Shang Dynasty - Ancient Chinese Bronze Age State

Late Shang Dynasty Ruled by Oracles from Long Dead Ancestors

Shang Dynasty Chariot from Royal Tomb at Yinxu
Shang Dynasty Chariot from Royal Tomb at Yinxu. Keren Su / Getty Images

The Bronze Age Shang Dynasty is the name of an early state society in China, roughly dated between 1700-1050 BC, and, according to the 1st century BC history called the Shi Ji, it began when the first Shang emperor, T'ang, overthrew the last of the Xia (also called Erlitou) dynasty emperors. The rule of the Shang dynasty kings ended when they were overthrown by the first rulers of the Zhou Dynasty, in 1046 BC.

Shang Dynasty Chronology

  • Erlitou (sometimes Xia dynasty, or Proto- Shang Phase I) 1850-1600 BC (cities include Erlitou, Xinzhai)
  • Early Shang (Erligang) 1640-1400 BC or Phase II (Erligang, Zhengzhou, Yanshi, Xingyang Dashigu, Anyang)
  • Middle Shang or Phase III 1400-1300 BC (Yanshi, Huanbei Huayuanzhuang)
  • Late Shang or Phase IV (Yinxu) 1300-1046 BC (capital at Yin)

Growth of the Shang

The history of the Shang Dynasty as documented in the Shi Ji begins with the emergence of a Shang clan  and traces the progress from nomadic to semi-nomadic lifeways. The earliest material culture identified with the Shang is called by archaeologists the Proto-Shang, but also Phase I Shang, Erlitou Phase or Xia Dynasty. The period dates between 2000-1600 BC and consists of small settlements located in the central plains of northern Henan and southern Hebei province in China.

In this period, small agricultural villages arose, with economies based on rice, pigs, cattle, sheep and goats, and to a lesser degree, domestic foxtail millet.

By about 1800 BC, the settlement at Erlitou became the primary center--a planned city where the elite persons lived.

During the Early Shang period, the people shifted to an agricultural economy of primarily foxtail millet, wheat, beefsteak plant and rice. The beginnings of what would become the enormous Shang dynasty capital of Anyang began in the Early Shang dynasty.

Continued growth and complexity brought in the Middle Shang when the primary center moved from Erlitou to Yanshi and then Zhengzhou.

The Shang State

By the Late Shang, Anyang became the capital, the "king's city", and the created center of political and religious activity. Anyang was the largest of the Shang Dynasty megacenters during the Bronze Age. Megacenters were enormous walled communities, with large-scale palace/temples surrounded by a wall or moat in their centers. By the Late Shang period, Anyang was that capital, spanning over 30 square kilometers (11.5 square miles).

In Anyang, even non-royal residences and burials included bronze ritual vessels, jade implements and sacrificial pits. Clan groups inside and outside of Anyang were internally hierarchical, descent-based communities linked by a common ideology and participation in wars, marriages, sacrifice, and feasting.

Who Ruled the Shang?

The rulers of the Shang society were dynastic kings, inherited down from father to son over centuries. But the authority of last resort in Late Shang society was not the king, but the high god Di, followed by the powers of the land and the ancestors, and then a descending hierarchy of ancestral spirits in order of seniority down to the living king and his subordinates.

All of that, as well as forecasts of weather, harvest, victory or defeat in war, building and continuation of settlements, sickness, childbirth and good or ill fortune in general, all of that was obtained from these spirits via oracle bone divination.

Thousands of surviving inscribed oracle bones made on cow scapulae or turtle plastrons have been found in Late Shang Anyang, as well as other Middle and Late Shang cities. The inscriptions describe the king making reports and receiving orders from the ancestors, in the same way as the king's subordinates made reports to and received orders from the king. Chief concerns described on the oracle bones were war, sacrifice, and hunting, all intertwined with the ancestral cult, violence, and construction of legitimate authority.


Massive zones of specialized workshops in the Late Shang include those to make pottery and jade personal ornaments, as well as bronze casting workshops for tools and ritual vessels.

An animal bone workshop was discovered at Tiensanlu in Anyang city when a 10-meter (30-foot) wide trench in advance of a road project sliced through it. The trench found hundreds of middens, 150 tombs, 12 buildings and over 34,000 kilograms of animal bone. The bone included mostly domestic cow and pig and hunted deer; but also smaller amounts of dog, sheep, goat, tiger, buffalo, horse, and even a bit of human bone. The bone was used to make ornamental pins, perforators, arrowheads, awls, spatulas and shovels.

Evidence for human sacrifice in Late Shang includes an estimated 10,000 human sacrificial victims in the royal cemetery at Anyang. Oracle bone divinations confirm the large number offered, particularly at the beginning of the Late Shang, when hundreds of people could be offered in a single event. Most human sacrifices were exclusively war captives, who were reduced to sacrificial livestock and interchangeable in cases with sheep or cattle; and they were monumental spectacles that supported the king's legitimacy.


This article is part of the guide to Human History, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology

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