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Chinese History - Shang Period Event History

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For a very long time the historical accounts about the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) as found in historiographical accounts as the Shiji 史記 or the Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 "Bamboo Annals" have been thought to be pure inventions.
Only the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions in the region of southern Hebei province in the very late 19th century made clear that the purported rulers of the Shang dynasty had really existed. The inscriptions on oxen scapulae or turtle plastrons (jiagu 甲骨) record processes and results of royal divinations made by the Shang kings and their highest shamans (wu 巫). The inscriptions were stored in the royal archives of the Shang dynasty' palace and were discovered at the turn of the century around 1900. The oracle bone inscriptions are not only witnesses of Shang belief and religion but also of their system of ancestor veneration and their political activities and military campaigns. The political center of the high and late Shang period was the city (guo 國) of Yin 殷 whose ruins ("Yinxu" 殷墟) were discovered at Xiaotun 小屯 (near Anyang 安陽, Hebei). This capital was the Shang residence since the reign of King Pan Geng 盤庚. The Shang at that time dominated smaller cities and states in the middle and lower Yellow River plain (the Central Plain). From there the power of the Shang kings stretched to the Shandong Peninsula in the east and and Wei River 渭水 valley in Shaanxi the west. Enemies of the Shang state were called fang 方 "regions", like the Tufang 土方 that roamed the northern region of Shanxi, the Guifang 鬼方 and Gongfang {工/口}方 in the northwest, the Qiangfang 羌方 and Quanrong 犬戎 in the west, and the Yifang 夷方 and Renfang 人方 in the southeast. Although the culture of the Shang kingdom differed from the cultures in the semitropical area of the Yangtze River valley and Sichuan (see Sanxingdui culture 三星堆), and also from the steppe cultures in the north economic activities and the exchange of goods led to the spread of common features of all cultures of Shang period China. Such can be seen in the custom to cast ritual bronze vessels. Yin as a political dominant center obtained tributes (gong 貢) from the "many states" (bangguo 邦國) of the Yellow River plain. The Shang kingdom was thus not a sovereign dynasty that dominated over a large part of ancient China but rather one strong state among hundreds of small city states (wanguo 萬國 "ten thousand states") with earls (bo 伯) as their leaders. Especially under King Wu Ding 武丁 the Shang demonstrated their military superiority over their neighbours and even over states that were a thousand miles away from the royal residence of the Shang. Apart from tributes, the Shang kings required from their vassals taxes in grain and military assistance during warfare.

