The Shang Dynasty Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Shang Dynasty

0 Conversations

The Shang Dynasty was the first-known advanced group of towns, cities or villages in China that were all under the same ruler and had the same religion, form of writing, and military1. It was located in what is now the Henan province. Everything that is known about it was discovered from multiple excavations where towns, palaces and tombs were uncovered. Although it is possible that a dynasty named Xia came before it, there is no concrete evidence that the Xia Dynasty existed, making the Shang Dynasty the first oriental civilisation that we know is not mythical.

The Shang Dynasty started in about 1600 BC and was taken over by the Zhou Dynasty in around 1050 BC. The Shang Dynasty was made up of about ten cities. Around eight of these were located along the Yellow River, while the others were along the Yangtze. The Shang capital started out in Anyang, a city southwest of what is now Beijing, but was moved to Zhengzhou in around 1100 BC. All cities were built around a central palace or temple that was elevated so that everyone could see it, with houses leading up to it on streets in a grid pattern. There were walls built around every city to keep enemies out, and guard towers were placed on the walls so soldiers could keep watch on who was entering and leaving the city.


The Shang people invented a very sophisticated writing system with about 5,000 pictograms2 that evolved into ideograms3 in use by the end of the dynasty. The characters would be written in vertical lines - first on bamboo strips, then on rice paper and silk. Most of what is now known about ancient Chinese writing comes from oracle bones found at a site near Anyang that scientists have dated as coming from the Shang period. Shang kings had fortune tellers plunge red-hot bronze pokers into bones, got them to read the cracks that the heat caused in the bones and then to write the king's fortune based upon the results.


Archaeologists know that a calendar was used in the Shang Dynasty, but they do not know much about it. They know that one was used because every civilisation needs one in order that their king can know when to collect taxes, when to perform certain religious ceremonies and to enable farmers to know when to plant their crops and so on. The Shang Dynasty also must have used a calendar because there is an almost exact record of when all of the Shang kings were born and when they died. The Shang people probably used the zodiac calendar, which is still used today in China - however, archaeologists are not sure if it had been invented then.


The Shang Dynasty was a monarchy in which the king was both lawmaker and judge so no-one dared to argue with him. He ruled by force, and anyone who transgressed the king's laws would be killed immediately by his soldiers. The decision about who should be king was originally taken by force - whichever clan had the biggest army would rule the civilisation until a clan with a better army came along; in the Shang Dynasty's case, this lasted 550 years. The king would rule the 200 to 300 clans that resided in their territory. Other nobles would keep watch over certain regions - these roles equate to that of the barons in medieval Europe. Archaeologists think that when a king died in the Shang Dynasty, his closest relation would take the throne.

Public Architecture

By reading oracle bones and looking at modern-day China, we can guess that in the Shang Dynasty there would have been public temples, public market-places and roads that anyone could use. The city would probably have been organised in a grid pattern around the palace of the king or noble, or around a temple. The temple would have been built using main wooden supports, lattice-work plastered with mud between its sections and with a tiled or thatched roof on top. This whole thing would have been built on top of a platform with layer upon layer of tightly-compacted dirt making it defendable against commoners or slaves that might want to steal something, whilst ensuring that everybody could see it. There were also the tombs of the nobles. These were not meant to be public, but were robbed anyway - much the same as were the pyramids in Egypt.

Clothing and Art

Shang craftsmen made a lot of fairly advanced art, such as carved marble and jade, paintings with inks on silk, bronze vessels and drums. Carved jade was really valuable because jade is incredibly hard - as a result, they probably had to use diamonds, which are even harder, to carve it, and even then it could take a single man a year to do a small carving. The craftsmen used ceramic moulds to make the vessels, as we do today. Almost all of the artwork was given to the king as taxes, or used in religious ceremonies for worshipping ancestors.


