Shang Period Economy ( -
An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Period Economy

Feb 9, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Marxist historians, looking for the pre-defined age of slave society (nuli shehui 奴隸社會) in China that must have preceded the age of feudal society (fengjian shehui 封建社會), found this society in the Shang period. Slaves did indeed constitute an integral part of the Shang economy - likewise in later ages like the Zhou 周 and Han 漢 period. Yet slaves in China were in most cases state-owned and worked for the state, while in ancient Rome and the Western mediaeval world, slaves were in a high degree privately owned. It is interesting to see that the term "slave" (nu 奴) does not occur in oracle texts.

The most important part of traditional China's economy was the agricultural sector. The kings of Yin as shamans and diviners did not only carry out divinations about the harvest of their own domain, but also about that of the greater area that was politically controlled by Shang. The most important crop of this period was millet in various kinds (shu 黍, su 粟, he 禾). Opening up new fields and organising the harvest and tax collection was the task of various government officers. Labour conscripts (zhongren 眾人) stood in the service of the kings and were employed for different task like field opening, military service, buildings palaces and temples or digging out tombs for deceased nobles.

Apart from fiels, the kings of Yin also owned and managed royal herds. A specialized but also ritualized activity of the nobility was hunting (tian 畋) in autumn. From oracle bone incriptions we know that the harvest was stored in royal granaries. Archeology has provided us with examples of ploughs and other agricultural tools with wooden shafts and bronze blades. Silk production was also well-known by the Shang people.

The royal workshops were staffed with labourers that cast bronze vessels or other bronze tools like musical instruments (drums gu 鼓, many kinds of bells: nao 鐃, zheng 鉦, ling 鈴) and weapons (dagger ge 戈, spear mao 矛, including ritual tools like axes yue 鉞), carved ritual jades and prepared turle shells for divination.

Surprisingly enough, the labour conscripts did not engage in waterwork. The digging or irrigation canals or the erection of dams seemed not to be within the crucial tasks of the kings of Yin, like it became later one of the most important charges of the Chinese rulers.

Archaeological sites of the Shang period often include workshops - often outside the city - with furnaces, models, molds and rawlings preserved. In two locations, even iron tools have been discovered. Admiring the impressive bronze vessels, we often forget pottery or ceramics that were also an important part of the Shang handicrafts industry. Some ceramic vessels with white or grey colour are incised with patterns that are identical with the decorations seen on the bronze vessels. Single pots are covered with a thin glaze - the earliest examples of glazed pottery in China.

Jade objects show a great variety of shapes and patterns, nephrite pieces in the shape of animals are very common in Shang finds, besides the traditional shapes of tubes (cong 琮), rings (bi 璧, half ring: huang 璜) and tablets (gui 圭, zhang 璋) inherited from the Neolithic age.

Lacquerware is determined to decay easily, and there are only single surviving fragments being discovered in Shang tombs.

Shang buildings and palaces as discovered in Anyang and Erligang were already huge buildings that were entirely made of perishable materials. The basement was pounded earth (hangtu 夯土), and the main pillars were protected from rotting by a stone base. Royal tombs as constructed in the last period of Shang were huge complexes with a deep shaft and longs ramps leading down into the burial chamber. The construction of the tombs alone must have required huge manpower.

Although the area politically controlled by the kings of Yin or Erligang covered only a small part of modern China, communication and traffic with other regions was of important means. Tributes from states far away were transported to the political centers. Metal ores for the production of bronze tools and vessels had to be shipped from the southern mines in modern Hunan and Jiangxi. A widespread currency of early China was the cowry shell (bei 貝) that was either used as natural material or as artificial shell made of jade, bone or metal. Carriages and ships likely served as means of transport.