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What is Shang Dynasty?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Shang Dynasty, also known as the Yin Dynasty, is believed by many to be the first dynasty of China. However, some historians believe that the first dynasty, Xia, and its leader Chieh were overthrown by a man named T’ang, leading to the creation of the Shang. The Shang Dynasty lasted from 1766 BCE to 1050 BC and was ruled by more than 30 sovereigns during its centuries of influence.

From the unearthing of the Ruins of Yin and the discovery of bones from the Shang period, archaeologists have been able to confirm the existence of this civilization. Tombs, artifacts, and the remnants of dwellings were uncovered near the present day city of Anyang. Many of the “oracle bones” discovered were originally created in a question-and-answer format, with first a question to the oracle, an answer, and then a notation about whether or not the prophecy came true.

The written sophistication of this culture is one of its most important contributions to Chinese history. Because the Shang period occurred during the Bronze Age, many writings and pictures can also be found in pieces of metal. The Shang people’s use of metal technology is another of their great accomplishments. The people who made up the Shang Dynasty had weapons, chariot parts, and worship pieces all made out of bronze.

The members of the Shang Dynasty established their towns on the Yellow River and were focused on farming, hunting, and raising livestock. They used simple farm equipment such as hoes to assist in the fields, rather than plows. Most of these farm tools were made of either stone or wood, despite advancements in metal work.

The capital city of the Shang Dynasty moved often throughout its history, until finally coming to rest in Yin. These capital cities were often opulent centers for royal events, celebrations, and rituals. Towns around the capital city were referred to as palace-cities and were enclosed by walls. These towns were replicas of the capital city and held military and religious buildings, and housing for the aristocracy.

Warfare was common during the Shang Dynasty and the king was the head of the military. On occasion, towns within the Shang civilization would fight each other, but mostly the battles were fought against areas of Northern China, nearby settlements, and nomads.

The Shang religion included rituals and ancestor worship, as well as sacrifice. Often many slaves and prisoners were killed or buried with a deceased king. “Shang Ti” was the main god worshipped by the Shang civilization; they believed he ruled over all weather, heavenly bodies, smaller gods, and geographical areas.

The Shang civilization went through several years of decline and ended when it was overthrown by Wu and his father King Wen. Legend claims that the last ruler of the Shang Dynasty, Shang Zhou, committed suicide when his military was defeated and that many clans from the Shang fled to other regions. Wu and Wen went on to establish the Zhou Dynasty.

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Discussion Comments

By Renegade — On Jan 19, 2011

The Chinese language of that day is difficult to trace due to the writing system which lacks phonemes and is completely pictographic. Nevertheless, there are ways of tracing the evolution of Chinese languages via commonality and phonetic-patterned characters which have been passed down.

By SilentBlue — On Jan 17, 2011

The early Chinese had a system of pictograms which was the predecessor of the modern character system. The system in that day was not comprised as straight lines to the extent it is today, but resembled the object it represented to a greater extent, much like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 15, 2011

The Shang Dynasty began an early Chinese trend of authority based on horrible torture. Many of these tortures involved burning on a grill or being held against a hot oven. Inspiring fear and utmost respect and submission to divine kingly authority came to be early cornerstone of Eastern Confucian thinking.

By anon81060 — On Apr 29, 2010

thank you.

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