Shang Dynasty of Ancient China

The Cultural Significance of the Shang Dynasty of Ancient China

Shang dynasty, also known as Yin Shang, was the first recorded dynasty in China. The Shang civilization was very advanced and much ahead of time.
History of China is divided into two major parts: ancient China and Imperial China. The Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (in that order) belong to the ancient China. Xia dynasty was the first prehistoric dynasty in China, but, the written history of China begins from the Shang dynasty. The capital of this dynasty was changed several times. As Yin was the last capital, it is also known as the Yin dynasty.

The Rise and Fall of Shang Dynasty

Overview
The Shang or Yin dynasty was founded by a rebel, Tang (TaiYi) Shang, who overthrew the last Xia ruler, Jie. The exact dates of the Shang era are not available. According to some historians, it lasted from 1766 BC to 1046 BC. Whereas, some historians opine that 1562 BC-1066 BC was the Shang era. It lasted for nearly 600 years and was ruled by 31 kings, beginning with Tang (TaiYi) and ending with King Zhou. Most of the northern China was under Shang rule. The rulers constantly fought with their neighboring states. The later half of the Shang era, after the dynasty shifted the capital to Yin, is considered as the golden era.

Rise
The Shang dynasty was born when Tang, a tribal chief, overthrew the despotic Xia ruler, Jie. As a ruler, Tang was noble and benevolent. Also known as the Sage king, Tang ruled for nearly 30 years. Anyang was the capital of his empire. He was succeeded by his grandson, Tai Ding. King Tai Wu was the longest reigning monarch of the dynasty, having reigned for 75 years. Pan Geng was the 20th king of the Shang dynasty. He moved the capital of this empire to Yin. Thereafter, this dynasty came to be also known as Yin dynasty.

The dates and information about the dynasties of ancient China was put forward by the historians working on The Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project. According to the project, accurate date of accession of the rulers of the Shang dynasty was found using oracle bone records. Precise records are found only from King Wu Ding onwards. According to the project, following is the chronology of the rulers from known records:
  • Wu Ding
  • Zu Geng
  • Zu Jia
  • Lin Xin
  • Kang Ding
  • Wu Yi
  • Wen Ding
  • Di Yi
  • Di Xin
Decline
After the 24th Shang ruler onwards, the dynasty began to decline gradually. There were constant internal conflicts between the royalty and noblemen. However, the kings did not undertake any measures, and the conflict continued till the reign of the last ruler, King Zhou. He is known as one of the cruelest kings in the history of China. He was a tyrant, corrupt, and autocratic ruler. He ignored the state affairs and also oppressed his subjects. People had lost faith in the rulers and wanted to overthrow them. The Zhou people occupied a province called Gansu. Their growing power led to tension among the Shang and Zhou. Finally, they revolted against the ruler. The Battle of Muye was fought between the Zhou and Shang dynasties. Shang rulers were defeated and King Zhou of Shang committed suicide.

The Shang Civilization

The Shang civilization was based on agriculture, hunting, and raising animals. Bronze was used extensively. In fact, bronze-making was a symbolic feature of the Shang era. It represented power and class. It was used only by the higher classes and usually for religious practices. Therefore, Shang dynasty is also known as the Bronze dynasty. Bronze was used to make vessels, wares, and weapons. Along with bronze, people also used jade and porcelain objects.

Religion, religious practices, and rituals held a prominent place in the Shang civilization. Ancestors and weather gods were worshiped. The king himself was the high priest and was considered as a divine being. Various religious practices were followed throughout the kingdom. The Oracle bones, having inscription on them, were used to predict the future. People strongly believed in life after death. Therefore, the kings and other royalty were buried along with all articles of daily use. Slaves were also buried alive with these royal corpses.

Writing system, calendar making, and astronomy was highly developed during the Shang dynasty. Numerous bronze vessels, tortoise shells, and oracle bones with inscriptions have been found by archaeologists.

The kingdom was divided into provinces and was ruled by nobles who were the king's relatives. Only nobles were allowed to take part in military services, while, commoners worked as laborers. Spoked wheels are believed to have been invented in the Shang era. It is believed that 1,000 chariots were used when Tang Shang fought with the last Xia ruler. Bronze weapons like spears, bows, and dagger axes were also used. Many evidences give an account of the Shang civilization being progressed and ahead of time.

Shang dynasty was one of the greatest dynasties of ancient China. Sometimes, it is also said that the history of China and its glorious civilization began with this dynasty.