For a very long time, the historical accounts about the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) as found in historiographical accounts like the universal history Shiji 史記 or the "Bamboo Annals" (Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年) were believed to be pure inventions.
Only the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions in the region of southern Hebei province in the very late 19th century made clear that the purported rulers of the Shang dynasty had really existed.
The inscriptions on oxen scapulae or turtle plastrons (jiagu 甲骨) record processes and results of royal divinations made by the Shang kings and their highest shamans (wu 巫). The inscriptions were stored in the royal archives of the Shang dynasty's palace and were discovered at the turn of the century around 1900. The oracle bone inscriptions are not only witnesses of Shang belief and religion but also of their system of ancestor veneration and their political activities and military campaigns.
The political centre of the high and late Shang period was the walled city (guo 國) of Yin 殷, whose ruins (Yinxu 殷墟) were discovered at Xiaotun 小屯 close to the city of Anyang 安陽, Hebei. This capital was the Shang residence since the reign of King Pan Geng 盤庚 (trad. r. 1401-1374 BCE, probably around 1300). The Shang at that time dominated smaller cities and states in the middle and lower Yellow River plain (the Central Plain). From there, the power of the Shang kings stretched to the Shandong Peninsula in the east and and Wei River 渭水 valley in Shaanxi the west. Enemies of the Shang state were called fang 方 "regions", like the Tufang 土方 which roamed the northern region of Shanxi, the Guifang 鬼方 and Gongfang 𢀛方 in the northwest, the Qiangfang 羌方 and Quanrong 犬戎 in the west, as well as the Yifang 夷方 and Renfang 人方 in the southeast.
Although the culture of the Shang kingdom differed from the cultures in the semitropical area of the Yangtze River valley and Sichuan (for instance, the Sanxingdui Culture 三星堆文化), and also from the steppe cultures in the north, economic activities and the exchange of goods led to the spread of common features of all cultures of Shang period China. Such can be seen in the custom to cast ritual bronze vessels. Yin as a politically dominating centre of the "Chinese world" obtained tributes (gong 貢) from the "many states" (bangguo 邦國) of the Yellow River plain. The Shang kingdom was thus not a sovereign dynasty that dominated over a large part of ancient China, but rather one strong state among hundreds of small city states (wanguo 萬國 "ten thousand states"). The heads of these states were called "earls" (bo 伯), actually "uncles", and thus, a virtual family relationship with the Shang dynasty was created.
Especially during the reign of King Wu Ding 武丁 (trad. r. 1324-1266 BCE, in fact probably 1238-1180), the Shang demonstrated their military superiority over their neighbours and even over states that were a thousand miles away from the royal residence of the Shang. Apart from tributes, the Shang kings required from their vassals taxes in grain and military assistance during warfare.
According to legend, Jiandi 簡狄, the mother of the Shang's first ancestor Xie 契 (Jiandi was a daughter of a noble called You Song 有娀 and secondary wife of Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳), is said to have conceived when she ate a black egg that had dropped from the sky. Xie is also believed to have been a descendant of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝. The black bird seemed to have been a kind of heraldic symbol or totem animal of the Shang people.
Traditional historical sources explain that the Shang dynasty was founded by Tang the Perfect (Cheng Tang) 成湯, who defeated the depraved king Jie 桀, ruler of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th - 15th cent. BCE). The defeated king Jie was banished to Nanchao 南巢 in the Yangtze River region. Before this event, the Shang chieftains had changed eight times the location of their seat (we know the places Bo 亳, Ao 隞, Xiang 相, Xing 邢, Bi 庇, Yan 奄, Yin 殷, Mo 沬), and after the foundation of the dynasty, five more times. Scholars suppose that the Shang people were either nomadic and retained the custom of temporarily changing residence, or that they were forced to move their dwelling places because of inundations or droughts. It might also be that the Shang had to remove their seat because stronger neighbours forced them to leave their seats.
