Chapter 28A: The Shang Chariot

Inherently linked to the bronze military technology was the horse, chariot and charioteer. As the nomadic Kurgan culture of the western side of Lake Baikal in Central Asia spread the bronze weaponry technology from West to East, they also spread the military technology of the Chariot.

The Wheel and the Chariot

Because of the tremendous significance of the Chariot to the historico-cultural development of the Eurasiafrican landmass, let us take some paper to tell its story.

The Wheel: first pottery and a cart

It begins with the Wheel, the legendary wheel that was to have such an enormous impact on all aspects of human life. First came the potter’s wheel about 3250 BC in the same Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East.[1] Shortly after 3200-3100 BC, in Uruk, Sumeria we have evidence of a wheeled cart.

From Cart to Chariot

The military advantages were quickly seen. “Our knowledge of how these early wheels were constructed is derived from "chariot burials" found in the city-states of Kish (2700-2600 BC) and Ur (2600-2500 BC).” [2] (Remember that the Shang also buried their chariots with them in their tombs.) We see images in Ur of chariots running people down. Oxen, onagers, and the Asiatic ass drew these early chariots. The chariot technology spread south to Assyria by 2600 BC and north to the Ukraine by 2000 BC.

Solid to spoked wheel

Early chariots had a wooden framework, an animal-skin body, and were pulled by the fast, agile onager, a form of wild ass. The chariot technology advanced relatively quickly to spoked wheels, which made the chariots faster because they were lighter. The warlike Hittites of Anatolia early in the 2nd millennium might have invented them. With the spoked wheel the horse replaced the onager, and a bronze shield replaced the animal skins.[3]

Bronze fittings

Fundamental to the evolving war chariot were its bronze fittings. Prior to the introduction of metal, the connection of wheel to cart was wood rubbing against wood. This connection because of the friction, inhibited the speed of the chariot as well as wearing it out quickly. With the introduction of bronze fittings, the chariots could go much faster because the friction was reduced and the connection was much more durable. Thus the bronze fittings allowed for much greater speed and hence power. The chariot was the first technological advance that actually gave humans increased land speed.

Chariot married bronze, wheel, and horse

The chariot technology was an integrated combination of the wheel, bronze, and the domesticated horse. Each of the three was an essential ingredient. This classic two-wheeled chariot was invincible in the ancient world against non-military cultures. The chariot was fundamental to the bronze military technology that was spread throughout the ancient world of the 2nd millennium BC. Adapt to the new military technology or perish.

Spread of chariot technology

The Hyksos used the chariot to invade Egypt by 1680 BC. India was invaded in the 14th century by metal using, chariot using invaders from the Middle East. This same bronze chariot military technology reached China in about the 13th century, completing the spread of the wheel connected to a chariot to all the major Neolithic cultures of the Eurasiafrican land mass.[4]

Farmers clear ground for chariots

Let it be remembered that the chariot could be used most effectively upon an agri-culture. The Hunter-gatherers were located in the wooded or hilly areas where the chariots were useless. As the farmers cleared there ground for crops, they simultaneously cleared the ground for chariots. Just as bikes can exist because of the roads they built for cars, so could chariots exist because of the fields cleared for agriculture.

Chariot not indigenous

Chariot separates Shang from prior

Thus it seems that while the Shang had many indigenous features of Chinese culture that the horse-drawn war chariot with bronze weaponry probably was the result of cultural diffusion from the west[5][6] The ‘horse drawn chariot’ is one of the features of the Shang culture that separates it from the preceding indigenous cultures. Thus one of the primary features of their civilization probably is not indigenous to China but comes from cultural zones in the west.

Chariot from cultural diffusion

These western cultures did not invade. Instead the technology was spread through cultural diffusion, via the mechanism of cultures in conflict. The diffusion was not through trade and peaceful contact, but through warfare. It is probable that the Shang had honed their military skills and technology fighting nomadic cultures to the north and west.

Chariot precedes cart and horseback riding

Another element that points to cultural diffusion is the fact that it seems the chariot preceded both horse back riding and the animal drawn cart in China.[7] It as if the chariot technology emerged full blown without the prior stages of development.

Weaponry and pottery have roots in 3 sources

Some of the Shang weaponry has indigenous roots, some of it seems to have its roots in Manchuria/ Siberia, and some of it seems to reflect Mesopotamian styles. Hence the Shang as a smart military culture borrowed technology from its military neighbors to the northwest and northeast. Remember that much of the indigenous culture had its roots in the south. Hence the Shang was a melting pot of three distinct cultures, the nomadic cultures of the Great Arid Band, the hunting cultures of Siberia, and of the agri-cultures to the south. The same cultural influences apply to their pottery as well.

