Shang dynasty, also known as the Yin dynasty, ruled a part of China during the Bronze Age for around 550 years from probably 1600 BC to 1046 BC. It was founded by Tang of Shang who overthrew the last ruler of the preceding Xia dynasty; and came to an end after its last emperor Di Xin was defeated at the Battle of Muye by King Wu, founder of the succeeding Zhou dynasty. Among the practices observed by Shang people were divination using oracle bones, ancestor worship and human sacrifice. Here are 10 interesting facts about the major emperors, important events, cultural practices; as well as the founding, reign and fall of the Shang dynasty of China.

 

#1 Shang is the first Chinese dynasty for which there is archaeological evidence

There is a mention of numerous events which took place during Shang era in Chinese classical literature. However there was no concrete evidence of its existence. Archaeological finds and their study in the 20th century gave solid proof that the Shang dynasty existed. When inscriptions from the time were deciphered they matched some of the information recorded in texts thus establishing their authenticity. Though many historians believe Xia dynasty to be the first dynasty in traditional Chinese history, Shang dynasty is the first recorded Chinese dynasty for which there is both documentary and archaeological evidence.

Shang Dynasty Map
Map of the area governed by Shang Dynasty

 

#2 Its reign most probably lasted for around 550 years from 1600 BC to 1046 BC

Depiction of King Tang of Shang
Depiction of King Tang of Shang – Founder of the dynasty

According to the ancient Chinese scholar Liu Xin (c. 50 BC – AD 23), the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC but Bamboo Annals, a chronicle of ancient China, dates its reign from 1558 to 1046 BC. In 1996, the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project was commissioned by the People’s Republic of China to accurately determine the location and time frame of the three dynasties. According to the project the reign of the Shang dynasty lasted from around 1600 to 1046 BC.

#3 The dynasty was founded by Tang of Shang

Da Yi, or Cheng Tang, ruled the kingdom of Shang, one of the many kingdoms under the Xia dynasty. The Xia dynasty at the time was ruled by King Jie, who is regarded as a tyrant and as an irresponsible ruler. Tang joined forces with tribes who were rebelling against the king. Around 1600 BC, rebel forces led by Tang decisively defeated the army of King Jie at the Battle of Mingtiao. Tang then eliminated the remaining Xia forces, forced Jie into exile and founded the Shang dynasty. As Tang was a nobleman, his revolution is considered the first ‘noble revolution’ in Chinese history.

#4 Shang Dynasty Empire was centered in the North China Plain

The Yellow River, or Huang He, is called the “the cradle of Chinese civilization” due to its importance in early Chinese history. North China Plain is based on the deposits of the river and is considered the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization. The empire of Shang dynasty was centered in North China Plain and extended as far north as modern Shandong and Hebei provinces and westward through present-day Henan province. Though Shang dynasty controlled probably the most prominent civilization of the period it doesn’t mean it was the only one in existence. Archaeological finds suggest that there were several other civilizations which existed in China at the time though they may not have written records.

Statue of King Zhou of Shang
Statue of King Zhou of Shang – the last ruler of the dynasty

#5 Tai Wu is the longest reigning emperor of the Shang dynasty

Cheng Tang, the first emperor of Shang, ruled for around thirty years. His reign is considered successful with lowered taxes, strengthening of Shang’s army and spread of the influence of the empire of the dynasty. There was also due emphasis on culture, economy and agriculture. Another notable king of Shang dynasty was Tai Wu, under whose long and stable reign the dynasty flourished. Tai Wu reportedly ruled for 75 years from 1450 to 1375 BC making him the longest reigning emperor of the Shang dynasty.

#6 Yin was the last of several political capitals of the dynasty

Shang dynasty kings managed their empire from a capital city which was the center of court life. Cheng Tang is said to have established the dynasty’s first capital at a town called Shang (near modern-day Zhengzhou). Shang remained the ancestral capital of the dynasty throughout its history and was the location of the most sacred ancestral temples, tablets and regalia. However the political capital from where the kings ruled was shifted several times during the course of the dynasty. The last and most important capital of Shang dynasty was Yin (modern Anyang). It was the archaeological discoveries at Anyang that established without doubt the existence of the Shang dynasty.

 

#7 Its reign came to an end after defeat in the Battle of Muye

Depiction of King Wu of Zhou
King Wu of Zhou – Who overthrew the Shang Dynasty

King Zhou or Di Xin was the last emperor of the Shang dynasty. Initially an able ruler, he later gave himself over to drinking, women and abandoned morals. It is said he hosted festive orgies and tortured the common people as well as officials. He is reported to have been influenced by his evil wife Daji, who is portrayed as a malevolent fox spirit in legends. Di Xin gave up almost all affairs of the state and implemented extreme taxes to fund his heavy daily expenses. All this led to conflicts and turmoil across the kingdom resulting in rebellion. King Wu of Zhou tribe joined hands with neighboring dukes and destroyed Shang’s forces at the Battle of Muye in c. 1046 BC, leading to the end of Shang and the beginning of Zhou dynasty. Di Xin set fire to his palace and committed suicide.

#8 Shang people believed in ancestor worship and afterlife

The Shang people worshiped their ancestors believing they remained actively involved in the affairs of the family even after death. According to them failure to do ancestor worship would result in disaster for the family as well as the kingdom. The king served as the head of the ancestor worship cult. It can be deduced from the elaborate burial tombs of rulers that the Shang people believed in afterlife. Among other things, carriages, utensils and weapons were included in tombs for the person to use in his afterlife. A king’s burial also involved the burying alive of hundreds of slaves and horses to accompany him in his afterlife.

Sacrificed humans at Anyang
Sacrificed humans found to be buried in royal tombs at Anyang

 

#9 The ability to write enhanced Shang dynasty’s ability to govern

Oracle Bone from Shang period
A tortoise shell used as an Oracle Bone from the Shang period in China

The Shang civilization was based on agriculture with hunting, fishing and animal husbandry playing a supporting role. The political system of the Shang consisted of many levels of ranks and specialized functions and jobs. They were all passed down within noble families. The Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen. Several weapons including spears, pole-axes and bows were used by the Shang warriors. They were generally made from stone and bronze. Horses and chariots were used in later part of their reign. Also, the ability of some to write and read enhanced Shang government’s effectiveness in administration, mining of ores, construction projects etc.

#10 Human sacrifices were performed during the Shang dynasty

Oracle bones were pieces of turtle shell or bone on which specific questions were carved. The bones were then heated over a fire and the resultant cracks were interpreted by a diviner to determine the answer. Shang rulers at times performed oracle bone divinations themselves. The supreme god of the Shang was Shangdi who ruled over the lesser gods, mostly that of natural forces like Sun and Rain. Divinations were performed to ask the ancestors or the gods whether they desired specific sacrifices or rituals. Shang people are known to have made sacrifices of young men and women to deities. The sacrifices of animals and humans were usually performed to ask for help or to feed the deities and ancestors to keep them strong.

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