An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Period Government, Administration, Law

Jul 16, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The nature of the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) state is still poorly understood. The complexity of settlement patterns in and beyond Erligang 二里崗 and Anyang 安陽 indicate a high degree of functional specialization and also of territorial control. Yet the oracle bone inscriptions reveal that the Shang state in its later phase did not possess territorial integrity and relied for military action (see Shang military) on allies and subordinates. Moreover, the king frequently toured through the country to maintain the political integrity of his state (Eno 2009: 42). The Shang kings ruled through a complex and highly stratified governmental network of walled towns, with the "hunting area" serving as a bridge between the royal domain and the capital (Chang 1980: 158, 210).

The word shang 商 in oracle bone inscriptions always refers to a town, not a state or dynasty (Chang 1980: 211). Kwang-chih Chang assumes that it was located in a considerable distance from Anyang (and is perhaps buried in the silt of the Yellow River plain), and served as the fix centre of the Shang world in contrast to the mobile residences of the pre-dynastic and early dynastic age. The name Yin 殷, which comes into use in Zhou-period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) sources, is not seen in oracle bone inscriptions. In the latter, Anyang is called zi yi 茲邑 "this settlement". Yin might have been not the name of the residence, but of a larger domain or was a later reference to all the "ruined towns" (xu 虛) of the Shang (Chang 1980: 70).

The area where Shang-like remains were found (from Beijing in the north to the Yangtze River in the south) is larger than the area the Shang dynasty could have politically or militarily controlled. "Shang" could therefore be the name of a civilization as well as that of a state (Chang 1980: 271).

The Head of State

Head of the state (yuanshou 元首, a word first seen in the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書, ch. Yi Ji 益稷) was a lord (hou 后, actually the mirrored form of jun 君) or "king" (wang 王). The term di 帝 seems to have referred to tribal leaders of prehistoric China or "clan ancestors", like in the names Huang Di 黃帝 "Yellow Emperor", Di Yao 帝堯, Di Shun 帝舜, or Di Ku 帝嚳, and was also used to designate ancestors of the Xia 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) and Shang dynasties, like (Di) Jiong 帝扃 or Di Xin 帝辛. The name Di was by the Shang also given to the supreme deity (see Shang religion).

Mythology holds that in oldest times, under the rule of the Five Emperors (Wu Di 五帝), the rule over the earth (tianxia 天下, the Chinese oecumene), was handed down (shanrang 禪讓) to a non-relative person of high moral qualities, as for instance, in the case of Yao, who laid the "world" into the hands of his son-in-law Shun, who displayed more filial behaviour than Yao's own son Dan Zhu 丹朱. Yu the Great 大禹, founder of the Xia dynasty, was the first who arranged the succession of this own son Qi 啟, and so initiated the rule of dynasties. Yet there are also statements in the books Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 "Bamboo Annals", Zhoushu suoyan 汲冢瑣語 (quotation in Shitong 史通), Xunzi 荀子 (ch. Zhenglun 正論), Hanfeizi 韓非子 (ch. Shuoyi 說疑) and Shanhaijing 山海經 (ch. Hainei xijing 海內西經) speaking of a kind of usurpation of the throne by Shun on the ground of Yao's decreasing moral standards.

Quite a few myths tell of conflicts between the early rulers and their ministers, like Bo Yi 伯益 in the case of Qi during the early Xia period, Yi Yin 伊尹 in the case of King Tai Jia 太甲 (trad. r. 1753-1721 BCE), and the Duke of Zhou 周公 in the case of King Cheng 周成王 (trad. r. 1116-1079 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty. These conflicts might have been not purely struggles for power, but claims to the throne based on kinship.

The character 王 is actually the image of an axe, which served as a symbol of power (Bai 1996: 108). In later cosmology, as seen in the character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 from the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), the character was interpreted as the symbol for a linkage (丨) between the three (三) realms of Heaven, Earth, and men.

