Through a strong centralized government, the Shang dynasty is thought to have ruled for over seven hundred years. It was founded when a man named Tang overthrew the Xia dynasty circa 1760 BC and founded the Shang dynasty with himself as the ruler. Generations of successors kept the tradition of having an omnipotent religious king who ruled over a mass of commoners and a small number of nobles. Shang China was located around the Yellow River which provided fertile soil to farmers. As this decreased the number of farmers required to feed the empire, some workers turned to other jobs like metallurgy. Many advancements were made during the rule of Shang kings including developing a writing system, inventing technology such as bronze working, a divorcement of jobs, as well as the formation of major cities which would be ruled by a bureaucracy headed by an emperor. Though they were overthrown by the Zhou dynasty circa 1046, the influence of the Shang never died away.
The Shang dynasty had multiple complex institutions which included their government and their religion. Their government was a theocracy led by a king who claimed power from the Shang sky god Shangdi and from prior kings and ancestors. Below him were nobles who were often related by blood to the king. These aristocrats owned land which was worked by the commoners. Though whether the commoners were slaves or just serfs forced to pay a tax is unknown but large numbers of them have been found in tombs with the aristocrats and kings, likely due to the belief that they would continue to serve in the afterlife. One such example is Lady Hao, the wife of the last king in the Shang dynasty. She had sixteen others buried with her though this is not that much compared to other rulers in the Shang dynasty who could have 164 commoners buried with them. Commoners could also be forced to serve the king directly by working on an empire-wide project if commanded to. Though the king did rule the nobles and command the commoners, much of the king’s job was religious. One job he did as the chief priest was reading oracle bones. These were tortoise shells or other bones on which the king or another important leader wrote questions. The bones were then heated until they cracked or poked with a hot poker. These cracks were thought of as messages from the gods so a king or a priest read them to answer the original question. Not only did the Shang believe in shamanism, but they also believed in animism, which is the belief that objects and animals have souls. This was shown through engravings on bronze pots which are thought to have religious significance. Lastly, the Shang promoted respect for their ancestors. Though they were not worshiped like the Shang gods were, they were thought to cause mischief and bring strife to the family if not appeased with offerings. However, these complex institutions depended on written records.
Much about the Shang dynasty has been learned from written records such as oracle bones. At the beginning of the Shang dynasty, this form of divination was used by commoners and aristocrats alike though the aristocrats used it more as they had money to pay. Near the end of the dynasty though, access was restricted to the king or other officials. Written on the oracle bones were the question, the name of the person asking the question, the predicted answer, and the result of applying that answer. As the kings used the oracle bones often, archaeological scholars have discovered the names of most kings during certain periods in the Shang dynasty. The questions asked provided information on both the daily lives of commoners as well as major events such as wars because oracle bones would often be consulted before making a major decision. Though the Shang likely wrote on wood, bamboo, or silk, evidence for these cannot be found as they have long since decomposed. More examples of writing have been found on pottery, bronze pots, horn, and jade but these are not nearly as numerous as oracle bones of which over one hundred thousand have been found in storage pits. The system of writing the Shang used was called Jiaguwen which contained over three thousand pictographic characters. Though people from different parts of the empire might speak languages that were slightly different, the writing was standardized throughout the entire kingdom. This connected the empire and allowed trade to flourish despite the speaking difficulties. While the written records kept the government stable and promoted trade, Shang China would have been invaded much sooner than they were if it were not for their well-equipped military.
The Shang created numerous technologies designed for battle. One example is their war chariot. These were made out of wood, bamboo, and other canes. Bronze parts were also included though they did not make up the majority of the vehicle. The makeup of chariots has been studied from the twenty-five chariots that have been found buried in tombs as well as their riders and horses. Most chariots had two wheels though some had four and the number of horses varied from two to four as well. Chariots were important in battle as they could be used as a place for archers to shoot from, a raised platform for commanders, as well as a mobile vehicle that could be used as shock troops. Inside the chariots were a driver, an archer, and an armed soldier who could leave the chariot to fight in hand-to-hand combat if necessary. Despite the many uses, chariots were only owned by wealthy rulers as they were costly to build. Not only were chariots used for war but they were also a marking of wealth and power so they could have been used in ceremonies. Another important technological advancement is the working of bronze into boxes, jars, and weapons. To create these the Shang used a method called piece molding. First molds were created out of clay and designs were carved into them. Then molten bronze was poured into them and left to cool. When the bronze was cool, the clay was broken off and the different pieces of the object were put together. As the war was essential in fending off barbarians and conquering new lands, much work was put into creating strong bronze weapons. Nevertheless, bronze weapons remained a luxury held only by people who were of a high enough ranking to afford them meaning the most commoners would not have access to them. They were not rare among the nobles though and the royal family had them in abundance. For example, Lady Hao, the wife of the last king, was buried with 157 bronze weapons. These advances in military technology were essential in keeping the Shang dynasty free from invaders until they were finally defeated by the Zhou, an end to the dynasty but not the culture of the Shang.
The Shang dynasty contained all the aspects of civilization but particularly demonstrated advanced complex institutions, writing, and technology. Its strong government with power rooted in the king as both a political and religious leader kept order and unified the people into a nation. This was supported by writing which allowed connections to form between different parts of the empire and was an important part of the Shang religion. Though they did not last forever, the well-equipped military was outfitted with weapons and chariots which allowed the Shang to hold off barbarians and conquer others. The Shang ruled successfully for seven hundred years and though not much is left of their cities, they set the basis for many Chinese civilizations in the future.
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