, especially the ‘Black Pottery’ Longshan culture. While ancestor worship linked the Longshan and Shang, they manifested very differently. Longshan ancestor worship was localized in individual family clans. Shang ancestor worship became linked with the Imperial government. Family and government, although linked, had fundamentally different goals.


1A Short History of Chinese Art,  1949, Hugh Munsterberg, Michigan State College Press p18

2 Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p 8

3 A History of Far Eastern Art, p 28

4The Arts of China  by Michael Sullivan, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1973, p 24

5 A Short History of Chinese Art,  Munsterberg, p22

6 The Arts of China by Michael Sullivan p26

7©1997 Grolier Interactive Inc. China, History of: Shang Dynasty

8 Chinese Art,  MacKenzie, 1961 p.8

9A Short History of Chinese Art,  1949, Hugh Munsterberg, Michigan State College Press, p.18

10 A History of Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee, Prentise Hall Abrams, 1973 p 25

11 Munsterberg, 1972 p 38

12Grolier 1997 Chinese archaeology: Bronze Age China


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments