Shang Dynasty Era Village
Shang Dynasty Vase
China is only about 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers) larger than the United States, a difference smaller than the area of San Bernardino County in southern California. It is enough of a difference, however, to make China the world’s third-largest nation, in terms of area, surpassed only by Russia and Canada. China and eastern Russia make up the majority of Asia, the world’s largest continent. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the two nations shared a long border, but now they adjoin primarily in the Far East, where northern China meets Siberia. To the northeast is the Korean peninsula, the Sea of Japan, and Japan itself. Farther down the coast lies the island of Taiwan, an independent Chinese state; farther still lies Hong Kong, which became part of China in 1997. South of China is a string of nations, from Vietnam in the southeast to India in the southwest. To the west lie a number of Central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan. China’s broad expanse encompasses a variety of climatic zones, from the cold north and vast tracts of desert in the west; to plains and mountain areas in the central, western, and northern regions; to lush river basins and tropical lowlands in the east and south. A number of rivers cut across China from east to west, most notably the Yangtze, the Huang He (or Yellow River), and the Xi Jiang.
Why China is important
As with India, China’s population alone would make it worthy of study. It is the most populous nation on earth, with more than a billion people; in fact, two out of every five people on earth live either in China or on the Indian subcontinent. As with India, the reasons to study its ancient history go far beyond the size of its present-day population. China gave the world two of its greatest philosophers, Confucius and Laotzu, whose followers developed religions on the basis of their teachings. The numbers of Confucianists and Taoists, however, are dwarfed by the adherents of Chinese folk religions. These religions, which originated in ancient times, are not viewed as a single faith, but if they were, they would have more believers than all faiths except Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
Ancient China also gave the world one of its most splendid civilizations, a center of art and learning seldom surpassed by the empires of the West. Its gifts include paper, silk, and a particularly delightful treat: ice cream. The ancient Chinese discovered such advanced notions as crop rotation in agriculture and the octave in music. They also left behind the most impressive physical structure ever created by human beings: the Great Wall of China. Even the pyramids of Egypt look insignificant beside this vast creation, the only manmade object visible from the Moon.
Prehistoric China (c. 7000–1766 B.C.)
People lived in the area of China as far back as half a million years ago. It appears that a Stone Age culture developed in parts of northeastern China, as well as in the southeast of China, in about 7000 B.C. The first culture known to archaeologists was the Yang-shao (yahng-SHOW), which flourished in the western part of the country between about c. 3950 and about c. 1700 B.C. Though they were a Stone Age people, the Yang-shao grew wheat and other grains; made relatively advanced tools out of polished stone, as well as glazed pottery; and even domesticated animals such as pigs, cattle, and dogs.
To the north was the Lung-shan (loong-SHAHN) culture, which developed between 2000 and 1850 B.C. The Lungshan appear to have been related to the Yang-shao; but in the northwest part of China, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of an entirely different group. Bodies discovered in the deserts there, where the hot, dry climate preserved them, suggest an invasion by peoples from as far away as the Ukraine. It is not known who these people were, or whether they were related to the Indo-Europeans who invaded Europe, Iran, and India.
Aside from the knowledge gained by archaeologists, there are legends concerning China’s origins. These legends recount that Pangu (pahng-OO), creator of the universe, originated Chinese civilization in the region of the Huang He (hwahng-HAY) or Yellow River in the plains of northern China. There followed the first of many dynasties who gave their names to phases of Chinese history: the Hsia or Xia (SHAH).
The Hsia Dynasty, which supposedly began about 2200 B.C., is so shrouded in myth and mystery that scholars tend to treat it more as a part of legend than of history—much like the Israelites’ account of their origins in the Book of Genesis. According to Chinese legends, the Hsia ruled for nearly 450 years, until the rise of a cruel leader named Chieh (CHAY), who oppressed his people so badly that they revolted against him. This ushered in the era of the Shang (SHAHNG), China’s first historic dynasty.
The Shang Dynasty (1766–1027 B.C.)
The Shang Dynasty ruled a large area in northern China, about 500 miles square, that included the region of the modern Chinese capital, Beijing (bay-ZHEENG), at its northern edge. The Shang capital was at Anyang (ahn-YAHNG), situated on a plain in the Yellow River Valley, where archaeologists uncovered a vast series of graves that provided a treasure trove of information about Shang society.
Much earlier, in A.D. 281, robbers at another tomb accidentally discovered a series of records that also provided considerable details about the Shang. The king buried in the tomb had died in the 200s B.C., but his grave contained records of the much earlier Shang Dynasty written on strips of bamboo. Tied together with ribbons of silk, these strips formed long scrolls on which scribes had written detailed records. To historians, they were more precious than gold; but to the grave robbers, who set fire to a number of the strips, they were a source of light in the dark tomb. Fortunately, they did not burn them all. What remained came to be known as “the Bamboo Annals” (AN-ulz, or historical records.)