When a Shang king died, he was given a number (one of the Ten Celestial Stems shi tiangan 十天干, calendar) according to a certain numeric system in the ancestral temple (miaohao 廟號, later a word for temple name). The number referred to the day of the ten-day week, on which sacrifices were delivered to that specific ancestor (see Shang religion). The use of posthumous titles (yi 謚) describing the personal character of a late king is occasional, like Wu Ding 武丁 "Martial IV" (trad. r. 1324-1266 ), Kang Ding 康丁 "Strong IV" (trad. r. 1219-1199), or Wen Ding 文丁 "Cultured IV" (trad. r. 1194-1192). The logic behind the use of tiangan numbers is still under discussion. It seems that succession circulated within the dynasty, with the rule that succession cannot stay within the same gan unit (Chang 1980: 178).

Moreover, the usual mode of succession was that a brother was the first to claim the throne, while a late king's son had only the second right.

Thus, Tai Geng 太庚 (trad. r. 1691-1667) was succeeded by his sons Xiao Jia 小甲 (trad. r. 1666-1650), Tai Wu 太戊 (trad. r. 1637-1563), and Yong Ji 雍己 (trad. r. 1649-1638); Yong Ji was succeeded by Tai Wu's sons Zhong Ding 中丁 (trad. r. 1562-1550), Bu Ren 卜壬 (Wai Ren 外壬, trad. r. 1549-1535), and Jian Jia 戔甲 (Hedan Jia 河亶甲, trad. r. 1534-1526); Zu Yi 祖乙 (trad. r. 1525-1507), a son of Zhong Ding, was succeeded by his sons Zu Xin 祖辛 (trad. r. 1506-1491) and Qiang Jia 羌甲 (Wo Jia 沃甲, trad. r. 1490-1466); Zu Ding 祖丁 (trad. r. 1465-1434), a son of Zu Xin, was succeeded (after an interlude of reign by his cousin Nan Geng 南庚, trad. r. 1433-1409) by his sons Yang Jia 陽甲 (trad. r. 1408-1402), Pan Geng 盤庚 (trad. r. 1401-1374), Xiao Xin 小辛 (trad. r. 1373-1353), and Xiao Yi 小乙 (trad. r. 1352-1325); and Wu Ding, a son of Xiao Yi, left the throne to his sons Zu Ji 祖己 (?) and Zu Geng 祖庚 (trad. r. 1265-1259), who in turn was succeeded by his brother Zu Jia's 祖甲 (trad. r. 1258-1226) son Kang Ding 康丁 (trad. r. 1219-1199).

Chinese scholars discern three patterns of succession: In the first half of the dynasty, a son of the oldest brother was the heir to the throne – during that period, struggles for succession were commonplace; this phase was followed by the custom that a son of the youngest brother had the claim to the throne; the succession of the last five generations was that from father to son, as was commonplace until the end of the Chinese empire (Wang and Yang 1996: 219).

The lineage system of the Shang discerned between "direct lineages" (dashi 大示, i.e. dazong 大宗) and "side lineages" (xiaoshi 小示, i.e. xiaozong 小宗). The consorts of kings in direct lineages (xianbi 先妣) were delivered sacrifices. Only the sons of principal consorts had the right to succeed. Most Shang kings had more than one principal consort, yet from the reign of Kang Ding on, each ruler had just one consort (bi 妣, Bai 1996: 109, Wang and Yang 1996: 219) – and this is exactly the time when the succession of the oldest son became common. Struggles for succession emerged in the case that several of the principal consorts had produced a son. Oracle bone inscriptions show that there was a process of acknowledging a newborn son by a king. Only an acknowledged son had the right to succeed. He was perhaps designated with the "number" of his mother.

