Shang Dynasty - 1570 - 1045 bc

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Shang Dynasty

Shang Dynasty (1570?-1045? bc), Chinese dynasty with the earliest-known written records. It is the most ancient of the Chinese dynasties for which documents are known to exist, marking the beginning of China’s written history. The cultural, religious, and political practices of the Shang elites strongly influenced the Zhou, who conquered the Shang in about 1045 bc and established the Zhou dynasty.

The Shang texts exist primarily in the form of carvings in the Shang script on animal bones and shells. These inscriptions recorded the king’s divinations (ritual acts designed to forecast the future). They provide an account of the daily concerns of the last nine Shang kings, from the 21st king, Wu Ding, to the 29th king, Di Xin. Their period of rule, from about the late 1200s to about 1045 bc, is known as the Late Shang.

The Shang state was centered in what is now called the Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain), an expansive lowland area extending across north central China. Significant population growth and cultural interaction had been taking place there in the 3rd millennium bc, during China’s Neolithic Period, or New Stone Age. The Shang culture that emerged in the 2nd millennium bc, during China’s Bronze Age, was a product of that interaction.

Archaeological excavations of sites tentatively identified as early Shang capitals—such as the walled settlements at Yanshi and Zhengzhou in north central Henan Province—have not uncovered any body of writings. Texts left by the later Zhou and Han dynasties refer to a series of 30 Shang rulers. All but one of the names of these Shang rulers also appear in the oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang. Without any records from the early Shang period itself, however, the historical reliability of these later accounts is uncertain. Events traditionally associated with the early Shang dynasty, including the Shang’s reputed conquest of the Xia dynasty, therefore may be legendary.

A major complex of Late Shang settlements was located near the present-day city of Anyang in northern Henan Province. This site covers an area of about 30 sq km (12 sq mi) and has been under scientific excavation since 1928. Archaeological digs have uncovered workshop remains, numerous storage pits (some containing caches of oracle-bone inscriptions), and more than 50 rammed-earth foundations of temple-palaces. Many burials of Shang elites, middle-status dependents, and sacrificial victims lay among and beyond the buildings. The absence of a wall around the site suggests the Late Shang kings were confident they could defend their settlement against attacks from outsiders.

On the north side of the Huan River, a Shang cemetery at Xibeigang contains the burial pits of eight of the last nine Shang kings. (Another tomb was evidently under construction when the last Shang king, Di Xin, was defeated by the Zhou.) These impressive burial pits were configured with entrance ramps oriented to the four cardinal directions. The ramps led to a deep vertical shaft that contained a wooden burial chamber. The rich grave goods in these tombs had all been looted by the time archaeologists discovered the site in the 1930s. The only royal tomb found completely intact in the Anyang area, and the only one whose occupant has been positively identified, is that of Wu Ding’s consort, Fu Hao. Her tomb was excavated in 1976. Although much smaller than the royal burials at Xibeigang, it offers a glimpse of how the others would have been furnished with a lavish assortment of cast bronzes (vessels, bells, mirrors, and weapons), carved jade ornaments, pottery, and objects made of ivory and marble.

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The Late Shang inscriptions recorded the king’s divinations on topics such as sacrificial offerings, divine assistance, military campaigns, settlement building, the weather, hunts, harvests, sickness, childbirth, and dreams. The king began his divination by proposing a specific prediction, such as “Today it might rain” or “The western lands will receive harvest.” His diviners, or ritual assistants, then applied intense heat to a specially prepared cattle scapula (shoulder blade) or turtle shell. The heat produced stress cracks that the king’s diviners interpreted as either lucky or unlucky. The king would then forecast what the future was likely to bring. Scribes carved a record of ...

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