The Shang Dynasty was the first known advanced group of towns cities, or villages that were all under the same ruler and had the same religion , form of writing and military, or civilization in China. It was located in what is now the Henan province. We discovered everything that we know about it 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 civilization 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 which 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 pictograms, characters representing a picturable object, that evolved into ideograms, characters (usually made up of pictograms) that represent an abstract concept, such as 'love' or 'happiness', 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 we now know about ancient Chinese writing comes from oracle bones found at a site near Anyang that scientists dated as coming from the Shang period. Shang kings had fortunetellers plunge red-hot bronze pokers into bones and then got them to read the cracks that the heat caused in the bones, and write the king’s fortunes on them.
Archeologists 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 civilization needs one so their king can know when to collect taxes, when to do certain religious ceremonies and the farmers can know when to plant their crops, etc. 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, but archeologists are not sure if it had been invented then.
The Shang Dynasty was a monarchy which the King was both lawmaker and judge. He ruled by force, and anyone who transgressed the King's laws would be killed immediately by his soldiers. The king would have been the lawmaker and the judge, so no one dared to argue with him. The king was decided by force, so whichever clan had the biggest army would rule the civilization until a clan with a better army came along; in the Shang Dynasty’s case, 550 years. The king would rule 200 to 300 clans, that resided in the their territory. Other nobles would keep watch over certain regions, a bit like Barons. Archeologists think that when a king died in the Shang Dynasty, his closest relation would take the throne.
By reading oracle bones and looking at modern day China, we can guess that there would have been public temples, public market places, and roads that anyone could use in the Shang Dynasty. The city would probably have been organized in a grid pattern around the king or noble’s palace, or a temple. The temple would have been built with main wooden supports and lattice work plastered with mud in-between them with a tile or thatch roof on top. This whole thing would have been built on top of a platform on of layer upon layer of tightly compacted dirt giving it a defense from commoners or slaves that might want to steal something, and so that everybody could see it. There were also the tombs of the nobles that were not meant to be public, but got robbed anyway, like 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, so 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 molds to make the vessels, like we do today. Almost all of the artwork was given to the king as taxes, or used in religious ceremonies for worshipping ancestors.
All of the Shang citizens shared a religion where they believed 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 the invention of farming and irregation led to a surplus of food which let people have specialized jobs, so when the Shang Dynasty emerged, there were still specialized jobs. In the Shang Dynasty, citizens were divided into three classes, slaves, commoners, and nobles, with commoners doing most of the specialized jobs. The majority of the commoners were still farmers, like their Neolithic ancestors, but there were also potters, sculptors, metal workers, soldiers, etc. The commoners would give a lot of what they made or grew to their king in the form of taxes, but they would trade most of what they had left for food and other things that weren’t their specialties.
The Shang farmers had a fairly advanced system of agriculture with plows and domesticated water buffalo and humans to pull them. They grew mainly rice in the south because the growing conditions were ideal for it, hot and swampy, 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 they wanted it. The Shang people also had pet dogs, and domesticated horses that would be used for transportation or to carry or pull heavy loads.
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, only the warriors would be allowed to use the bronze weapons and the commoners would have to be content with stone because if everyone could have bronze weapons, the commoners would get too powerful and they would be able to overthrow the government. The sacrcity of metal also stopped the commoners from getting any because there was only enough for the soldiers. The bronze vessels were used in religious ceremonies to hold wine and food, and were also buried with many nobles in their tombs. The Shang metal workers used ceramic molds to form the metal, almost exactly like we do today.
The Shang Dynasty had a very advanced defense system with walled cities, bronze weapons, chariots, and an organized 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 that would serve time in the army when the king need people to take the brunt of an attack. The soldiers would wear heavy body armor that consisted of bamboo and wood that was padded with cloth. Some of the weapons that the Shang warriors used included bronze swords and arrows, bows, and spears.
Since the Shang commoners all had specialized 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 we have found today have thousands of cowry shells in them, along with the noble.
The Shang people had a concept of private ownership where 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. Yet he would claim it back for himself if he was displeased with the person he was letting "own" it. There were also some things that the commoners could own but almost never would, like jade or silk, because it was too expensive.
There must have been some type of schooling in the Shang Dynasty if their writing survived for as long as it did, but archeologists 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 a certain craftsman that would teach them most of what they knew about their trade.
The Shang Dynasty had many different kinds of transportation, with more sophisticated kinds 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.