Shang Dynasty China (1,600-1,046 BCE)

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Bronze Buffalo
Bronze Axe
Bronze Heads
Bronze Tiger
Bronze Vessel
Bronze Bird
Jade Figurine
Oracle bone fragment
Bronze Fang zun with four rams
Bronze weapon handle with turquoise
Bronze Zilong cauldron
Tomb of Lady Fu Hao
Inscribed Ox Scapula
Ding – Wen Ding
Shang Taotie mask
Shang ritual vessel designs

The Shang Dynasty lasted for five hundred years, though it is only relatively recently that its existence could be demonstrated with archaeological finds. It sits between the almost mythical Xia and the rather tumultuous Zhou dynasties.

The dynasty was created when a tribal chief, Tamg, defeated the Xia leader, Jie, in 1600 BCE at the Battle of Mingtiao. By 1200 BCE the Shang were using horse-drawn chariots militarily and had an array of bronze weaponry. Shang archers used composite bows, made from wood, animal sinew and horn or bone. The bow was therefore smaller and more powerful and could be used from a chariot.

The Shang became knwn for advances in astronomy, first developing a lunar calendar and then a solar one. From inscriptions found on tortoise shell it has been established that an individual, Wan-Nien, used his observations and mathematics to calculate a 365-day year and to define the two solstices. Shang astronomers produced the Oracle Scripts that recorded eclipses and other celestial events. The divination book, I-Ching (aka The Book of Changes), was compiled between 1,250-1,150 BCE

The Shang appear to have had two number systems, a decimal system (1-to-10) and a duodecimal one (one-to-twelve). The Shang were also musical, the ocarina wind instrument, drums, and cymbals were found at Yin, elsewhere bells, chimes and bone flutes have been discovered.

From discovered inscriptions on tortoise shell and animal oracle bones, it has been shown that the Shang developed an early form of the Chinese language.

Inscribed tortoiseshell – aka Dragon Bone

The inscribed tortoiseshells were for a period misidentified by Chinese pharmacists as dragon bones, these were promptly ground up to produce tonics or poultices for sale.

The Shang operated on a feudal system, though initially they moved across their land regularly, In 1300 BCE their king Pan Geng established its capital as Yin (today’s Anyang). Yin and Zhengzhou were their major settlements, but neither became as urban as the Fertile Crescent cities. Though the Shang did share the Mesopotamian notion that the king was also the head priest.

Yin, was the capital for two centuries, spanning the reigns of the last nine Shang kings, it therefore had many palaces, altars, temples and fourteen royal tombs. Their religion appeared to be a mix of animism nd shamanism, their supreme god was Shangdi, who ruled over humanity and nature. Zhengzhou built a remarkable wall that ran for seven kilometres, it was 10m high and 20m wide.

Shang royal graves buried not just the exalted person, but also his coterie, to serve them in the afterlife. One such 1,200 BCE grave contained the ‘king’ and seventy-four others, not to forget his horses, dogs and other possessions.

The 1,046 BCE Battle of Muye marked the end of the Shang. Their then king, Di Xin, was known for his cruelty, so that when King Wu, led a Zhou army against him many of his military force, a large proportion of which consisted of enslaved peoples, defected to the Zhou.


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The Bronze Age in China began c2,000 BCE, four centuries before the Shang Dynasty. This piece is dated to 1,800 BCE, yet defined as Shang, so dates should alwys be viewed cautiously.
Thei Shang bronze battle axe was discovered at a tomb in Yidu, Shangdong Province,. While it may have bee used agressively it also had a ritual purpose, its ownership implying power and military authority.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

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Most of the Shang bronzes discovered proved to beinstruments, vessels or weapons. But at Sanxingdui, near Guanghan in Sichuan, a broad series of heads have been found. They are dated to 1,200-1,100 BCE and thus Shang, but they are said to be derived from These heads have exaggerated facial features and yet present a dignified expression. Some conjecture that this was the way Ancient Shu people memorialised their ancestors or presented thier gods. The Sanxingdui Museum displays a number of these heads.
An intricately inscribed Shang bronze tiger.
Image source: theculturetrip.com

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This bronze ding vessel was used to make offerings to ancestors.
Bronze items shaped like brids and owls hve been discovered. Some have been identified as a zun, a ritual wine vessel.
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Bones were often used for oracle inscriptions during pyromantic divinations. The inscriptions have provided the earliest known form of Chinese writing, termed tautologically as ‘oracle bone script’. The vast majority have been found at the Yinxu site near Anyang. There is no suggestion that the Shang dynasty was responsible for the origin of writing in China, but equally there is no evidence of ny earlier recognizable Chinese writing. It is however acknowledged as the oldest known form of the Chinese family of scripts, and it preceded the Chinese bronze inscriptions. The Seal script commenced in the Zhou dynasty.
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Shang Jade figurine.
Shang Fang zun square vessel decorated with four rams. It too was a wine container.
Image source: china.org.cn

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This dragon-shaped ornate item is a handle for a weapon. Fabricated in bronze it was decorated with turquoise inlays. Shang used their long established ceramics kiln technology and their potter’s craft in making their bronzes.
It is 10 x 13 x 3cm. It is held by the Harvard Art Museums.
This Shang zilong is very similar to a ding, but larger. In fact this is the largest Shang round bronze vessel found to date. When it went on display at Shenzhen Museum (on loan from the National Museum of China, Beijing) it caused a stir:

Image source: china.org.cn

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Dating to 1,250 BCE this large grave was for Queen Fu Hao. It was the first major tomb to be discovered intact. She was a consort to King Wu Ding who ruled for 59 years. She was buried alongside sixteen sacrificed individuals including children.
The grave also contained 590 jade items and 440 bronze vessels. It held bronze ornaments and weapons, stone sculptures, several ivory carvings…
This inscribed scapula of an ox would have been used in divination. After being held over a fire, the cracks would be interpreted by the priest. It is 31 x 19 cm, and dated to the reign of King Wu Ding c1200 BCE. To-date it is the earliest such find.
Image source: khanacademy.org

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This is the Da He ding or fangding vessel It is called da he meaning great grain, because these two characters appear inside the vessel. The use of a human face is unique, the ding has a face on all four sides. It was found in Tanheli, Ningxiang, Hunan in the southern Yangtze region, but its inscription resembles those found in the core Zhongyuan region of the Shang dynasty. It
is on show at the Hunan Museum. Some sources date it to the reign of Wen Ding and c1100 BCE.
Shang vessels are often decorated with taotie, face-like symbols. The animal-like mask has a prominent pair of eyes suggested by swirling lines. There are often eyebrows, a nose, fangs, horns or ears. These varied by place and time of its fabrication.
Conveniently these designs were able to be used by archeologists to establish the spread of Shang culture.

Image source: factsanddetails.com

The Shang Dynasty had a wide variety of ritual vessels:

This chart seeks to define the many types of vessel but this article from britannica.com explains “The word zun embraces wine containers of a variety of shapes. Among vessels for heating or offering wine are the you, a covered bucket with a swing handle; the jia, a round tripod or square quadruped with a handle on the side and raised posts with caps rising from its rim; the related jue, a smaller beaker on three legs, with an extended pouring spout in front, a pointed tail in the rear, a side handle, and posts with caps; the he, distinguished by its cylindrical pouring spout; the gong, resembling a covered gravy boat; and the elegant trumpet-mouthed gu.”

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