“Among the magnificent bronze weapons of the Shang there are types that seem indigenous, while others seem to reflect Mesopotamian styles and still others seem to have similarities to those weapons found to the north and northeast of China. Conditions thus would seem to repeat a pattern observed when dealing with the Neolithic painted ceramics, which likewise point toward south Russia and ancient near east as centers of diffusion.”[8]


Thus it seems that the Shang culture, while sharing many elements in common with the preceding Neolithic pottery cultures, also had foreign roots. Just as the Neolithic pottery culture seemed to be inspired from outside China, so did the Shang weapon culture also seem to have foreign roots. Just as the pottery had three sources, so did the weaponry.

Importance of Chariot for the Shang

Chinese ideogram for wheel is chariot

As a reflection of the connection between the wheel and the chariot in China, the ideogram for the wheel is a chariot drawn from above.

“The Shang rulers employed a two-wheeled chariot drawn by two (or possible at times four) horses in pairs. The chariots were of wood with spoked wheels and bronze fittings and ornaments. The Chinese character for vehicle or wheel is really a picture of one of these vehicles drawn from above (ch’e).”[9]

Chariot burials

The horse drawn chariot provided an incredible military advantage. This military advantage allowed the Shang to defend, conquer, and suppress. They were so grateful to their chariots that they buried the entire chariot, rider, and horse with the ruler when he died.[10] Indeed in China, as in Mesopotamia, as in Egypt, we find huge tombs of the rulers with the things of the living, which include chariots. This is where we get most of our information about the chariots. Hence the ruling class worships their military technology as did their ancestors.

“We are grateful to you our ancestors for putting us in such a powerful position. And we are thankful to you our military technology to allow us to conquer, defend and suppress, our area of the earth. Furthermore maybe we are even thankful to the gods for allowing us this role in life.”

Side effects of bronze chariots

The bronze military technology based around the chariot was so effective that it had many side effects.

Exploration, Centralization, and Expansion driven by bronze

It is probable that the exploration, the centralization and political expansion of these Bronze Age cultures have their roots in the search for sources for copper and tin, with which to make bronze. Once the explorers had discovered the source, it was in the best interests of the country to either claim the territory as their own or to at least establish dominance or control over it for national security reasons. He who controlled the bronze also controlled the battlefield, the bronze acting as both sword and shield. Furthermore it took incredible centralization to organize such large projects. Thus exploration, centralization, and political expansion are all driven, partially at least, by the need for bronze weaponry to attack and protect.

Better Roads: Chariot driven

While bronze was a driving force for exploration and expansion, the chariot was a major impetus for better roads. While the cart could be pulled slowly across many terrains, the chariot worked best on smooth roads. Thus the existence of chariots inspired better roads. It is easy to see that there were many secondary effects of the bronze military technology associated with the chariot.

Chinese peasantry never sees the wheel

Let it be pointed out that just as bronze was not ‘wasted’ upon the peasantry, neither was the wheel. There is no evidence yet that the peasantry of the Shang had carts to haul things around. Indeed frequently it would take centuries for the innovations of the city to reach the countryside.[11]Thus two of the prime accomplishments of the Bronze Age, the wheel and bronze, are linked more heavily to military technology and less to social technology for the masses. This was especially true in Shang China.

Training a Warrior Class

Warrior class essential to chariot

There was one other essential ingredient that the chariot needed to operate. The Charioteer. The chariot needed a skilled charioteer to manage the horses, otherwise the chariot was useless. The charioteer needed to be strong and balanced to maintain control of the 2 horses pulling his two-wheeled chariot. Charioteering was a specialized talent that had to be developed. He could not belong to the agricultural peasantry. There would not be enough time for the training. Hence the charioteer had to come from the warrior class. Thus a warrior class had to exist for a chariot to exist.

A warrior class unnecessary for war

It does not take a warrior class for a war to exist. There are many Biblical examples of the Israelite pastoral cultures, which had no soldier class, attacking the indigenous cultures of Canaan. The armies were made up of shepherds with a mission. David, the great Jewish general, who slew Goliath, was a shepherd who was called upon to go to war with his slingshot.

The only use of chariot is military

Farmers, hunters, and shepherds just used day-to-day implements in their wars, requiring no special training. Slings, bows and arrows, knives and spears are all used in hunting for food and can easily be converted to military use. In protecting their land they would break out domestic implements and use them as weapons. The chariot has no domestic use. Its only use is military. Hence any culture that used chariots had to be a military culture.

