Home Chinese Culture China History The Shang Dynasty — Bronze Age China

The Shang Dynasty — Bronze Age China

The Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) was the second of the three ancient Chinese dynasties, preceded by the Xia Dynasty and succeeded by the Zhou Dynasty. Based around the Yellow River valley, the Shang capital was Anyang. It was the first dynasty with written records — inscriptions on bones and bronze objects.

Ancient Written Accounts

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 text that 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.

The History of the Shang

It was 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 ruled oppressively. So King Tang 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 Tang 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 to the east.

The last Shang king was named Shang Zhou. His fall mirrors the fall of the last Xia emperor. It was thought he lost the Mandate of Heaven. 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 Shang Culture

Shang-era towns have been found around the Yellow River and to the south near the Yangtze River. These towns shared a similar culture. The towns had walls for their defense.

The Ruins of Yin

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.

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.

The Ruins of Yin are a UNESCO Heritage attraction and a museum area. The displays of Shang hieroglyphs trace the development of Chinese characters.

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 bronze metallurgy. They were able to cast large pots.

Other Civilizations

According to the historical accounts, civilization developed around the Yellow River under the reign of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties. There is no mention of any other advanced countries in the region. However, archeologists have uncovered other Bronze-age cultures such as the Sanxingdui Civilization that belie the legendary account that the civilization of the people in the region only developed along the Yellow River.

Sanxingdui (2000–1250 BC)

sanxingdui museum in guanghan Sanxingdui Ruins Musuem in Sichuan Province

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 at the Sanxingdui Site 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 bronze alloy suitable for intricate large sculptures. 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.

The Jinsha Museum and site, in Chengdu city, and the Sanxingdui Site could be combined with a Chengdu tour to find out more about China's Bronze Age civilizations.

Shang Dynasty Development of Chinese Writing

Writing in the East Asia region dates back to the hieroglyphs that were used in the Shang Dynasty. Not much is known about Shang Dynasty writing. No documents have been found, but only thousands of hieroglyphs written on bronze objects and oracle bones. You can see many in the Writing Museum in Anyang.

The hieroglyphic writing system later evolved into the ideographic and partly-phonetic Chinese characters that are used today. Read more on Chinese writing.

To see the Shang Dynasty sites in Anyang, we recommend the following tours.

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