Policy Making

Political decisions were carried out by the king and his staff of consultants or counsellors. Traditional sources list six offices of ministers (liu qing 六卿) during the Xia period, namely the "millet man" (ji 稷), the "rectifier of shepherds" (muzheng 牧正), the "rectifier of coaches" (chezheng 車正), the water official (shuiguan 水官), the "headman of state officials" (qiuren 遒人), the Grand Disposer (dali 大理, a kind of Minister of Justice), and the inspector of officials (sefu 嗇夫) (Bai 1996: 189, 262-263).

A commentary of the Han-period scholar Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) on the chapter Ganshi 甘誓 of the Shangshu says that the "six ministers" were the Master of Millet (houji 后稷, see also Lord of Millet), the Minister of Education (situ 司徒), the Chamberlain for Ceremonials (zhizong 秩宗), the Commander of Cavalry (sima 司馬), the Serviceman (shi 士, responsible for the dispense of justice), and the Director of Works (gonggong 共工, see also Gong Gong). A Shang-period term for a chief counsellor has not been found in oracle inscriptions (Wang and Yang 1996: 223).

The rights of sovereignty were to appoint state officials and to make policy decisions in the form of decrees (ling 令). For this purpose, the king convoked (hu 呼) his ministers. He also supervised and controlled (jian 監, xing 省) the work of all functionaries. The supreme command over the army lay in the hands of the king. Not the least, jurisdictional rights were also in the hands of the king. Moreover, the king, particularly in the late Shang period, acted as a medium for communication with the ancestors and for inquiring the intentions of the Supreme Ancestor Shangdi. He was a theocrat or thearch (see Shang religion).

For outstanding issues, the king convoked all his subordinates, as can be seen in Pan Geng's decision to move the capital. As described in the chapter Pan Geng 盤庚 of the Shangshu, he king consulted with his ministers and tried to convince them. The ministers and officals also came together, when the king carried out sacrifices or held banquets. It was apparently possible to remonstrate against decisions of the king, as can be seen in historical sources on the last decades of the Shang period. In some extraordinary cases, the Shang king killed his ministers, as Tai Jia, who murdered Yi Yin, or Di Xin, who killed his uncle Bi Gan 比干.

Important decisions were based on oracles, at least according to a statement in Zuozhuan 左傳 (Aigong 哀公 28). The use of divination in each of the "three dynasties" (Xia, Shang, Western Zhou) is also reported in the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (ch. Biaoji 表記).

Such statements cannot be confirmed by archaeology, and might then and when be re-projections from the situation of the Zhou period back to ancient antiquity, for instance, concerning the content of "speeches" made by Xia and Shang kings to their ministers.

Information on decision making during the Shang period is gained from the many oracle bone inscriptions discovered in the last Shang capital close to Anyang, Henan. The Shang kings made inquiries about nearly all aspects of ritual, private, and political life. This is particularly true for military campaigns and might perhaps also have been the case when the transfer of the royal seat was pondered about. The Shangshu includes a chapter on such a case, when King Pan Geng tried to convince his people to move the capital to another place. What Zhou-period archivists later called "Heaven's will" (according to the cosmology of the Zhou) might have been an oracle-induced decision, interpreted as the will of Shangdi, the High God of the Shang.

Central Government

Central-government institutions of the Shang dynasty are mentioned in transmitted sources as well as in oracle bone insciptions. The territory controlled by the Shang court was called neifu 內服. The royal domain (wangji 王畿) was known by designations as Shang 商, Zhongshang 中商, Zhongtu 中土, Dayi Shang 大邑商, etc., while territories in the hand of regional rulers allied with the Shang were known as sifang 四方 "the four outreaches". The court officials were called Yin zheng bai bi 殷正百辟 or Bai liao shu yin 百僚庶尹, or duoyin 多尹 (Bai 1996: 266). The names of several chief counsellors are transmitted, like Yi Yin, Yin She 伊陟, Wu Xian 巫咸, Fu Yue 傅說, etc.