Other important historical texts that provide information about the Shang include the Book of Documents, composed during the later Chou Dynasty, and the even later Han Dynasty’s Records of the Historian. From such annals have emerged a picture of a highly organized society with a complex religion. The Shang were masters of warfare, but they also excelled in their creation of jewelry using jade, a greenish gemstone that acquires a high shine when polished. They also developed the first known system of writing in China.
Gods, kings, and priests
Shang society, like that of many dynasties that followed it in ancient Chinese history, was highly structured, with a king at the top and below him a set of nobles. Lower still were the common people, and below them a class that existed in many ancient societies: slaves. It was a rigidly defined hierarchy (HIREahr- kee), with a vast and unbridgeable gulf between the top levels and the bottom. In that sense, it was not so different from the caste system imposed by the Aryans in India at about the same time. Like the Indian caste system, it had a basis in religion.
The Shang worshiped a number of gods, but the supreme deity was Shang Ti (shahng TEE), whose name means “The Lord on High.” They believed that Shang Ti determined whether harvests would be good or bad or whether the nation would win or lose in battle. The king was the highest representative of Shang Ti on Earth. His ability to gain favor with the god determined his legitimacy, or right to rule. As long as he was righteous, he enjoyed a mandate (MAN-date; permission or authority to rule)—what the Chinese called the “Mandate of Heaven.”
This was an idea typical of ancient societies: thus the Egyptian pharaohs were linked with the god Osiris, and Darius I of Persia announced that he ruled only by the grace of Ahura- Mazda. But in China, where the kings of the Shang Dynasty were believed to be direct descendants of Shang-Ti, the perceived link between the ruler and the gods was particularly strong. The Mandate of Heaven was a theme that would continue into modern times, as was the idea of communicating with the gods through one’s ancestors. If the king prayed to the spirits of his ancestors, it was believed, they would in turn speak to the gods on his behalf.
In order to know the will of the gods, and the wisdom of the ancestors’ spirits, the Shang used a system of divination (div-i-NAY-shun), the study of physical material in order to find omens, or messages from the gods concerning the future. Palm-reading is a well-known form of divination. Shang priests performed their divination with the shells of turtles or the bones of cattle or water buffalo. They would polish the outside of the shells or bones, then dig out holes on the inside to make them easier to crack. After this, they applied heat to the underside. As cracks appeared on the top, they would study these cracks much as a palm-reader observes the lines in a person’s hand for “omens” concerning his or her future.
A modern president or prime minister governs through the help of advisors who specialize in areas such as foreign affairs or the economy. In a nation such as America in the twentieth century, where public opinion can make or break a leader, the president may also consult people who conduct polls, or surveys, to find out people’s opinions. If the president learns that people do not like a certain policy, he may change it. Though modern people think of polls or studies by specialists as “scientific,” the idea is not so different from that of ancient divination. In both cases, the ruler depends on people who can interpret signs in order to tell him what he should do.
Those who interpret the signs—though they may not be as well known publicly as the leader—are extremely influential figures. So it was with the priests of Shang China, who also served as scribes. Their ability to read and write the difficult Shang script was almost as important as their powers of divination.
Other forces in Shang society
In addition to the king and the priests, another important force in Shang society consisted of the royal consorts (KAHN-sohrtz), or wives. The role of the consorts is particularly interesting, because China, like most societies, did not grant women a particularly high social status; yet consorts were powerful and could even serve as military leaders. One of the more well-known consorts from Shang history was Fu Hao (foo HOW). She was probably one of the more than sixty-four wives of Shang ruler Wu Ting (woo DEENG), but she was especially powerful, shown by the great wealth of objects—including nineteen sacrificed human beings— in her tomb.
Other important figures in palace life included princes and officials. Because political and religious authority in Shang China were virtually inseparable, princes had the authority to perform religious rituals (ceremonies), as did consorts. Officials took on a variety of functions, acting as ministers in charge of specific areas of government or overseeing lower officials. The highly organized Shang state already had a well-developed bureaucracy (byoo-RAHK-ruh-see), a network of officials and lower-ranking workers who ran the state.
Beyond the areas directly ruled by the king, there were regions controlled by noblemen, or nobles, who exercised power over their areas but who also submitted to the authority of the Shang ruler. The Shang ruler maintained his position of strength with an army that numbered in the tens of thousands. The Shang used infantry (IN-fun-tree), or foot soldiers, as well as archers and chariots. A Shang chariot squadron consisted of five horse-drawn wagons, each with a driver, an archer, and a soldier bearing a battle axe. They must have been a frightening sight to enemies.