The second ruler of the Shang, king Wai Bing 外丙 (trad. r. 1759-1758 BCE) appointed Yi Yin 伊尹 to the office of chief minister (qingshi 卿士, zhongzai 冢宰). Yi Yin served three subsequent kings, but finally tried to depose King Tai Jia 太甲 (trad. r. 1753-1721) and to usurp the throne. Seven years later, the demoted king was able to kill Yi Yin, but he allowed the usurper's sons Yi She 伊陟 and Yi Fen 伊奮 to inherited their late father's fief.
Other accounts tell that King Tai Jia "forgot about the [virtuous] way of Tang the Perfect" and was therefore imprisoned by Yi Yin in the Tong Palace 桐宮. Yi Yin thus acted as Prince Regent for the depraved ruler. King Tai Jia later repented his faults and was welcomed back to the court. The king's posthumous title was Taizong 太宗. Yi She was also the first minister who initiated relationships with the western nomad tribes (Xirong 西戎) and the "nine" southeastern barbarians (Jiuyi 九夷). Yi Yin's successor as chief minister was Qi Dan 咎單.
King Yong Ji 雍己 (trad. r. 1649-1638 BCE) was the first of the Shang rulers who showed signs of decadence. Yi Yin's son Yi She, serving as chief minister of King Tai Wu 太戊 (trad. r. 1637-1563 BCE, posthumous title Zhongzong 中宗) , was able to ensure the continuance of the power of the Shang kings over their neighbours, a success that was by traditional historians expressed with the words "the feudal lords turned towards Shang" (zhuhou gui zhi 諸侯歸之).
Yin She's successor in office was Wu Xian 巫咸 (also written 巫賢). Under King Hedan Jia 河亶甲 (trad. r. 1534-1526 BCE), the Shang kingdom again lost its prevalent position among the many states.
King Pan Geng is said to have moved several times the residence of Shang but finally decided to move the capital to Yin. His long rule is again seen as an age of strength and prevalence for the Shang rulers. King Wu Ding's chief minister was Fu Yue 傅說. The king once dreamt of Yue as an excellent advisor, had sought for him and found him as a hermit in the wildnerness. With Fu Yue's advice, the king's army defeated the nomad warriors of the Guifang in modern northern Shaanxi. The western tribes of the Di 氐 and Qiang 羌 declared their vassalship to the Shang.
King Wu Ding is seen as an extremely virtuous ruler who was venerated posthumously as Gaozong 高宗 "High Ancestor". Wu Ding is also the first Shang king who is historically documented.
King Wu Yi 武乙 (trad. r. 1198-1195, rather 1129-1095 BCE) enfeoffed Dan Fu, Duke of Gu, 古公亶父, ancestor of the house of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), with the fief of Qi 岐 in the Wei River valley. The counts of Zhou were militarily very active and fought against the western nomad warrior tribes. But their rulers regularly visited the royal court of Shang. Ji Li 季歷, count of Zhou, obviously became a political threat for the Shang and was killed by King Wen Ding 文丁 (trad. r. 1194-1192, rather 1094-1084 BCE). Shortly later, like the historical sources report, phoenixes assembled in Qi, the seat of the Zhou, an occurrence interpreted as an omen clearly signifying the Heavenly blessing of the Zhou rulers.
King Di Xin 帝辛 (better known as King Zhou 紂, trad. r. 1154-1123, rather 1060/1050-1027 BCE) was the last ruler of the Shang. It is said that he was rude and licentious, enticed by his consort Da Ji 妲己, daughter of the nobleman Yousu 有蘇, and in later novels (Fengshen yanyi 封神演義) believed to be a fox spirit. King Zhou imprisoned the Viscount or Earl of the West (Xi Bo 西伯), chieftain of the Zhou people, and only relieved him six years later (compare the case of Ji Li some decades before).
Ji Chang 姬昌 (the eventual King Wen of Zhou 周文王, i.e. the Earl of the West), founder of the Zhou Dynasty, assembled other counts and marquesses with him and won over Lü Shang 呂尚 (known as Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 or Qi Taigong 齊太公) to be his general-in-chief. The armies of the Zhou crossed the Yellow River ford at Mengjin 孟津 and began attacking King Zhou of Shang.