Metal, mainly bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, was used a lot in the Shang Dynasty for making fittings for chariots, bronze vessels, and weapons. However, due to the scarcity of metal and the fear that the commoners would get too powerful and be able to overthrow the government, only the warriors were allowed to use bronze weapons; the commoners had to be content with stone ones. The bronze vessels were used in religious ceremonies to hold wine and food, and were also buried with many nobles in their tombs. As with the artists, the Shang metal-workers used ceramic moulds to form the metal.


All of the Shang citizens shared a religion, at the core of which was the belief that their ancestors lived in a spirit world and, if they worshipped them and gave them sacrifices, the spirit of their ancestor would guide them and keep away as many bad things as they could. To worship their ancestors, the Shang people would place food in a bronze vessel called the Fang Ding Zun, and put wine into a bronze container called the Jia. Every time someone royal died, there would be human and dog sacrifices to help them in the spirit world. They also believed in two other gods, Ruler Above and God of Earth.


In Neolithic times improved farming methods (due to the invention of irrigation) led to a surplus of food which led to the development of specialised jobs. This continued into the Shang Dynasty when citizens were divided into three classes; slaves, commoners, and nobles, with commoners doing most of the specialised jobs. The majority of the commoners were still farmers, as were their Neolithic ancestors - but there were also potters, sculptors, metal workers, soldiers, and so on. The commoners would give a lot of what they made or grew to their king in the form of taxes, trading most of what they had left for food and other things that weren't their specialities.


The Shang farmers had a fairly advanced system of agriculture with ploughs pulled by domesticated water buffalo or humans. They grew mainly rice in the hot and swampy south because the growing conditions were ideal for it, and millet in the north because it was very dry. Chickens and pigs had also been domesticated and were 'walking refrigerators', because they would keep the meat fresh until required. The Shang people also had domesticated horses that would be used for transportation or to carry or pull heavy loads and they kept dogs as pets.

Defence System

The Shang Dynasty had a very advanced defence system with walled cities, bronze weapons, chariots and an organised army. The army was almost constantly fighting to subdue other clans and keep the commoners under control. The army was composed of horse cavalries, horse-drawn chariots and foot soldiers that were usually just a bunch of untrained farmers who would serve time in the army when the king need people to take the brunt of an attack. The soldiers would wear heavy body armour that consisted of bamboo and wood padded with cloth. Some of the weapons that the Shang warriors used included bronze swords and arrows, bows and spears.

Trade System

Since the Shang commoners all had specialised jobs, they had to have a very complex system of trade to get everything that they needed. The main trading place was probably the market where the commoners could barter or use cowry shells, the Shang currency, to buy stuff. All of the tombs of Shang nobles that have been found to date contain thousands of cowry shells alongside the noble.

Private Ownership

The Shang people had a concept of private ownership that meant that anybody could own small things like bronze containers, stone weapons, pottery, a house, or anything else that they had built, bought or traded for. The king, however, owned all of the land in his kingdom and would let commoners 'own' it on his behalf - as long as they paid taxes for it. He would claim it back for himself, though, if he was displeased with the person. There were also some things that the commoners could own but almost never would, for example jade or silk, because it was too expensive.


There must have been some type of schooling in the Shang Dynasty since their writing survived for as long as it did, but archaeologists are not entirely certain how it worked. They can guess that the nobles would hire private tutors for their five or so children, but that common children would not have had any formal schooling. Children of commoners would have been apprenticed to certain craftsman who would teach them most of what they needed to know about their trade.


The Shang Dynasty had many different kinds of transportation, which was more sophisticated for the nobles than the commoners. Walking was how most of the commoners got around but, if they had to carry something that was too heavy, they would use an ox or the Yellow River. The Shang people would use boats and rafts to carry bags of rice, or large quantities of anything, up or down the river and, because all of the major Shang cities were on a river, the boats would just drop their cargo off at a dock, load up with something new, and continue delivering goods. The Shang royalty probably would have used very fancy chariots to move around so they could be distinguished from the lower classes.

1Thus constituting a civilisation.2Characters representing a picturable object.3Characters (usually made up of pictograms) that represent an abstract concept, such as 'love' or 'happiness'.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more