The Walled Shang Dynasty Cities of Ancient China

The Capital Cities of the Historic Shang Emperors

Hache Yue en bronze. Chine du Nord, dynastie Shang

Vassil/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Shang Dynasty cities were the first historically documented urban settlements in China. The Shang Dynasty [c 1700–1050 B.C.E.] was the first Chinese dynasty to leave written records, and the idea and function of cities took on an elevated importance. The written records, mostly in the form of oracle bones, record the actions of the last nine Shang kings and describe some of the cities. The first of these historically-recorded rulers was Wu Ding, the twenty-first king of the dynasty.

The Shang rulers were literate, and like other early urban dwellers, the Shang employed a useful calendar and wheeled vehicles, and practiced metallurgy, including objects of cast bronze. They used bronze for such items as vessels for ritual offerings, wine, and weapons. And they resided and ruled from large, wealthy urban settlements.

Urban Capital Cities of Shang China

The early cities in the Shang (and the predecessor Xia dynasty) were imperial capitals—called palace-temple-cemetery complexes—that acted as the administrative, economic, and religious centers of government. These cities were built within fortification walls which provided defense. Later walled cities were county (hsien) and provincial capitals.

The earliest Chinese urban centers were located along the banks of the middle and lower courses of the Yellow River in northern China. Since the course of the Yellow River has changed, modern maps of the ruins of the Shang Dynasty locations are no longer on the river. At the time, some of the Shang were probably still pastoral nomads, but most were sedentary, small-village agriculturists, who kept domesticated animals and raised crops. There the already-large Chinese populations over-cultivated the originally fertile land.

Because China developed the techniques of using rivers for irrigation of their fields later than in the heavily trade-networked Near East and Egypt, fortified cities appeared in China more than a millennium earlier than in Mesopotamia or Egypt—at least, that's one theory. Besides irrigation per se, sharing ideas via trade routes was important to the development of civilization. Indeed, trade with tribes in the central Asian steppes may have brought one of the other components of urban culture, the wheeled chariot, to China.

Aspects of Urbanism

Defining what makes for a city in terms relevant for ancient China, as well as elsewhere, American archaeologist K.C. Chang wrote: "Political kingship, a religious system and hierarchy that coupled with it, segmentary lineages, economic exploitation of many by a few, technological specialization and sophisticated achievements in art, writing, and science."

The layout of the cities shared that of other ancient urban areas of Asia, similar to ones in Egypt and Mexico: a central core with the surrounding area divided into four regions, one for each of the cardinal directions.

The Shang City of Ao

The first clearly urban settlement of ancient China was called Ao. The archaeological ruins of Ao were discovered in 1950 C.E., so near the modern city of Chengchou (Zhengzhou) that the current city has hampered investigations. Some scholars, including Thorp, suggest that this location is really Bo (or Po), an earlier Shang capital than Ao, founded by the founder of the Shang Dynasty. Assuming it really is Ao, it was the 10th Shang Emperor, Chung Ting (Zhong Ding) (1562–1549 B.C.E.), who built it on the ruins of a Neolithic settlement dated to the Black pottery period.

Ao was a rectangularly-walled city with fortifications like those that had surrounded villages. Such walls are described as ramparts of pounded earth. The city of Ao extended 2 km (1.2) from north to south and 1.7 km (1 mi) from east to west, yielding an area of about 3.4 square kilometers (1.3 square miles), which was large for early China, but small compared to comparably dated Near Eastern cities. Babylon, for instance, was roughly 8 sq km (3.2 sq km). Chang says the walled area was roomy enough to include some cultivated land, although probably not the peasants. Factories for making bronze, bone, horn, and ceramic objects and foundries and what may have been a distillery were mostly located outside the walls.

The Great City Shang

The best-studied Shang Dynasty city is the 14th century B.C.E. city of Shang, which was built, according to tradition, by the Shang ruler Pan Keng, in 1384. Known as the Great City Shang (Da Yi Shang), the 30–40 sq km city may have been located about 100 mi (160 km) north of Ao and near Anyang north of the village of Hsiao T'un.

An alluvial plain created from Yellow River loess deposits surrounded Shang. Irrigated water from the Yellow River provided relatively reliable harvests in an otherwise semi-arid area. The Yellow River created a physical barrier on the north and east and part of the west. On the west was also a mountain range providing protection and, Chang says, probably hunting grounds and timber.

Fortifications and Other City-Typical Objects

Just because there were natural boundaries doesn't mean Shang was without a wall, although evidence of a wall has yet to be discovered. Within the central parts of the city were palaces, temples, cemeteries, and an archive. Houses were made with walls of pounded earth with light poles for roofs covered with rush matting and all plastered with mud. There were no grander structures than those made of wattle and daub, although Chang says there might have been two-story buildings.

The Great City Shang was the capital—at least for ancestor worship/ritual purposes—for 12 Shang Dynasty kings, unusually long for the Shang Dynasty which is said to have changed its capital many times. During the period of the 14 predynastic Shang lords, the capital changed eight times, and in the period of the 30 kings, seven times. The Shang (at least in the later period) practiced sacrifice and ancestor worship, with mortuary rituals. The Shang dynasty king was "theocrat": his power came from the people's belief that he could communicate with the high god Ti via his ancestors.

Small Earlier Chinese Cities

Recent archaeological excavations have determined that remains in Sichuan, previously thought to have been from the Han Dynasty, actually date from as early as c. 2500 B.C.E. Such sites were smaller complexes than the ones from the three dynasties but may have held a primary position among Chinese cities.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst and N.S. Gill


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Gill, N.S. "The Walled Shang Dynasty Cities of Ancient China." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). The Walled Shang Dynasty Cities of Ancient China. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Walled Shang Dynasty Cities of Ancient China." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).