During the late Shang period, there might have been three chief counsellors, precursors of the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) of the Zhou period. The last king of Shang's advisors were [Ji] Chang 姬昌, the Viscount of the West and founder of the Zhou (i.e. King Wen of Zhou 周文王), the Marquis of Jiu 九侯, and the Marquis of E 鄂侯 (Shiji 史記, 3 Yin benji 殷本紀).

The office of zhongzai 冢宰 or zai 宰, actually "slaughterer", was originally that of supervisor of the royal household, yet the officeholders seem to have taken over some functions of the king, for instance, when King Wu Ding observed a three-year mourning and ceased to communicate orally (Bai 1996: 267). In later ages, the office of zai was the precursor of the Counsellor-in-chief.

The "many officials" (duoyin 多尹) or "three officials" (sanyin 三尹) had the duty to transmit orders of the king, supervised the fields of the royal domain and construction work, organized hunts, or arranged for the pursuit of escaped captives and slaves. The word yin denotes high functionaries as well as lower ones. Adjuncts like shu 束 or zu 族 make clear the range of duties (in this case, perhaps the supervision of unfree persons, and duties for the royal family).

The selection of functionaries was a matter of divination, but also of personal choice and family connections,y et there were some rudimentary beginnings of an impersonal form of organizatoin of the government, even if it was still organized in a flexible and unsystematic way (Keightley 1999: 286-287).

Minor functionaries were called xiaochen 小臣. They supervised the ploughing of fields (xiaojiechen 小藉臣), the work of labourers (xiao zhongren chen 小眾人臣) or that of shepherds (muzheng 牧正, niuzheng 牛正, chuzheng 芻正, yamu 亞牧), or were responsible for the royal stables (maya 馬亞). Herdsmen were called qiang 羌, swineherds shisi 豕司, dog handlers briefly quan 犬. The supervisors of construction work were called sigong 司工 (a precursor of the word sikong 司空 "Minister or Works"), the workers duogong 多工 or baigong 百工.

The supreme command over the army lay in the hands of the king, and he commanded expeditions in person. Scholars agree that there was no division between the civilian and the military realm, so also Queen Fu Hao 婦好 is mentioned as a military commander in contemporary sources (Wang and Yang 1996: 208, 230). The royal army consisted of three regiments (shi 師). The commanders of these regiments (shizhang 師長) had the same status as regional lords. An often-used term for high commanders is the word ya 亞, and shu 戍 is a somewhat less prestigious title of military officers. Archers (she 射) had a high status and are often mentioned in inscriptions. There were also cavalry commanders (maya 馬亞), cavalry officers (duoma 多馬), commanders (shi 史), defence commanders (shu 戍), and guard commanders (wei 衛).

The more personal affairs of the king were arranged by so-called eastern and western commanders (dongshi 東史, xishi 西史, in transmitted sources called liushi 六事 [六史], the "six handlers"). The office of coachman (yu 衘) was one of the most important for the daily movements of the king.

Apart from that, there were also persons entrusted with religious matters, namely diviners (duobu 多卜) supervised by chief divincer (guanzhan 官占), record keepers (taishi ling 太史令), astronomers (xi 羲, he 和, see also Xi and He), astrologers (shi 史), mediums or shamans (wu 巫), dancers (wu 舞), and music directors (gu 瞽). King Wu Ding employed as much as 70 persons entrusted with divination (duobu 多卜) (Wang and Yang 1996: 232).

A few more titles of persons serving in the inner palace, the private chambers of the king, are mentioned in historiographical sources as well as in inscriptions. Such are the "bedchamber man" (qin 寢), who was responsible for the apartments of consorts, and servants or slaves (chen 臣). The latter sometimes held high positions in the royal household, but might in other occasions be victims sacrificed to an ancestral person. Scribes (zuoce 作冊) held an important position.

Commoners were in oracle bone inscriptions called duosheng 多生, corresponding to the later baixing 百姓 "many families".