Traditional accounts

Jiandi 簡狄, the mother of the Shang's first ancestor Xie 契 (daughter of a noble called You Song 娀 and second wife of Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳), is said to have conceived when she ate a black egg that had dropped from the sky. Xie is also thought to have been a descendant of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. The black bird seemed to have been a kind of heraldic symbol or totem animal of the Shang people.
According to traditional historical sources, the Shang dynasty was founded by Tang the Perfect (Cheng Tang) 成湯 who defeated the depraved king Jie 桀, king of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th - 15th cent. BCE). The defeated king Jie was banished to Nanchao 南巢 in the Yangtze River region. Before this event, the Shang chieftains are said to have changed their capital eight times, and after the foundation of the dynasty five times. Scholars suppose that the Shang people was either a nomadic people that retained the custom of temporarily changing residence, or that the Shang people was forced to move their dwelling places by the influence of inundations or droughts. It might also be that the Shang had to remove because stronger neighbors forced them to leave their seats. The second ruler of the Shang, king Wai Bing 外丙 appointed Yi Yin 伊尹 to the office of chief minister (qingshi 卿士, zhongzai 冢宰). Yi Yin served three subsequent kings but finally tried to depose King Tai Jia 太甲 and to usurp the throne. Seven years later the king was able to kill Yi Yin but he allowed taht the usurper's sons Yi She 伊陟 and Yi Fen 伊奮 inherited their father's fief. Other accounts tell that King Tai Jia "forgot the [virtuous] way of Tang the Perfect" and was therefore imprisoned by Yi Yin in the Tong Palace 桐宮. Yi Yin thus acted as Prince Regent for the depraved king. King Tai Jia later repented his faults and was welcomed back to the court. The king's posthumous title was Taizong 太宗. Yi She was also the first minister who initiated relationships with the western nomad tribes (Xirong 西戎) and the "nine" southeastern barbarians (Jiuyi 九夷). Yi Yin's successor as chief minister was Qi Dan 咎單. King Yong Ji 雍己 was the first of the Shang rulers who showed signs of decadence. Yi Yin's son Yi She as chief minister of King Tai Wu 太戊 (posthumous title Zhongzong 中宗) was able to conserve the power of the Shang kings over their neighbours, a success that was by the traditional historians expressed as "the feudal lords turned towards Shang" (zhuhou gui zhi 諸侯歸之). His successor in office was Wu Xian 巫咸 (also written 巫賢). Under King Hedan Jia 河亶甲 the Shang kingdom again lost its prevalent position among the many states.
King Pan Geng is said to have moved several times the residence of Shang but finally decided to move the capital to Yin. His long rule is again seen as an age of strength and prevalence for the Shang rulers. King Wu Ding's chief minister was Fu Yue 傅說. The king once dreamt of Yue as an excellent advisor, had sought for him and found him as a hermit in the wildnerness. With Fu Yue's help, the king's army defeated the nomad warriors of the Guifang in modern northern Shaanxi. The western tribes of the Di 氐 and Qiang 羌 declared their vassalship to the Shang. King Wu Ding is seen as an extremely virtuous ruler who was venerated posthumously as Gaozong 高宗 "High Ancestor". Wu Ding is also the first Shang king who is historically documented. King Wu Yi 武乙 enfeoffed Dan Fu, Duke of Gu, 古公亶父, ancestor of the house of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), with the fief of Qi 岐 in the Wei River valley. The counts of Zhou were militarily very active and fought against the western nomad warrior tribes. But their rulers regularly visited the royal court of Shang. Ji Li 季歷, count of Zhou, obviously became a political threat for the Shang and was killed by King Wen Ding 文丁. Shortly later, like the historical sources report, phoenixes assembled in Qi, the capital of Zhou, an occurrence that was interpreted as an omen that clearly signified the Heavenly blessing of the Zhou rulers.
King Di Xin 帝辛 (better known as King Zhou 紂) was the last ruler of the Shang. It is said that he was depraved and licentious, enticed by his consort Da Ji 妲己, daughter of the noble Yousu 有蘇, and in later novels (Fengshen yanyi 封神演義) believed to be a fox spirit. King Zhou imprisoned the Viscount or Earl of the West (Xibo 西伯), chieftain of the Zhou people, and only relieved him six years later (compare the case of Ji Li some decades before). Ji Chang 姬昌 (later King Wen of Zhou 周文王, i.e. the Earl of the West), founder-father of the Zhou Dynasty, assembled other counts and marquesses with him and won over Lü Shang 呂尚 (known as Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 or Qi Taigong 齊太公) as his highest general. The armies of Zhou crossed the ford at Mengjin 孟津 and began attacking King Zhou of Shang. This happened as a final decision to destroy the Shang after King Zhou had incarcerated his uncle, Prince Jizi 箕子, killed his uncle Bi Gan 比干, and driven away his half-brother Prince Weizi 微子 had escaped. At the battle of Muye the Zhou armies defeated the last of the Shang. King Zhou of Shang burned himself on his "Dear Terrace" Lutai 鹿臺. The rulers of the Zhou had taken over the control over the Central Plain. Prince Weizi was enfeoffed as ruler of the fiefdom of Song 宋. The Shang prince Wu Geng 武庚 (posthumous title Lu Fu Yin 祿父殷) rebelled against the new king, Ji Fa 姬發, King Wu of Zhou 周武王.
In their self-interpretation, the chieftains of the Zhou received the Heavenly mandate (tianming 天命) and thereby the duty replace the Shang king as the "Son of Heaven" (tianzi 天子). King Zhou of Shang instead was seen as a brutal tyrant who killed his relatives, murdered his loyal ministers by cruel punishments (like the "roasting pillar", baoge zhi fa 炮格之法) and followed the licentious wishes of his intrigant concubine Da Ji. Thus the Shang dynasty is defined by Chinese historians as one ruling house that naturally experienced a cycle of dynastic succession: The first ruler, Tang the Perfect, was a humankind and virtuous ruler. This "royal way" (wangdao 王道) declined and was finally lost by the last ruler who had therefore to be replaced by a new dynasty. This cycle was even projected back to the earlier Xia dynasty. Together with the Zhou dynasty, the Xia and Shang constitue the so-called Three Ages (sandai 三代).
Although the oracle bone inscriptions proved that traditional Chinese historians had a certain knowledge of the Shang dynasty and the order of the dynastic succession of their kings, they did not report much about the political events that took place during the several hundred years of the Shang rule. Such details and information about Shang society, economy, culture and religion can only be reconstructed from archeological discoverings.