The Shang were not what one would describe as “a gentle people.” Their legal system prescribed punishments that included mutilation or castration, as well as the tattooing of the face and forehead. On the other hand, there is evidence that people who had been convicted of a crime sometimes received a pardon from the king.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the Shang did not place a high emphasis on giving kindness to the poor or the weak. Shang China was a land in which the people tilled the earth with stone tools and lived in cave-like dwellings while the emperor and nobles enjoyed great luxury. In building their palaces, the wealthy and powerful would often command human sacrifices in order to ensure the gods’ favor on their houses. These victims did not always come from the lower classes of Shang China, however: often they were prisoners captured in war. It appears that in a single ancestor-worship ceremony, the Shang sacrificed some 3,000 prisoners.
It should be pointed out, however, that while few ancient civilizations other than those in the Americas practiced human sacrifice, Shang China was probably no more harsh a place to live than most parts of the world during the period from c. 1700 to c. 1000 B.C. Not only was the caste system taking effect in India during the same era, it was a time when, according to the Bible, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites; and when the Israelites, after escaping from Egypt, dealt harshly with many of the peoples they conquered in the process of taking the Promised Land. Hammurabi’s laws, which took effect in Babylon about the time the Shang Dynasty began, were unusual for even taking into account the rights of the less powerful.
Achievements of Shang China
Shang society may not have been a model of social justice, but its areas of achievement were many and ranged from agriculture to the written word. As one might expect in such a rigidly structured society, even farming was organized according to hierarchy, with the king controlling the best lands, where his overseers put prisoners of war to work.
Crops grown on Shang farms included rice, soybeans, and millet, the latter a type of grain that they used in making everything from cereals to wines. It appears that Shang farmers employed crop rotation, an important agricultural advancement. Certain crops are particularly hard on soil, requiring a high amount of nutrients, and the land needs to be given periods of “rest” by growing other, less demanding crops.
Mulberry trees on farms in Shang China yielded a product for which China would become famous: silk. This extremely elegant, smooth fabric appeared in China around 1750 B.C., and after Europeans learned about it more than 2,800 years later, during the Middle Ages, it became a highly prized item in the West. Another plant grown on Chinese farms was hemp (hemp is a tall herb with tough fibers used in ropes and marijuana). The Shang made use of its narcotic qualities in medical treatments, much as cancer patients in twentieth-century America are allowed legal use of marijuana to ease the painful side effects associated with treatments for the disease.
Among the many vegetables grown on the farms of Shang China were cabbages, radishes, turnips, and scallions (green onions). Fruit farms abounded with melons, jujubes (JOO-joo-beez, similar to figs), peaches, apricots, and persimmons. The Shang also cultivated chestnuts and hazelnuts and raised a variety of farm animals.
Cows in Shang China provided a key ingredient in one of the world’s favorite desserts, which made its first appearance in China about 2000 B.C.: ice cream. It is ironic that a famous milk product should emerge from China, because Chinese cuisine (KWI-zeen) makes little use of milk or by-products such as cheese or butter. In America, people consider it offensive if someone smells like garlic or onions, whereas the Chinese feel the same way about someone who smells like cheese or milk. Yet theirs was one of the first civilizations to practice milking of cows on a regular basis. Ice cream was made by mixing milk with soft rice, and then chilling this mixture in snow from the high mountains.
These many achievements in agriculture and food production helped fuel a healthy economy. Though the Lydians would become the first nation to actually coin money much later, the Shang used cowries (KOW-reez), bright shells from a type of ocean creature, as a form of coin.
Of course such an advanced society would hardly be possible without the development of written communication. The Shang had a system of writing that involved not only pictograms and phonograms but ideograms (ID-ee-oh-gramz). Whereas pictograms represent an object and phonograms a sound, an ideogram stands for an idea or a name. Examples of ideograms in everyday life include the dollar sign ($) or the percent sign (%), as well as corporate logos such as the “golden arches” of McDonald’s or the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz.
From the beginning, Chinese writing was far more complex than that of other ancient societies: instead of a few dozen characters, as in the alphabets of Phoenicia and later Greece and Rome, or a few hundred symbols, as in the alphabets of Egypt or Sumer, the Shang used some 2,000 characters. These characters formed the basis for the Chinese written language, which remains in use today.
Another “language” developed by the Chinese of the Shang Dynasty was music. It appears that as early as 2700 B.C., Chinese musicians understood the concept of the octave (AHKtev), a system of eight notes that forms the basis of a musical scale. (Many students of music in the Western world learn an octave through the familiar pattern do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.)
As with ice cream, there is a certain irony to this fact, because most Chinese music uses scales that give it an unusual, twangy sound to Western ears. This sound results not from the instruments themselves—one could almost as easily play “Chinese- sounding” music on a guitar or violin—but from the choice of notes that make up a given scale. As for Chinese instruments, several of these developed under the Shang Dynasty as well, including flutes, various other reed instruments, and a bronze bell.