- Dynasty

- The Rise and Fall


The Shang Dynasty
(17th - 11th century B.C.)

The Shang was the second hereditary dynasty in China. From the time of Taiyi (King Tang) to Di Xin (King Zhou), there were 31 kings making up 17 generations. The whole dynasty lasted nearly 600 years.

The Shang kings learned from the destruction of the Xia and adopted more humane policies during their reigns. In this way, the Shang reconciled its internal social conflicts, and as a result, increased its power. King Tang attacked the surrounding states and won many victories. The prosperity and steady politics of the King Tang reign were made possible by two capable ministers, Yi Yin and Zhong Hui. Historical records show that they both had good political ideas. As prime ministers, they both made great contribution to state affairs and economic development. After Zhong Hui's death, Yi Yin, as one of the few most senior statesmen, played an even more visible role in the political circle.

After King Tang died, Wai Bing, younger brother of Tai Ding (Tang's eldest son) who died young, succeeded to the throne, and was then succeeded by his brother Zhong Ren. When Zhong Ren died, Tai Jia, son of Tai Ding and grandson of King Tang, came to the throne. TheChronicle of Yin in the Historical Records (by Sima Qian in the Western Han Dynasty) says: "Because King Tai Jia was incapable, despotic and immoral, often breaking the Shang laws, Yi Yin imprisoned him in the Tong Palace three years after he succeeded to the throne." Tai Jia stayed in the Tong Palace for three years to repent. In the end Yi Yin brought him back and taught him how to be a king. Thereafter, Tai Jia cultivated virtues and observed the laws. Other states obeyed him and the people lived peacefully. The persistent efforts made by Yi Yin to assist Tai Jia carry out Tang's strategies and to protect the long peace and safety won him the reputation of Great Benevolence and Grand Righteousness.

Nevertheless, the greedy nature of the ruling class eventually led to domestic conflict and internal power struggle. Starting with Zhong Ding and continuing for nine generations, there were frequent conflicts within the royal family, resulting in continuous external troubles. During this period, the Shang Dynasty moved its capital five times.

It was recorded that the Shang Dynasty had five capitals. Archaeologists, however, have found the ruins of only four: Erlitou in Yanshi, the Shang city in Zhengzhou, the Shang city in Yanshi, and the Yin city in Anyang. Each of these four sites has an area of over three to four million square metres, where the remains of large palaces, tombs, and workshops have been found. The first palace found in the middle of the Erlitou ruins has an area of 10,000 square metres. Large-scale city walls were found in Yanshi and Zhengzhou. The Yin ruins at Anyang include many royal tombs and sacrificial areas. These discoveries as well as historical accounts indicate that the Shang Dynasty had established a relatively complete state institution, consisting of various positions of offices, standing armies (the "Right Army", the "Middle Army" and the "Left Army"), decrees and regulations, and even criminal laws. However, scholars hold different ideas about how the above four sites are related to the names recorded in historical documents. They only agree that the Yin ruins in Anyang (Henan Province) was the capital after the reign of Pangeng.

Different ideas also exist about why the Shang Dynasty moved its capital several times. But from the "Pangeng" in the Shangshu, one can see that it was related to the political strife within the royal family. For example, Pangeng claimed that "I moved the capital only for the benefit of the people." But he had also threatened to destroy those who would not obey his order. After Pangeng moved the capital to Yin, the conflict within the royal family eased and the economy began to develop. Pangeng was therefore named the "Restoration King". The restoration laid the foundation for the coming golden age of Wu Ding.

Wu Ding was the son of Xiao Yi (Pangeng's younger brother). As a young man, Wu Ding once stayed in the countryside and thus understood the difficult life of the peasant. After ascending the throne, Wu Ding worked very hard to develop his state. He attacked neighbouring states and launched wars against them. During these wars Wu Ding conquered quite a few small states and captured many slaves.

Wu Ding's reign was marked by political stability and economic prosperity. The ruins of Yin in Anyang contain rich cultural traces of palaces, tombs, and workshops. The bronze industry achieved a major breakthrough - alloys of copper, lead, and tin began to appear, the technique of separate casting was widely used, bronze utensils increased drastically in number, and large containers, such as the Simuwu ding (cooking vessel), paired fangyi (wine container) and three-yan steamer, appeared in this period. These achievements indicate that the bronze industry in China reached its peak at that time. In addition, great progress was also made in textile, medicine, transportation, and astronomy. Wu Ding laid a solid foundation for further economic development later that dynasty, and that of the Western Zhou.

Oracle inscriptions found in 1899 revealed ancient writings that had been buried for over 3,000 years. The discovery of 150,000 oracle inscriptions in Anyang confirmed the existence of the Shang Dynasty.

China has a long history in offering sacrifice to gods and ancestors as evidenced by archaeological finds. With the appearance of agriculture, people began worshipping the sky because they had to pray for favourable weather. Ancestor worship began when people had dreams in which their ancestors appeared. People offered sacrifices to their ancestors for protection. Hereditary monarchy that began in the Xia Dynasty greatly changed the substance of primitive religious faith. Since the king was the world's supreme ruler, worship of ancestors was then combined with nature worship, thus making himself Supreme god like Heaven or God. From historical sources we know there was a god named "Tian" (the Sky). On oracle inscriptions there were characters meaning "Di" (Emperor) or "Shangdi" (Upper Emperor). Therefore, when he attacked Xia Jie, Shang Tang encouraged his soldiers to fight under the "Mandate of Heaven", so that they would be brave in battle. But the Upper Emperor was a relative to the Lower Emperor (the king of the Shang). In order to exercise the mandate of the Upper Emperor, the Lower Emperor communicated with him through wizards. When the king of the Shang offered sacrifice to his ancestors, he performed five different ceremonies to honour his ancestors one by one. In the sacrificial area found among the royal tombs at the ruins of Yin, several thousand sacrificial pits were unearthed. In Wu Ding's reign, hundreds of animals and humans were sacrificed at a time.

The Golden Age of Wu Ding did not continue after his death. In the reigns following Zu Geng and Zu Jia, especially Di Yi and Di Xin, internal social conflict became more acute and neighbouring states began to rebel. Under these circumstances, Di Xin (King Zhou) neither instituted reform nor listened to his ministers' advice. He lived an extravagant lifestyle, spent excessive resources on the army and imposed increasingly heavy burdens on the people. He sent large armies to attack the Eastern Yi tribe, leaving the country relatively unprotected. When the army, led by King Wu of the Zhou, reached Muye, in the outskirts of the Shang capital, King Zhou quickly organised his army to defend the city. Consequently, his army not only was unwilling to fight, but the soldiers out in front turned against him and cleared the way for King Wu's army. King Zhou fled to Lutai and burned himself. The Shang Dynasty thus came to an end.

(Authored by Professor Yin Weizhang, Archaeology Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; translated by Xu Fangfu, Associate Professor of English from the Petroleum University)