The Shang Dynasty
Some archeological discoveries correlate somewhat with written accounts about the Shang Dynasty that ruled from the fall of the Xia Dynasty until the Zhou Dynasty era for about 700 years until about 1000 BC. The dating is only approximate because historians don’t agree on the dating. The main ancient written accounts are in the Records of the Grand Historian (史記) that were written between about 109 BC and 91 BC by Sima Qian and another textthat is called the Bamboo Annals (竹書紀年). The Bamboo Annals was a text that was said to have been buried with the King of Wei who died in 296 BC and was rediscovered in 281 AD during the Jin Dynasty. The text was written on flat pieces of bamboo, and this is why it is called the Bamboo Annals. However, like the stories about the Xia Dynasty, the stories about the Xia may be mainly mythical or simply fables that were current during the Warring States era. Unlike the Xia Dynasty, the Shang had written records in the form of inscriptions on bones and bronze objects. The Shang Empire had a ruling hierarchy, a high level of bronze craftsmanship, and a hieroglyphic writing system.
Ancient Written Accounts
It is written that King Tang of the Shang tribe (1675-1646) watched the last Xia ruler falter. The last Xia king was named Jie, and he lived in luxury and decadence, and he was oppressive. So he started attacking the Xia people, and Tang employed wise men to help him. There was a rebellion, and Tang conquered the Shang in 1600 BC. Jie’s own people sided with the Shang. It is said that he ruled well because he lowered taxes and outlying tribes became vassals. Their territory increased so that it included territory far to the south and reached to the sea.
The last Shang king was named Shang Zhou. A neighboring tribe was called the Zhou. Like King Jie of the Xia Dynasty, he was defeated by the Zhou rulers because his own people rebelled. His own troops and slaves joined the Zhou in the last battle. The new Zhou ruler was named Zhou Wu. He allowed Shang Zhou’s son to rule the Shang people as vassals. The Zhou rulers also dispersed prominent Shang people to other places.
Archeological Discoveries from the Era of the Shang Culture
Shang-era towns have been found around the Yellow River and to the south near the Yangtze River. These towns apparently shared a similar culture. The towns had walls for their defence. It is thought that the last capital city of the Shang Dynasty was named Yin. It was found near Anyang. The site is called the Ruins of Yin. Yin tombs and ritual sites contained weapons and the remains of sacrificed humans and animals. The Shang people practiced human sacrifice. Thousands of oracle bones with inscriptions were found. Oracle bones are bones on which the people inscribed hieroglyphs. It is thought that these bones were used for divination or magic. The hieroglyphs show that the people had a written language.
In 1976, archeologists opened an undisturbed tomb called Tomb 5. It was the tomb of Lady Fu Hao. She had a military career, and a historian named Robert Thorp said that the assortment of weapons in her tomb correlate with oracle bone inscriptions. The bronze vessels and tools showed that the Shang people had a high level of technology of bronze metallurgy. They were able to cast large pots.
According to the historical accounts, the civilization in the region developed around the Yellow River under the reign of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties. There is no mention of any other advanced kingdom in the region. However, archeologists have uncovered other Bronze-age cultures that belie the idea that the civilization of the people in the region only developed along the Yellow River.
Sanxingdui (2000-1250 BC)
The foremost of the Bronze-age civilizations that existed contemporaneously with the Shang culture is called the Sanxingdui culture. It was discovered only about 25 years ago. This kingdom’s bronze technology was different than that of the Shang people and perhaps more advanced. This culture also built large walled towns. But the culture was very different. Chinese archeologists discovered this civilization in 1986. The archeological site is located in Sichuan province about 40 kilometers northeast of Chengdu. Analysis of lead and other metals in the bronze castings indicates that some of the metal was sourced from the same places that the Shang people obtained metal. Apparently, there was contact between the two peoples, but the Sanxingdui people are not mentioned in ancient accounts such as the Bamboo Annals. This belies the historicity of the ancient written records.
The civilization had high bronze casting technology, and they were able to make unusually large and finely crafted bronze objects by adding lead to make the bronze alloy. No texts or inscriptions have been found, and there is no mention of this culture in the records of other cultures. This culture remains intriguing and mysterious. Read more on Sanxingdui
Shang Dynasty Development of Chinese Writing
Writing in the area dates back to the hieroglyphs that were used in the Shang Dynasty. Not much is known about the Shang Dynasty or its writing. No documents have been found, but only thousands of hieroglyphs written on bronze objects and oracle bones. The first texts that have been discovered date from the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BC) that conquered the Shang Dynasty. The hieroglyphic writing system later evolved into the ideographic and partly-phonetic Chinese characters that are used today. Read more on Chinese writing
- Chinese Dynasties
- The Xia Dynasty
- The Shang Dynasty
- The Zhou Dynasty
- Spring and Autumn Period
- Warring States Period
- The Qin Dynasty
- The Han Dynasty
- Three Kingdoms
- The Jin Dynasty
- The Sui Dynasty
- The Tang Dynasty
- The Western Xia Dynasty
- The Song Dynasty
- The Yuan Dynasty
- The Ming Dynasty
- The Qing Dynasty
- The Kingdom of Dali