Emperors of Shang Dynasty China

c. 1700 - 1046 BCE

Early Chinese script on a Shang oracle bone
Early Chinese writing carved on a Shang Dynasty oracle bone.

Zens Photo/Getty Images

The Shang Dynasty is the first Chinese imperial dynasty for which we have actual documentary evidence. However, since the Shang is so very ancient, the sources are unclear. In fact, we don't even know for sure when the Shang Dynasty began its rule over the Yellow River Valley of China. Some historians believe that it was around the year 1700 BCE, while others place it later, c. 1558 BCE.

In any case, the Shang Dynasty succeeded the Xia Dynasty, which was a legendary ruling family from approximately 2070 BCE to about 1600 BCE. We have no surviving written records for the Xia, although they probably did have a writing system. Archaeological evidence from the Erlitou sites does give support to the idea that a complex culture had already arisen in northern China at this time.

Fortunately for us, the Shang have left some slightly clearer records than their Xia predecessors did. The traditional sources for the Shang era include the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. These records were written much, much later than the Shang period, however — Sima Qian wasn't even born until around 145 to 135 BCE. As a result, modern historians were quite skeptical even about the existence of the Shang Dynasty until archaeology miraculously provided some proof.

In the early 20th century, archaeologists found a very early form of Chinese writing that was inscribed (or in rare cases painted) onto turtle shells or large, flat animal bones like the shoulder blades of oxen. These bones were then put into a fire, and the cracks that developed from the heat would help a magical diviner to predict the future or tell their customer whether their prayers would be answered. 

Called oracle bones, these magical divination tools provided us proof that the Shang Dynasty really did exist. Some of the seekers who asked questions of the gods via the oracle bones were the emperors themselves or officials from court so we even got confirmation of some of their names, along with rough dates when they were active.

In many cases, the evidence from the Shang Dynasty oracle bones matched quite closely with the recorded tradition about that time from the Bamboo Annals and the Records of the Grand Historian. Still, it should not surprise anyone that there are still gaps and discrepancies in the imperial list below. After all, the Shang Dynasty ruled China a very, very long time ago.

China’s Shang Dynasty

  • Cheng Tang, 1675 – 1646 BCE
  • Wai Bing, 1646 – 1644 BCE
  • Zhong Ren, 1644 – 1640 BCE
  • Tai Jia, 1535 -1523 BCE
  • Wo Ding, 1523 – 1504 BCE
  • Tai Geng, 1504 – 1479 BCE
  • Xiao Jia, 1479 – 1462 BCE
  • Yong Ji, 1462 – 1450 BCE
  • Tai Wu, 1450 – 1375 BCE
  • Zhong Ding, 1375 – 1364 BCE
  • Wai Ren, 1364 – 1349 BCE
  • He Dan Jia, 1349 – 1340 BCE
  • Zu Yi, 1340 – 1321 BCE
  • Zu Xin, 1321 – 1305 BCE
  • Wo Jia, 1305 – 1280 BCE
  • Zu Ding, 1368 – 1336 BCE
  • Nan Geng, 1336 – 1307 BCE
  • Yang Jia, 1307 – 1290 BCE
  • Pan Geng, 1290 – 1262 BCE
  • Xiao Xin, 1262 – 1259 BCE
  • Xiao Yi, 1259 – 1250 BCE
  • Wu Ding, 1250 – 1192 BCE
  • Zu Geng, 1192 – 1165 BCE
  • Zu Jia, 1165 – 1138 BCE
  • Lin Xin, 1138 – 1134 BCE
  • Kang Ding, dates of reign unclear
  • Wu Yi, 1147 – 1112 BCE
  • Wen Ding, 1112 – 1102 BCE
  • Di Yi, 1101 – 1076 BCE
  • Di Xin, 1075 – 1046 BCE