This happened as a final decision to destroy the Shang after King Zhou had incarcerated his uncle, Prince Jizi 箕子, killed another uncle, Bi Gan 比干, and driven away his half-brother Prince Weizi 微子. At the battle of Muye 牧野 in c. 1046 BCE, the Zhou armies defeated the last troops of the Shang. King Zhou of Shang burned himself on his Dear Terrace (Lutai 鹿臺). The rulers of the Zhou took over control of the Central Plain. Prince Weizi was enfeoffed as ruler of the fiefdom of Song 宋.
The Shang prince Wu Geng 武庚 (posthumous title Lu Fu Yin 祿父殷) rebelled against the new master of "China", Ji Fa 姬發, King Wu of Zhou 周武王 but was defeated.
In their self-interpretation, the chieftains of the Zhou received the Heavenly mandate (tianming 天命) and thereby the duty to replace the Shang king as "Sons of Heaven" (tianzi 天子). King Zhou of Shang was reinterpreted as a brutal tyrant who disobeyed the Heavenly way, killed his relatives, murdered his loyal ministers by cruel punishments (like the "roasting pillar", baoge zhi fa 炮格之法) and followed the licentious wishes of his intrigant concubine Da Ji.
The Shang dynasty was thus by Chinese historians defined as one ruling house that naturally experienced a cycle of dynastic succession: The first ruler, Tang the Perfect, was a kind and virtuous ruler. This "royal way" (wangdao 王道) declined and was finally lost by the last ruler, who was in turn replaced by someone who displayed an original mode of virtue, namely the Earl of the West. This cycle was even projected back to the earlier Xia dynasty, and historical accounts on that dynasty in many points resemble the story of the Shang.
Together with the Zhou dynasty, the Xia and Shang constitue the so-called Three (Golden) Ages (sandai 三代).
Although the oracle bone inscriptions proved that traditional Chinese "historians" living during the Zhou period had a certain knowledge of the Shang dynasty and the order of the dynastic succession of their kings, they did not report much about the political events that took place during the several hundred years of the Shang rule. Such details and information about Shang society, economy, culture and religion can only be reconstructed from archaeological discoverings.
The two most important written archaeological sources are the oracle bone inscriptions, and the inscriptions on hundreds of ritual bronze vessels that were discovered throughout China. Such literary witnesses can only serve to reconstruct the last third of the Shang period, when the Chinese script came into use.
The technology of bronze casting required labour division within the society of the Shang kingdom. Such social stratification, the organization of workshops for bronze casting, jade carving, scapulimantic activities (divination with bones) and other trades required by the state make it evident that the partially fortified cities discovered in the Yellow River plain and beyond were inhabited by people with a sophisticated culture and with social diversification, consisting of a kind of nobility, and "working people": for Marxist historians this is a clear proof for the existance of a slave-holder society (nubi shehui 奴婢社會).
Archaeological discoveries make clear that about 1500 BCE, a major state had taken shape in the Yellow River Plain and probably ruled over large territories occupied by smaller and weaker states (guo) and communities. The power of this state shrank about 1300 BCE, and the Yellow River plain became a network of various interacting states that culturally had about the same level. Only the dynasty ruling the city that later was called Yin (the name of Yin is not mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions) made use of a script, and was therefore the only state about which historiographical information has survived.
Although the oldest discoveries of casted ritual bronze vessels were unearthed in the province of Gansu from cultures called Qijia 齊家 and Huoshaogou 火燒溝 cultures, the Erlitou Culture 二里頭 (1900-1350 BCE; Erlitou is a modern place name) near Luoyang 洛陽, Henan, was the first that had introduced industrial casting of bronze vessels, a craft that was not evidently imported from the west. In the Near East, where the bronze age began about the same time as in East Asia, metalwork was made by hammering, while in China the abundancy of metal ores and of cheap labour force made it possible to rely extensively on casting techniques.