The land inside the royal domain was distributed in sizes of tian 田 "fields" and yi 邑 "settlements", the latter being an assemblage of several tian. A typical duty of the central government was to care for the clearing of land to create new arable fields.

The land outside (wai 外, waifu 外服) the royal domain was in the hands of regional lords. It was called tu 土 "soil" and was of interest to the Shang kings because part of the harvest might have been delivered to the court.

Regional Rule

The outer dependencies of the Shang, the local lords, were called duobo 多伯, duotian 多田 or duohou 多侯 (the word duo 多 being a precursor of the later "plural" word zhu 諸). The Shang kings divined about the harvest in their own domain, but the outer regions (fang 方) were not under their control.

Oracle bone inscriptions mention 342 polities outside of Anyang, 38 of which reigned by "marquesses" (hou 侯), 40 by "viscounts" (bo 伯), 127 by "earls" (zi 子), and 86 by "ladies" (fu 婦) (Zhou 2000: 469-470).

The word bo 伯 or fangbo 方伯, usually translated as "earl", seems to have been used for local administrators from the beginning. It denoted a local lord who was by the Xia/Shang rulers accepted in all his rights, but ruled "on behalf of the Xia/Shang". For this reason, the local lords regularly renewed their oath of allegiance to the Xia/Shang, delivered tribute, participated in the king's military campaigns, and from time to time took over functions in the central government (Bai 1996: 355-356).

The designations of local lords found in oracle bone inscriptions are hou 侯, bo 伯, zi 子, nan 男 and ren 任, while the chapter Jiugao 酒誥 of the Shangshu mentions the titles (or ranks?) hou, dian 甸 (i.e. tian 田), nan, wei 衛, and bangbo 邦伯 (i.e. fangbo, Wang and Yang 1996: 235-236). The words tian, dian and nan (田 "field" plus 力 "plough/force") show that each of these lords was allowed to control a certain number of arable fields. Royal consorts were also endowed with fields (feng di 封地, feng tian 封田, feng jian 封建) to live off, as were princes (thus the titles zi 子 "son" and bo 伯 "uncle"), and high dignitaries.

Non-relatives to the royal house were usually called fang 方, yet there were cases that the Shang accepted these local lords as allies, and bestowed on them titles suggesting closer relationship, as bo or hou (Wang and Yang 1996: 237).

The local lords took over border defence, the punishment of disobedient lords, delivery of tributes (tortoise shells, slaves, ivory, cowry shells), and general service to the kings of Shang. This system of alliance is still very imperfectly understood, as it is not possible to project the Zhou-period system back to the Shang – all the more, as the system of regional rule during the Zhou period itself is still under discussion.

What can be known is that the political power of the Shang had an influence on the loyalty of the local lords. In times of internal struggles like in the early Anyang period, many lords refused to deliver tributes, or even forced the Shang to look for another living space. Rulers like Pan Geng or Wu Ding were able to stabilize the rule of the Shang and to force many local lords to deliver tributes and to serve the political projects of the Shang.

Beyond the network of alliances, the world of the Shang period found included territories (duofang 多方), like Gongfang 𢀛方, Tufang 土方, Qiangfang 羌方, Zhoufang, Zhaofang, Youfang, Renfang 人方 or Yufang. No ethnical or linguistic separation can be established between them, and there might have been cultural differences.

Intermarriage between the royal house of Shang and the many local lords did not follow political borders. These borders were fluent, and Shang won and lost in the course of time. Wars against local lords were often enough waged not just for punishment, but also for economic gains, like the access to copper deposits or salt wells (Chang 1980: 258).