Archeological discoveries and evidence

Two important archeological sources are the oracle bone inscriptions and the inscriptions on hundreds of ritual bronze vessels that were discovered throughout China. Such literary witnesses can only serve to reconstruct the last third of the Shang period, when the Chinese script came into use. The technology of bronze casting required labour division within the society of the Shang kingdom. Such a social stratification, the organisation of workshops for bronze casting, jade carving, scapulimantic activities (divination with bones) and other technical crafts required by the state make it evident that the partially fortified cities discovered in the Yellow River plain and beyond were inhabited by peoples with a sophisticated culture and with a social stratification, consisting of a kind of nobility, and "working people": for Marxist historians this is a clear proof for the existance of a slave-holder society (nubi shehui 奴婢社會).
Archeological discoveries make clear that about 1500 BCE a major state had taken shape in the Yellow River Plain and probably ruled over large territories occupied by smaller and weaker states (guo) and communities. The power of this state shrank about 1300 BCE, and the Yellow River plain became a network of various interacting states that culturally had about the same level. Only the dynasty ruling the city that later was called Yin (the name of Yin is not mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions) made use of a script, and was therefore the only state about which historiographical information has survived.

Erlitou Culture:
Although the oldest discoveries of casted ritual bronze vessels were unearthed in the province of Gansu from cultures called Qijia 齊家 and Huoshaogou 火燒溝 cultures, the Erlitou Culture 二里頭 (1900-1350 BCE; Erlitou is a modern place name) near Luoyang 洛陽, Henan, was the first that had introduced industrial casting of bronze vessels, a craft that was not evidently imported from the west. In the Near East, where the bronze age began about the same time as in East Asia, metalwork was made by hammering, while in China the abundancy of metal ores and of cheap labour force made it possible to rely extensively on casting techniques. There are not much traces left of the palaces and the burial sites of the ruling class of Erlitou. The findings within the Erlitou tombs like jades, turquoise and cowry shells give evidence of a widespread trade system that enabled the ruling class of the Erlitou people to acquire such objects. Pounding earth (hangtu 夯土) for the buildings and tombs, and casting the bronze vessels required a sophisticated labour organization and a social stratification.
The oldest bronze vessels were simple transformations of traditional pottery shapes (like ding 鼎, jue 爵) into a new material, but later vessel types show that artisans invented new forms and shapes especially convening with the new material of bronze (qingtong 青銅). The Erlitou culture shows the transgression from the neolithic age to the bronze age. In tombs archeologists have discovered clay and bronze vessels, jade and bronze daggers (ge 戈), lacquered wooden coffins, animal bones for divination, and traces of human sacrifices (renxun 人殉). Although the Erlitou city itself did not have a city wall, there were pounded earth walls found in contemporary sites like Chengziyai 城子崖 (near Jinan 濟南, Shandong). The palace compound of Erlitou with the main hall in the north is very similar to neolithic findings, and likewise the deep tomb shafts with a shelf around the shaft base (a construction called ercengtai 二層臺 "two-layer terrace") is the continuation of a traditional neolithic pattern. Beneath the coffin was a sacrificial pit (yaokeng 腰坑) filled with funeral offering articles. The bronze vessels in the tombs probably contained food and wine for the posthumous life of the buried lord. The jades discovered in Erlitou tombs likewise imitate the shapes of the traditional neolithic daggers, tubes (cong 琮) and disks (bi 璧). The Erlitou culture was very widespread and it is therefore difficult to describe the political status of the Erlitou community in prehistorical China. Items found in the tombs that are not available in the Central Plain must have been bought or traded from outside. Recently historians begin to identify the Erlitou Culture with the Xia dynasty, but unless there is written evidence, such assumptions are not more than speculation.

