Shang Dynasty:  1766 - 1027 BC 

Major Accomplishments: origin of Chinese writing style on oracle bones, first Chinese dynasty

Shang Video

Shang Dynasty Overview

The Shang Dynasty lasted roughly from 1600 BCE to 1046 BCE, and is believed to be founded by a rebel leader, perhaps named T’ang, who overthrew the previous leader of Xia China. This dynasty was defined by four aspects; the location, technological advancements, society, and religion. This civilization was in the Huang He River Valley. Consequently, the flooding of the river soon led to agricultural and irrigation technology. The river also caused the society and government to be strengthened. Walled cities began to form with extravagant upper classes and rulers. With modernization came religion; oracle bones and ancestor worship became a large part of the Shang culture. We also know that the Shang Dynasty was extremely advanced in their craftsmanship of bronze, jade, ceramic, and bone. The empire was molded by the Huang He River, which brought technology and cities, then religion and intellectual advancements.


Shang Dynasty Beginnings

Historians are unsure about the origin and founder of the Shang Dynasty, but it can be assumed from the evidence we have from oracle bones that T’ang overthrew the last leader of the Xia. The Huang He River was the heart of the Shang, and contributed greatly to their growth. As a result of the constant flooding of the river destroying crops, like many other ancient civilizations the Shang developed their own irrigation systems to use the flooding to their advantage. Although the Shang Dynasty was not as advanced in irrigation as other civilizations of that time, there was sufficient growth that gave more leisure time and wealth to the people. As a result, their cities became more modernized. Small villages became walled cities, class division occurred, and the use of oracle bones developed. They used oracle bones for records as well as religious purposes. Now that the Shang had modernized cities and society, their growth became exponential as inventions, philosophies, and trade increased.


Shang Political Organization
The Shang Dynasty was the first true civilization of China. They centralized government, built strong cities, and began the Chinese culture. Again, the Huang He River was essential in centralizing government. Without it, there would be no agriculture, which is the fundamental aspect of all ancient civilizations. Once the social classes were intact, the rulers were more set apart from the rest of the people to give that distinction for the reputation and respect of the rulers. Then the government became more centralized and the territory expanded. We know that the capital was changed at least six times, which solidifies the knowledge that substantial growth was made during this time period from Xia China. Success allowed the people of the Shang Dynasty to develop their culture; starting traditions like oracle bone writing and ancestor worship that would stay with China for many years to come.


Shang Metal Work
With the basis of the empire set, the Shang Dynasty began to develop work in metallurgy. Bronze advancements were among the most impressive. In order to produce the amount of art, weapons, and ceremonial vessels, a large work force of lower class citizens was required. This attests to how modernized they really were, and that they had the time and money to invest in something as large scale as this. Their knack for metallurgy was used mostly for art and religious vessels for different ceremonies. Large tombs have been excavated revealing massive amounts of jade, bronze, and ceramic art. Artifacts found have also included various weaponry; the advanced bronze weapons contributed to their success as a civilization. Lastly, bronze was used for chariots, which were developed in China around 1200 and also bettered their military. The Shang were advanced in the art of metallurgy for their time, which allowed them to develop their religion, art, and made them successful on the battlefield.

The Shang Dynasty is important because it is the first centralized kingdom in China to levy taxes, build an army that was effective over generations of people and to use the early pictographs that would become the modern characters of Mandarin Chinese.  Although other dynasties are being excavated (Hsia) most historians describe the Shang as the first dynasty of China.

Chinese Geography is incredibly diverse.  The region we call China today is very different from the geography of early Chinese culture.  Early China was built along two rivers.  The Yangtze River in the south had a thriving culture that archeologists are only now beginning to learn about this culture in depth.  In the north, the Shang Dynasty formed along the Western bend of the Hwang He River near what would become the city of Chang'an or Xian'yang (called Xi'an in modern China).  The Western part of of China is dry, windy and desert-like in many areas. Here is a quick breakdown of the simple geographic differences between north and south China.

North China
Cold Winters
Soils are dry and permeable
Agriculture requires drought resistant crops like millet

South China
Warmer and wetter
Waterlogged fields
Agriculture thrives on rice