Legal System

Resistance against the rule of the Shang was a reason to impose a system of punishment. The Zuozhuan (Zhaogong 昭公 6 and 14) speaks of a penal code of Yu the Great (Yu xing 禹刑) or of his minister Gao Yao 皋陶 which included no less than 3,000 articles. Apart from rebellion, the three offenses of inconvincible evilness (hun 昏), corruption (mo 墨), and robbery (zei 賊) were capital crimes. There was the possibility to be freed from punishment by paying a substitution fee (quoted in a version of Shiben 世本, see shuzui 贖罪), and jails (huantu 圜土, mentioned in new-version Zhushu jinian, and yu 圉 mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions).

The Zuozhuan (Zhaogong 6) mentions the penal code of the Xia, that of Tang the Perfect (Tang xing 湯刑, Tang fa 湯法) with a length of 300 articles, and that of the Zhou which was called Jiu xing 九刑 "Nine [types of] punishment" - together the three codes (sanbi 三辟).

The Shang dynasty knew three types of punishment, namely the death penalty (sixing 死刑), corporal punishment (rouxing 肉刑), and penal servitude (tuxing 徒刑).

The death penalty included clan liability (zuzhu 族誅) and beheading (dapi 大劈), but also cruel penalties as being processed to pickles (hai 醢, variants dou {豆+殳}, dou 剅, duo 剁), or cutting out the heart (pou 剖). In oracle bone inscriptions, war captives were treated by dismembering them (written like 卯). The character {它+殳} (variants shi 𢻫, shi 施, chi 胣, and others) perhaps refers to cutting in slices (Wang and Yang 1996: 261-262). The Shiji story of having delinquents walk over a burning pillar (paoluo 炮烙; 3 Yin benji) might reflect the custom of burning (jiao 烄, fen 焚) living persons during certain sacrifices. The custom to bury person alive (mai 埋) was also part of certain sacrifices (see Shang religion).

The corporal punishment were the precursors of the five punishments (wuxing 五刑) in antiquity, and encompassed removing a foot or a knee-cap (yue 刖, applied to recaptured fugitives), castration (gong 宮, zhuo 椓), cutting off the nose (yi 劓), cutting off a hand (only mentioned in Hanfeizi), and tattooing (mo 墨). Incarceration is mentioned in many instances in oracle bone inscriptions.

Penal servitude was according to transmitted sources (Shiji, 3 Yin benji, Mozi 墨子, ch. Shangxian 尚賢 B, Mengzi 孟子, ch. Gaozi 告子 B) even applied to high dignitaries as counsellor Fu Yue. The jail was also reserved to check high dignitaries, like the Viscount of the West, who was kept in custody in Youli 羑里. The oracle-bone character for "jail" includes an enclosure and a kind of tool serving to keep the prisoner's feet or arms, perhaps an early form of the cangue. Inscriptions mentioned quite a range of jails where slaves were kept.

Criminal charges mentioned in ancient written sources are disobedience towards high officials of the king, disobedience to a military commander, nonappearance during a meeting of the kings with local lords, negligence of official duties, negligence of duties related to the seasons, disobedience towards the king's speeches, irreverence towards the king, inciting disobedience in the masses, and revolt or rebellion. The book Shangshu 商書 (quotation in Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, ch. Xiaoxing 孝行) adds that there was no greater crime than being not filial (zui, mo zhong yu bu xiao 罪莫重於不孝).

Kwang-chih Chang (1980: 200) lays out four attributes in legal decisions, namely authority, intention of universal application, obligation, and sanction. Litigation between two parties was apparently possible, with a judge (the king) presiding over it. Amnesty by the king was possible.

As the power of ancestors played a crucial role in Shang policy, verdicts were often the result of the interpretation of divination. The same is true for punitive military campaigns.

There seems to have been a kind of military law in the Shang armies (Wang and Yang 1996: 266).

Even if the Shangshu (ch. Duoshi 多士) says that the Shang made use of archives (ce 冊) and statutes (dian 典), no written sources apart from the oracle bone and bronze vessels inscriptions have been discovered so far. Such archival documents are mentioned in oracle inscriptions (Keightley 1999: 287).

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