Warrior Class, part of ruling class

A warrior class trained to use chariots was one of the institutions of war in the Bronze Age. The warrior class was made up of the military aristocracy. It was they who led or forced the troops into battle. It was they who had something invested in the culture. It was they who had to maintain local control with their military prowess.

Being prepared militarily

Furthermore from earliest times the culture, which was unprepared militarily was the one that was overrun. Having survived the Ice Age in Siberia the Mongoloid stock had learned to be prepared. They and other military cultures, including Greeks, Romans, and Normans, devised training techniques to keep their soldiers at the ready in case of attack. Indeed our modern Olympics are based upon these games that were designed to maintain military preparedness. “When at peace prepare for war, when at war prepare for peace.”

Warrior training

The skills of these warriors were of course tuned up in actual combat. But they also trained extensively for battle. Nobody just jumps on a chariot and starts to ride. It takes a great deal of training. Hence these military cultures would invest a great deal of time training warriors.

Cultural transmission of military skills

How did these military cultures emerge? We already mentioned how population pressures threw different cultures into conflict. The great warrior who had led his troops to victory might become king, as did David. He would then culturally transmit the secrets of his military prowess to his sons, in time honored and genetically selected fashion. These sons, if they maintained control, would then pass this knowledge on to their sons. In such a way a military culture would be passed on. These fathers were not transmitting agricultural or craft skills. They were passing on military and leadership skills.

Aristocratic warrior class evolves

Over the centuries the training of the sons of the aristocratic warrior class became more sophisticated and specialized. Military techniques using the dagger and spear might evolve into sword use. The two-sided hand-axes of the Paleolithic Homo erectus become a battle-ax. The hunting bow becomes a military compound bow. Each of these military techniques becomes further refined over time. The warrior-king needed to develop his military talents in order to maintain control of his country through his own individual military prowess. David, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan were all great warriors as well as leaders. This was also true of all the early European and English kings.

Charioteering one of the aristocratic virtues

With the advent of the chariot, charioteering became one of those aristocratic warrior talents that were necessary for leadership. The chariot was a major military feature of the Shang and also the following Chou dynasty. As such the skill of charioteering was included in the repertoire of warrior elite.

6 Accomplishments of the Chinese aristocracy

By the Chou times, they institutionalized the necessary skills of the ruling warrior class. The necessary military skills were charioteering and archery, while the cultural skills were writing, music, science, and ritual. These are the 6 accomplishments that the Confucians considered important talents of the Chinese ruling class. the Shang and Chou aristocracy needed military skills to maintain their position of authority. However as the aristocracy became the intelligentsia, i.e. the gentle men, as we shall see, they held onto these six accomplishments. The ritualization of these six talents extended all the way to the Ming dynasty of the 1500s AD and still exerts control on the Chinese psyche in their attempts to be well rounded. [12] We’ll be back to this topic, when we deal with Confucianism.

In summary: Chariot primary feature of Shang

In summary, the chariot was a primary feature of the later Shang civilization, not a secondary or subsidiary one. The chariot was a major innovation of the Bronze Age warlike civilizations by which they were able to completely dominate the agricultural societies that preceded them. Furthermore the chariot joined 4 primary features of the age in one symbol, i. e. bronze, the wheel, the domesticated horse, and the warrior-ruler. Furthermore charioteering became an integral part of warrior training which eventually led to the Chinese marital arts, including Taiji. Incorporated into the training of the charioteer were non-action in the midst of action, central equilibrium and rooting.

[1]Grolier, Potter’s Wheel 1997

[2]Grolier, Wheel 1997

[3]Grolier, Chariot 1997

[4]Grolier, Wheel 1997

[5]EB, China 5-517 c “Even so, some of the outstanding cultural possessions of the Shang people again are paralleled in the west and ultimately may have come thence: the horse-drawn war chariot, a developed system of script, and the technique of bronze casting as such.”

[6]China to 1850, p. 31 “Although diffusion across Central Asia is by no means ruled out entirely, especially in the case of the chariot, it now seems probable that most if not all of the major characteristics of traditional Chinese civilization originated independently in China Proper.”

[7] p 123 Origins

[8]EB, China 5-517 d

[9] p. 123 Origins

[10] p 123 Origins

[11] p 120 Origins.

[12] Chinese Art, MacKenzie, 1961p 28 “Painting and calligraphy have from very early times been among the accomplishments of the Chinese gentle man (the other five being listed as Ritual, Music, Archery, Charioteering and Mathematics.)”


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