An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Period Government, Administration, Law

Feb 9, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

All written information about the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), the political landscape and the administrative structures during that time derive either from the traditional historiographies that were written many centuries after the state of Yin 殷 (Shang) had vanished, or from information found in the inscriptions found on the archival oracle bones.

The administrative terminology of later ages, including the function of these offices, is of course anachronistic if applied to the Shang, like the term "feudal lords" (zhuhou 諸侯), or various titles of ministers and government officials.

The state of Yin was the centre of their world, all other states and communities - either friendly or hostile - belonged to the various regions or "extensions" (fang 方). In many cases the suffix -fang even refered to hostile peoples, like the Guifang 鬼方 "Ghost barbarians" which roamed the northern parts of the modern province of Shaanxi.

Princes (zi 子) of the royal lineage (wangzu 王族), sons or brothers of the ruling king, were controlling a domain in most cases not far from the core area of the Yin state. Still linked with the royal lineage were the royal cousins of lineages of princes (zizu 子族), the royal sideline (xiaoshi 小示) that often possessed large domains and were able to deploy their own armies and to collect their own taxes in grain and kind. A third group of people linked to the royal lineage were relatives of consorts or groups that were otherwise intensively allied with the kings of Yin. Among them, persons can be found that were of different ethnic origin, like the Qiang 羌 from the west.

The royal domains were administered by various officials for different tasks, like field officers (tian 田), pastural officers (mu 牧), guard officers (wei 衛) or hunting officers (quan 犬). It is not yet known if these people were simple government officials or if they acted on behalf of their own as independant. The last group of dependencies were lords (hou 侯 "marquesses", bo 伯 "earls", see titles of nobility) of other states that sometimes acted as allies of the kings of Yin, sometimes changed side and attacked Yin, like the case of Zhou 周.

The city of Yin and the surrounding area of about 30 km2 constituted the center of the Shang realm. The domains of certain affiliated lords stretched even further to the west. Culturally, the Shang realm extended far into what is today the provinces of Shandong, Zhejiang, Liaojing and even Shaanxi, Huan and Sichuan. Yet politically, the state of Yin did not cover such a large area. The Shang kings allied with the lords of surrounding their domains. These allies presented tributes to the Shang kings, consisting of war captives and slaves, cattle, but also turtle shells and scapulas for the purpose of divination as an extremely important part of the political executive. During war, the various lords supported the kings of Yin with soldiers.

The existance of archives where oracle bones baring inscriptions were stored shows that the kings of Yin depended on a kind of simple bureaucracy where officers recorded governmental activities like the reclamation of land, war campaigns, reception of tributes and charging persons with certain offices or tasks. Such records might have been written down with brush and ink on wooden or bamboo tablets or slips (ce 冊). The diviners or shamans (wu 巫) and their aides thus acted as royal historiographers. Certainly, the organisation of the various workshops in the capital, the collection of taxes from the peasants, i.e. an obvious stage of labour division, also required a certain stage of bureaucratic hierarchy. People filling the highest posts in this hierarchy stemmed from families that had close relationships with the royal house. Personal relationship thus defines already this early stage of Chinese civilisation.

Traditional histories about the Shang period, like the Yin chapter of the history Shiji 史記 or the Bamboo Annals (Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年) present lists of the Shang rulers. Although we are able to recognize all names of this list on oracle bones, the familiary relationship between the rulers can only be painfully reconstructed on the base of the inscriptions on the scapulimantic relics on the oracle bones. Posthumous temple names of the kings of Yin are in most cases confined to a strict pattern of nomenclature, like da 大 "the Great", zhong 中 "the Middle", xiao 小 "the Smaller", or zu 祖 "the Ancestor", if belonging to the royal main-line. The second part of the temple name is in all cases one of the ten Celestial Stems (tiangan 天干) that were normally used in counting days by a sexagenary cycle, like Di Xin 帝辛 "God-ancestor VIII", Zu Geng 祖庚 "Ancestor VII", Wu Ding 武丁 "Martial IV". It can be observed that these "numbers" are alternating between relatively few stems, a case that might be the result of alternating throne succession of different lineage groups of princes. In pre-Anyang times kings often succeeded their own brothers to the throne. Ancestors of elder generations and consorts of the kings were likewise adressed by temple names incorporating a number of the Celestial Stems, like Xiong Ji 兄己 "Older Brother VI", Fu Ji 父己 "Father VI", or Mu Bing 母丙 "Mother III", Bi Xin 妣辛 "Consort VIII".

Bagley, Robert (1999). "Shang Archaeology", in Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaugnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 124-231.
Keightley, David N. (1999). "The Shang: China's First Historical Dynasty", in Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaugnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 232-289.