The Shang Dynasty ( 1600-1046 BC )


The Shang Dynasty has the earliest recorded written history. The Shang (16th-11th century BC) lasted over 500 years, with 31 kings belonging to 17 generations.

Thousands of archaeological finds in the Huang He , Henan Valley --the apparent cradle of Chinese civilization--provide evidence about the Shang dynasty, which endured roughly from 1700 to 1027 B.C. The Shang dynasty (also called the Yin dynasty in its later stages) is believed to have been founded by a rebel leader who overthrew the last Xia ruler. Its civilization was based on agriculture, augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. Two important events of the period were the development of a writing system, as revealed in archaic Chinese inscriptions found on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones (commonly called oracle bones or), and the use of bronze metallurgy. A number of ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions date from the Shang period; the workmanship on the bronzes attests to a high level of civilization.

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, one of which was at the site of the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.

Shang Tang had spent 17 years in fighting against the Emperor Jie before he overthrew the Xia Dynasty. When he came to the throne, he was found to be a good and virtuous ruler. He was always thinking of the good for his people. He was full of benevolence not only for his people, but also for the animals. Hehas been considered as a model ruler and his example was imitated by every monarch. He was succeeded by his grandson Tai Jia.

In the whole period of the Slave-Owning System in the Shang Dynasty, struggles for the throne occurred many times, and the internal contradictions of the nobility intensified. Misery spread wide among the people, and the dynasty declined. There were thirty-one kings in seventeen generations. The last two kings were Di Yi and Di Xin. Di Xin or Zhou, the king of Shang, is known in history as a cruel and debauched tyrant. He devised many cruel laws and means of torture, oppressing and expoiting the slaves and common people. Building luxurious palaces and gardens, he led a debauchery life. By the end of the dynasty, King Zhou set aside the old nobles and only favored those congenial to him. This aggravated the contradictions among the nobility and caused internal dissention. The intensification of class contradictions brought about great confusion. Taking advantage of the opportunity, King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty launched an attack and overthrew the Shang Dynasty. The account of the fall of the Shang Dynasty that appears in traditional Chinese histories follows closely the story of Xia.