There are not many traces left of the palaces and the burial sites of the ruling class of Erlitou. The findings within the Erlitou tombs like jades, turquoise and cowry shells give evidence of a widespread trade system that enabled the ruling class of the Erlitou people to acquire such objects. Pounding earth (hangtu 夯土) for the buildings and tombs, and casting the bronze vessels required a sophisticated labour organization and a social stratification.
The oldest bronze vessels were simple transformations of traditional pottery shapes (like ding 鼎, jue 爵) into a new material, but later vessel types show that artisans invented new forms and shapes especially convening with the new material of bronze (qingtong 青銅). The Erlitou culture shows the transgression from the neolithic age to the bronze age. In tombs, archaeologists discovered clay and bronze vessels, jade and bronze daggers (ge 戈), lacquered wooden coffins, animal bones for divination, and traces of human sacrifice (renxun 人殉).
Although the Erlitou city itself did not have a city wall, there were pounded earth walls found in contemporary sites like Chengziyai 城子崖 (near Jinan 濟南, Shandong). The palace compound of Erlitou with the main hall in the north is very similar to neolithic findings, and likewise the deep tomb shafts with a shelf around the shaft base (a construction called ercengtai 二層臺 "two-layer terrace") is the continuation of a traditional neolithic pattern. Beneath the coffin was a sacrificial pit (yaokeng 腰坑) filled with burial objects. The bronze vessels in the tombs probably contained food and wine for the posthumous life of the buried lord. The jades discovered in Erlitou tombs likewise imitate the shapes of the traditional neolithic daggers, tubes (cong 琮) and disks (bi 璧).
The Erlitou culture was very widespread and it is therefore difficult to describe the political status of the Erlitou community in prehistoric China. Items found in the tombs that are not available in the Central Plain must have been bought or traded from outside. Recently historians begin to identify the Erlitou Culture with the Xia dynasty, but unless there is written evidence, such assumptions are not more than speculation.
In the fifteenth century BCE, the Erligang Culture 二里岡文化 (Erligang is a modern place name) near Zhengzhou 鄭州, Henan, developed to outstanding culture that demonstrated its superiority over neighbouring cultures and its political power by state ceremonies during which ritual bronze vessels played an important role. The wide geographical distribution of the findings of bronze vessels shows at least a cultural spread, technological dissemination and probably also political influence on neighbouring statelets. The rapid expansion of the Erligang state spread technical and political knowledge to other communities in the Yangtze region. But these communities soon developed their own artistical styles and adapted bronze casting technologies to their own cultural needs (casting of bells and drums) and tastes.
The Erligang period is restricted to two centuries (15th-13th cent. BCE) of rapid expansion and a sudden decline of political influence over the center and south of prehistoric China. The site at Erligang is assumed to be identical with the Shang capital city of Ao 隞 mentioned in the traditional accounts.
Unfortunately a great part of the Erligang site is buried under a modern city and cannot systematically been excavated. At least it is known that the city of the Erligang Culture was protected by a wall made from stamped earth and a large trench. Pillars of Erligang buildings and palaces were standing on stone bases to prevent them from rotting. Archaeologists excavated a number of workshops for tools, weapons and bronze vessels. Those were all located outside the city wall. Only a few modest tombs could be excavated, all with very few bronze vessels, jade objects and human sacrifices at tomb offerings, the richest being a grave at Baijiazhuang 白家莊.
All these tombs stand in sharp contrast to the richly furnished large royal tombs of the Anyang site. Although rich archaeological findings are missing it is for sure that a large town like the settlement of Erligang was an important cultural and political center from about 1500 to 1300 BCE. For the 15th century the Erligang Culture spread to various places in ancient China, but from the 14th century on these places all develop their native cultures with own styles and customs.