Erligang Culture:
In the fifteenth century BCE the Erligang Culture 二里岡 (Erligang is a modern place name) near Zhengzhou 鄭州, Henan, became an outstanding culture that demonstrated its superiority over neighbouring cultures and its political power by state ceremonies during which ritual bronze vessels played an important role. The wide geographical distribution of the findings of bronze vessels shows at least a cultural spread, technological dissemination and probably also political influence on neighbouring statelets. The rapid expansion of the Erligang state spread technical and political knowledge to other communities in the Yangtze region. But these communities soon developed their own artistical styles and adapted bronze casting technologies to their own cultural needs (casting of bells and drums) and tastes. The Erligang period is restricted to two centuries (15th-13th cent. BCE) of rapid expansion and a sudden decline of political influence over teh center and south of prehistoric China. The site at Erligang is assumed to be identical with the Shang capital city of Ao 隞 mentioned in the traditional accounts.
Unfortunately a great part of the Erligang site is buried under a modern city and can not systematically been excavated. At least it is known that the city of the Erligang Culture was protected by a wall made from stamped earth and a large trench. Pillars of Erligang buildings and palaces were standing on stone bases to prevent them from rotting. Archeologists have excavated a number of workshops for tools, weapons and bronze vessels. Those were all located outside the city wall. Only a few modest tombs could be excavated, all with very few bronze vessels, jade objects and human sacrifices at tomb offerings, the richest being a grave at Baijiazhuang 白家莊. All these tombs stand in sharp contrast to the richly furnished large royal tombs of the Anyang site. Although rich archeological findings are missing it is for sure that a large town like the settlement of Erligang was an important cultural and political center from about 1500 to 1300 BCW. For the 15th century the Erligang Culture spread to various places in ancient China. But from the 14th century on these places all develop their native cultures with own styles and customs.

Other cultural centers:
Other places that are connected to the Erligang Culture like Panlongcheng 盤龍城, Hubei, hundreds of kilometers south of Erliang, show how widespread the culture and power of Erligang was. Panlongcheng must have been something like a fortified colony to assure the transport of ores to the political center at Erligang, where the ores were used to cast ritual bronze vessels and objects. Findings of bronze vessels and burial customs in Palongcheng are nearly identical to the findings in the north. Furthermore, the tombs at Panlongcheng and Lijiazui 李家嘴 are filled with much more funeral offerings than in the "mother city" of Erligang. Bronzes were cast locally outside the city walls in the workshops of craftsmen that probably came from the north. The spread of Erligang bronzes in such a distant area makes it plausible that the rulers of Erligang conquered quite a large territory or at least made the local rulers subservient.
Even more to the south, at Xin'gan 新干 (or 新淦), Jiangxi, the traces of the Wucheng Culture 吳城 can be found, whose relicts are in style partially identical to the northern relicts but on the other hand show clear evidence of a local genuine style in vessel types as well as in decoration. The rulers of the Yangtze valley thus can not have been simple fiefholders of the northern rulers. In Wucheng archeologists even discovered pots made from a primitive kind of porcelain. Some of these sherds were even inscribed with signs that are interpreted as forerunners of Chinese characters. A tomb discovered at Xin'gan is the second richest of the early bronze age, and is only surpassed by the tomb of Fu Hao 婦好, consort of King Wu Ding, in Anyang. The bronzes of Xin'gan are characterized by a richer decoration with new types of patterns that are not used in Erligang bronzes. Furthermore, this southern tomb was furnished with much more pottery than in northern tombs, and the bronze vessels types of ding 鼎 and li 鬲 are prevalent. Among the tomb furnishings there were also types of bells (of the nao 鐃 and bo 鎛 types) that were unkown in the north.
Findings in Anhui and some sites in Shaanxi from the end of the Erligang period are witnesses of a diversification in styles and types, and thus of the multi-centered character of this historical period. After the end of an expansive period (that of the Erligang Culture), and before the beginning of the Anyang Culture (late Shang), there was a phase that is by archeologists called a transition period. Although there existed various cultural centres, all these city states had intensive contacts with each other, as the findings in tombs show. The Huai River 淮水 region was inhabited by peoples, whose traces can be seen in the bronze vessels unearthed in Funan 阜南 and Feixi 肥西, Anhui. Near modern Beijing tombs were unearthed at Pinggu 平谷 and Taixicun 臺西村. They show no great diversity in the shape and decoration of bronze vessels, but pottery with features that were distinctive from the Central Plain. In southern Shaanxi, at Chenggu 城固, vessels of an extremely high quality have been unearthed. Some bronze vessel and weapon types might derive from Xin'gan types in the south.

