Emperors of Shang Dynasty China

Early Chinese script on a Shang oracle bone

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The Shang Dynasty is the first Chinese imperial dynasty for which we have actual documentary evidence. Since the Shang is so very ancient, the sources are unclear. 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 an 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 the 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 to 1646 BCE
  • Wai Bing, 1646 to 1644 BCE
  • Zhong Ren, 1644 to 1640 BCE
  • Tai Jia, 1535 to 1523 BCE
  • Wo Ding, 1523 to 1504 BCE
  • Tai Geng, 1504 to 1479 BCE
  • Xiao Jia, 1479 to 1462 BCE
  • Yong Ji, 1462 to 1450 BCE
  • Tai Wu, 1450 to 1375 BCE
  • Zhong Ding, 1375 to 1364 BCE
  • Wai Ren, 1364 to 1349 BCE
  • He Dan Jia, 1349 to 1340 BCE
  • Zu Yi, 1340 to 1321 BCE
  • Zu Xin, 1321 to 1305 BCE
  • Wo Jia, 1305 to 1280 BCE
  • Zu Ding, 1368 to 1336 BCE
  • Nan Geng, 1336 to 1307 BCE
  • Yang Jia, 1307 to 1290 BCE
  • Pan Geng, 1290 to 1262 BCE
  • Xiao Xin, 1262 to 1259 BCE
  • Xiao Yi, 1259 to 1250 BCE
  • Wu Ding, 1250 to 1192 BCE
  • Zu Geng, 1192 to 1165 BCE
  • Zu Jia, 1165 to 1138 BCE
  • Lin Xin, 1138 to 1134 BCE
  • Kang Ding, dates of reign unclear
  • Wu Yi, 1147 to 1112 BCE
  • Wen Ding, 1112 to 1102 BCE
  • Di Yi, 1101 to 1076 BCE
  • Di Xin, 1075 to 1046 BCE