Other places that are connected to the Erligang Culture like Panlongcheng 盤龍城, Hubei, hundreds of kilometers south of Erliang, show how widespread the culture and power of Erligang was. Panlongcheng must have been something like a fortified colony to assure the transport of ores to the political center at Erligang, where the ores were used to cast ritual bronze vessels and objects. Findings of bronze vessels and burial customs in Palongcheng are nearly identical to the findings in the north. Furthermore, the tombs at Panlongcheng and Lijiazui 李家嘴 are equipped with much more burial offerings than in the "mother city" of Erligang. Bronzes were cast locally outside the city walls in the workshops of craftsmen that probably came from the north. The spread of Erligang bronzes in such a distant area makes it plausible that the rulers of Erligang conquered quite a large territory or at least made the local rulers subservient.
Even more to the south, at Xingan 新干 (or 新淦), Jiangxi, the traces of the Wucheng Culture 吳城 can be found, whose relicts are in style partially identical to the northern relicts but on the other hand show clear evidence of a local genuine style in vessel types as well as in decoration. The rulers of the Yangtze valley thus can not have been simple fiefholders of the northern rulers. In Wucheng archaeologists even discovered pots made from a primitive kind of porcelain. Some of these sherds were even inscribed with signs that are interpreted as forerunners of Chinese characters. A tomb discovered at Xingan is the second richest of the early bronze age, and is only surpassed by the tomb of Fu Hao 婦好, consort of King Wu Ding, in Anyang. The bronzes of Xingan are characterized by a richer decoration with new types of patterns that are not used in Erligang bronzes. Furthermore, this southern tomb was furnished with much more pottery than in northern tombs, and the bronze vessels types of ding 鼎 and li 鬲 are prevalent. Among the tomb furnishings there were also types of bells (of the nao 鐃 and bo 鎛 types) that were unkown in the north.
Findings in Anhui and some sites in Shaanxi from the end of the Erligang period are witnesses of a diversification in styles and types, and thus of the multi-centered character of this historical period. After the end of an expansive period (that of the Erligang Culture), and before the beginning of the Anyang Culture (late Shang), there was a phase that is by archaeologists called a transition period. Although there existed various cultural centres, all these city states had intensive contacts with each other, as the findings in tombs show.
The Huai River 淮水 region was inhabited by people, whose traces can be seen in the bronze vessels unearthed in Funan 阜南 and Feixi 肥西, Anhui. Near modern Beijing tombs were unearthed at Pinggu 平谷 and Taixicun 臺西村. They show no great diversity in the shape and decoration of bronze vessels, but pottery with features that were distinctive from the Central Plain. In southern Shaanxi, at Chenggu 城固, vessels of an extremely high quality have been unearthed. Some bronze vessel and weapon types might derive from Xingan types in the south.
Around 1200 BCE begins the historical period of Anyang 安陽 (by older archaeologists called Yinxu 殷墟, "Wastes of Yin"), the actual site of the Shang ruling house. The first ruler whose name appears in the oracle bone inscriptions is Wu Ding 武丁. He ruled over a large unwalled city and was buried with great pomp. Unfortunately his tomb was looted, but the burial site of his consort Fu Hao 婦好 was unearthed fully intact. The two tombs - like all the tombs who are sited in a wide graveyard-like area around Wuguancun 武官村, Xibeigang 西北岡 and Houjiazhuang 侯家莊 - contained not only a multitude of burial offerings like bronze vessels, jade and chariots (that must have been imported from the steppe peoples) but also dozens of in some cases beheaded sacrificial human victims (renxun 人殉) and sacrified animals like horses and dogs.
The bloody burial rites of the Shang interestingly left no trace in the memory of the historiography of the succeeding Zhou dynasty. In the Zhou moralist's eyes, the last depraved rulers of the Shang have been lustful, not bloody. Reason for this might be that in the early Zhou phase, human sacrifices were also part of Zhou burial rites, but those were abandoned later, and humans were replaced by wooden or pottery figurines.