Anyang Culture:
Around 1200 BCE begins the historical period of Anyang 安陽 (by older archeologists called Yinxu 殷墟, "Wastes of Yin"), the actual site of the Shang ruling house. The first ruler whose name appears in the oracle bone inscriptions is Wu Ding (Wuding) 武丁. He ruled over a large unwalled city and was buried with great pomp. Unfortunately his tomb was looted, but the burial site of his consort Fu Hao (Fuhao) 婦好 was unearthed wholly intact. The two tombs - like all the tombs who are sited in a wide graveyard-like area around Wuguancun 武官村, Xibeigang 西北岡 and Houjiazhuang 侯家莊 - contained not only a multitude of burial offerings like bronze vessels, jade and chariots (that must have been imported from the steppe peoples) but also dozens of in some cases beheaded sacrificial human victims (renxun 人殉) and sacrified animals like horses and dogs. The bloody burial rites of the Shang interestingly left no trace in the memory of the historiography of the succeeding Zhou dynasty. In the Zhou moralist's eyes, the last depraved rulers of the Shang have been lustful, not bloody. Reason for this might be that in the early Zhou phase, human sacrifices were also part of Zhou burial rites, but those were abandoned later, and humans were replaced by wooden or pottery figurines.
From the oracle bone inscriptions we can observe that in the last few decades of the Yin period the Shang state enjoyed a quite peaceful time. While during the reign of King Wu Ding (Wuding) there were many military campaigns against the Tufang and Gongfang, the kings of Yin might have lost their influence on communities in modern Shanxi and Shaanxi. Interference into the politics of the peoples and states living in this area was beyond the Yin king's sphere. Surprisingly, the last kings of Yin do not rely on friendly lords as their allies in wartime. One former ally, Zhou 周, had become an enemy and suddenly took over the control of the Central Plain in the mid of the 11th century BC.
Although the area where ritual bronze vessels were casted during the Anyang period is much larger than before, the types and decorations of the various regions show a great diversity. The vessels of the Yangtze region are the first to show real animal shape of elephants or rhinoceroses (no more fabulous stylized "dragons" or taotie 饕餮 masks of voracious monsters), a pattern adopted later by the Zhou artisans. Nao bells from Ningxiang 寧鄉/Hunan are extremely huge compared with the Anyang bells of Fu Hao's tomb. Unknown to the north are also the large bronze drums like that of Chongyang/Hubei.

Even more outstanding are the findings from Sichuan (Sanxingdui 三星堆) that enclose richer burying offerings like gold and elephant tusks. The shape of the bronzes, especially anthropomorph tools or masks, are without counterpart in the other parts of China and are thus of a distinctively native character. The Sanxingdui bronzes show no contact with the Anyang or Erligang types, and there was obviously no continuation of the typical Sanxingdui motifs after the begin of the Zhou period. In Sanxingdui tombs there are also no human sacrifices like in the north. Obviously there was only little relationship with the Anyang culture but intensive contact to the Middle Yangtze valley.
In Shandong in Sufutun 蘇埠屯 the largest tomb outside of Anyang was discovered, abundantly supplied with human sacrifices. Sufutun had close relationships with Anyang or was even a kind of colony.
The Wei River 渭水 valley, the region of the Zhou conquestors, shows no sophisticated culture but instead seems to be an eager recipient of Erligang, Anyang, southern and northern-siberian cultures. Although archeologists tried to find a trace of a proto-Zhou culture this task seems not to be solvable because of the abundancy of archeological relics of different cultures. The Zhou people thus might have been a mixture of different cultural cradles, including nomad warriors from the west. Like the state of Qin 秦 later, the Zhou rulers might have obtained an excellent training in military techniques by the permanent challenge of nomad raiders within their territory.
In China's north that was inhabited by nomad peoples, casting of ritual bronze vessels was not as important as that of weapons and other tools for daily use. There seems to be no deep influence of Erligang bronze casting techniques, and some historians assume the arrival of new peoples at the end of the Erligang period that made use of gold rather than bronze. Around 1200 the chariot comes in use in the Anyang region - clearly an influence by such new nomad immigrants. Vice versa, these nomad peoples accepted some bronze tool types from the Anyang culture, like mirrors, daggers, axes or some types of vessels. But the northern types of daggers and battle axes also occur in Anyang tombs. The mixture of archeological findings in the north and in Shanxi proves that this region was inhabited by peoples of different societies, cultures and economies that lived side-by-side and as neighbors.
The archeological discoveries make evident that pre-Zhou China was not ruled by a single state or a Shang Dynasty as supposed by the traditional historiographic sources. Early bronze age China instead was inhabited by numerous communities with different cultural traditions of whom several proved to be politically superior and were able to dominate a larger territory for a certain time, like the Erligang Culture and the Anyang Culture. When the Zhou conquered ancient China from the west, they inherited parts of the political and cultural institutions of the Shang rulers in Yin, like calendar, script, and the religion of ancestor veneration. It was the Zhou historiography and tradition that blinded out all other cultures of the late 2nd millenium BC and purported a single universal dynasty, the Shang, that ruled over the Central Plain and whose kingdom was inherited by the Zhou kings. But in fact, cultural diversity was a phenomenon that not only dominated the landscape of early bronze age China but also the subsequent long period of the Zhou Dynasty.


2000 ff. © Ulrich Theobald · Mail

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