Shang dynasty

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The Shang dynasty was an era of Chinese history that began in 1600 BC and continued until 1046 BC.[1] It was preceded by the Xia dynasty and was followed by the Zhou dynasty. The Shang was China's Bronze Age. Shang casting technique was the finest in the world, and many highly decorated vessels have survived.[2] A large foundry has been unearthed at Miaopubei near Anyang.[2] The establishment of a permanent capital at Anyang in 1300 BC marks the founding of the first historical Chinese state.

Shang dynasty
Chinese 商朝

Chinese writing first appeared in this period. Pictographs were written on bones, shells, and later in bronze. The Shang was the first dynasty to use chariots. Over 500 sites have been classified as culturally Shang, although not necessarily politically. These sites are located, not only in Shang heartland in the central portion of the Yellow River, but all across northern and eastern China.[2] Shang religion was a form of shamanism, with divinations made by the king. The Shang worshiped a sky deity named Shangdi ("high ruler").

Early Shang

History of China
Xia c. 2070–c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – 1046 BC
Zhou 1045–256 BC
Qin 221–206 BC
Han 206 BC – 220 AD
Three Kingdoms 220–280
Jin 265–420
Northern and Southern
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms
Song 960–1279
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1644–1911
Republic 1912–1949
People's Republic 1949–present
The capital was initially located at Bo. Bo is identified with a walled city in Yanshi in northern Henan Province that was unearthed in 1983. Erlitou, the Xia capital, is also in Yanshi, which suggests that there was at one time a relationship between the two states. Bo was radiocarbon dated to 1600 BC. This date is considered to be the founding of the Shang dynasty.[3] In the Middle Shang, the capital was moved several times. In this period, the king may be viewed as a wandering shaman, moving from one city to another in response to arcane oracles.

Late Shang

After a permanent capital was established at Anyang in 1300 BC, the king began to function more as a ruler and head of an established government. But he continued to tend to divination personally. A proposed divination would be written on a bone. The bone was then heated until stress caused it to crack. The cracks were interpreted by the king as either confirming or denying the divination. Ritual required the king to travel extensively, including trips to four sacred mountains.[2]

As the Shang did not develop a system of writing until 1200 BC, only the later part of the dynasty is considered fully historical.[4] Contemporary inscriptions establish the sequence of rulers from this point on, so this can be considered the beginning of China's recorded history. The chariot was also introduced at around this time. Like the Xia, the Shang was once thought to be legendary. The excavation of Anyang, begun in 1928, demonstrated that the dynasty is historical. Anyang does not have a wall, which suggests the kings were confident that they could fend off invaders without one.[2] The royal tombs that have been unearthed suggest that human sacrifice was practiced.[5]

The Shang calendar had 360 days with twelve months of thirty days each was developed. Intercalary months were added as necessary. The urban population were mainly engaged in metallurgy and other support services for the army and the state. In the countryside, the primary activity was growing millet.[2]


About 200,000 oracle bone inscriptions have been found. The earliest date from about 1200 BC. The characters used are generally pictographs. They are often primitive versions of characters that are still used to write Chinese in modern times. Almost all of the inscriptions are proposed divinations. They address the gods concerning matters of immediate practical significance. No Shang literature survives.[2]


Dixin, the last Shang ruler, is traditionally described as an immoral tyrant. To please a concubine, he is said to have built a lake of wine around which naked men and women chased one another. The Zhou, a people from the northeast, defeated the Shang in the battle of Muye and established a new dynasty in 1046 BC. Zhou religion is the basis of Chinese Native Religion, so the downfall of the Shang is the subject of much popular literature, including Investiture of the Gods.[6]


The following is a list of Late Shang rulers from the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project. The traditional dates of accession are from Liu Xin. There were also nineteen Early Shang rulers, but no widely accepted dates have been calculated for them.

Ruler Date of accession (BC)
Pinyin Chinese XSZCP Traditional
Pangeng 盤庚 1300 1380
Xiaoxin 小辛
Xiaoyi 小乙
Wuding 武丁 1250 1324
Zugeng 祖庚 1191 1265
Zujia 祖甲
Linxin 廩辛
Kangding 康丁
Wuyi 武乙 1147 1198
Wending 文丁 1112 1194
Diyi 帝乙 1101 1191
Dixin 帝辛 1075 1154
Source: XSZ Project 2000: 86-88.


  1. These dates are from the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project (2001). Liu Xin gives 1766–1122 BC, the Bamboo Annals gives 1556–1046 BC, and Cambridge History of Ancient China (1999) gives 1570 –1045 BC.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 McCurley, Dallas L., ”Shang”, Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (2002).
  3. If the traditional date of 1766 BC is accepted as the actual year the dynasty was founded, that would imply that the upper layer of Erlitou is a Shang site.
  4. The XSZ Project gives exact years for various events beginning in 1300 BC, with the earlier period described only in general terms. For comparison, note that the standard chronology for Egypt begins with the Third Dynasty in 2750 BC.
  5. "Treasure Tomb of the Warrior Queen", National Geographic, 2010.
  6. Wan, Pin P, "Investiture of the gods (Fengshen yanyi): sources, narrative structure, and mythical significance" (1987).