From the oracle bone inscriptions it can be observed that in the last few decades of the Yin period the Shang state enjoyed a quite peaceful time. While during the reign of King Wu Ding there were many military campaigns against the Tufang and Gongfang, the kings of Yin might have lost their influence on communities in modern Shanxi and Shaanxi. Interference into the politics of the peoples and states living in this area was beyond the Yin king's sphere. Surprisingly, the last kings of Yin do not rely on friendly lords as their allies in wartime. One former ally, Zhou, had become an enemy and suddenly took over the control of the Central Plain in the mid of the 11th century BC.
Although the area where ritual bronze vessels were casted during the Anyang period is much larger than before, the types and decorations of the various regions show a great diversity. The vessels of the Yangtze region are the first to show real animal shape of elephants or rhinoceroses (no more fabulous stylized "dragons" or taotie 饕餮 masks of voracious monsters), a pattern adopted later by the Zhou artisans. Nao bells from Ningxiang 寧鄉, Hunan, are extremely huge compared with the Anyang bells of Fu Hao's tomb. Unknown to the north are also the large bronze drums like that of Chongyang/Hubei.
Even more outstanding are the findings from Sichuan (Sanxingdui 三星堆) that enclose richer burying offerings like gold and elephant tusks. The shape of the bronzes, especially anthropomorph tools or masks, are without counterpart in the other parts of China and are thus of a distinctively native character. The Sanxingdui bronzes show no contact with the Anyang or Erligang types, and there was obviously no continuation of the typical Sanxingdui motifs after the begin of the Zhou period. In Sanxingdui tombs there are also no human sacrifices like in the north. Obviously there was only little relationship with the Anyang culture but intensive contact to the Middle Yangtze valley.
In Shandong in Subutun 蘇埠屯, the largest tomb outside of Anyang was discovered, abundantly supplied with human sacrifices. Sufutun had close relationships with Anyang or was even a kind of colony.
The Wei River 渭水 valley, the region of the Zhou conquestors, shows no sophisticated culture but instead seems to be an eager recipient of Erligang, Anyang, southern and northern-siberian cultures. Although archaeologists tried to find a trace of a proto-Zhou culture this task seems not to be solvable because of the abundancy of archaeological relics of different cultures. The Zhou people thus might have been a mixture of different cultural cradles, including nomad warriors from the west. Like the state of Qin 秦 later, the Zhou rulers might have obtained an excellent training in military techniques by the permanent challenge of nomad raiders within their territory.
In China's north that was inhabited by nomad peoples, casting of ritual bronze vessels was not as important as that of weapons and other tools for daily use. There seems to be no deep influence of Erligang bronze casting techniques, and some historians assume the arrival of new peoples at the end of the Erligang period that made use of gold rather than bronze. Around 1200 the chariot comes in use in the Anyang region - clearly an influence by such new nomad immigrants. Vice versa, these nomad peoples accepted some bronze tool types from the Anyang culture, like mirrors, daggers, axes or some types of vessels. But the northern types of daggers and battle axes also occur in Anyang tombs. The mixture of archaeological findings in the north and in Shanxi proves that this region was inhabited by peoples of different societies, cultures and economies that lived side-by-side and as neighbours.
The archaeological discoveries make evident that pre-Zhou China was not ruled by a single state or a Shang Dynasty as supposed by the traditional historiographic sources. Early bronze age China instead was inhabited by numerous communities with different cultural traditions of whom several proved to be politically superior and were able to dominate a larger territory for a certain time, like the Erligang Culture and the Anyang Culture. When the Zhou conquered ancient China from the west, they inherited parts of the political and cultural institutions of the Shang rulers in Yin, like calendar, script, and the religion of ancestor veneration. It was the Zhou historiography and tradition that blinded out all other cultures of the late 2nd millenium BC and purported a single universal dynasty, the Shang, that ruled over the Central Plain and whose kingdom was inherited by the Zhou kings. But in fact, cultural diversity was a phenomenon that not only dominated the landscape of early bronze age China but also the subsequent long period of the Zhou Dynasty.