An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Society

Jul 2, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Graveyards in the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) cities of Erligang 二里岡, Yanshi 偃師, Huanbei, and Anyang 安陽, prove a growing differentiation into social classes. While there is no distinction in the size or furnishing of tombs in early Shang period sites, the royal clan, princely lineages, and commoners were buried in separate compounds in the late Shang site of Anyang, in other words, in burial clusters separating lineage groups (Campbell 2018: 156). Apart from archaeology, oracle bone inscriptions are immensely helpful for the reconstruction of Shang society. All findings as described below are related to late Shang society centered on the metropolis Anyang.

Marxist historiography defines the Shang and Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) periods as the age of the slaveholder society (nuli shehui 奴隸社會), but relations of ownership, servitude, and freedom are less than clear.

Chang Kwang-chih (1980: 195) holds that the social organization of the Shang had a strong military aspect in the way that lineages and their followers and dependents were organized as quasi-military units. For this reason, females were also (at least nominally) given military commands, performed sacrifices, and had their own walled towns.

The royal family and princely lineages

The city of Anyang was centre of kinship organization that extended throughout the lands dominated by the Shang (Chang 1980: 158). A settlement or town was called yi 邑. It was usually the result of a deliberate and planned construction from the political centre (like the "colony" of Panlongcheng 盤龍城, Hubei), and not a naturally grown city.

Princes and nobles were given land either close to the capital, or with an own village farther away. The Shang kings distributed the rights over land, and over people for labour and military service (Campbell 2018: 119). A local "governor" or "proconsul" was thus given land, dependent people in lineage (zu 族) units, ritual paraphernalia and regalia placed in a ritual chamber (zong 宗). Lineage groups inhabiting a town were grouped into kinship grades (zong) according to ritual contexts and into polity groups (shi 氏) in terms of political status.

Members of princely lineages, and "governors" (kin or non-kin) of polities dependent from or allied with the Shang were also allowed to have their own ritual bronze vessels cast, and to deliver offerings to certain ancestral spirits of the Shang. The "clan insignia" (zuhui 族徽) on bronze vessels, serving as descent group signifiers (Campbell 2018: 158), typically consist of three characters, namely a "heraldic" emblem, a kin term ("ancestor", "ancestress", "father", "mother", "elder brother", "consort", "prince/son"), and one of the cyclical signs. Some emblems are encircled by a character ya 亞, perhaps signifying an official title or relationship to the royal house (Chang 1980: 207).

In the beginnings, the zu name might probably have been a military "totemic" unit (Chang 1980: 163), but later signified the patrilineage. The direct royal lineage was called wangzu 王族, the lateral branches or princely lineages zizu 子族 "child lineage". The royal house was divided into two groups that alternated in holding rulership (see political system). Cross-generational or cross-divisional succession was favoured (brother, nephew). In several instances, Anyang-period kings were succeeded by their youngest son, who was in turn succeeded by his older brothers (Chang 1980: 182).

In political decisions, the king was assisted by officials, the head of which was a chief of a lineage unit from the opposite division to that of the king (a different cyclical character), and the chief minister played a key role in the succession struggle (Chang 1980: 162), as can be seen in the story of Yi Yin 伊尹.

The legitimacy of the Shang dynasty was expressed in the ownership of fields, agency in ritual, religious, political, military, and jurisdictional contexts, and opportunity within "social fields". Authority was expressed through a social economy that channelled and transformed a multitude of networks of capital and practice: divination, sacrifice, elite hunting, offering tribute (upward flow of goods), bestowing rewards (downward flow of goods), disposal of land and people, and force (Campbell 2018: 105, 111).

It can be said that the Shang king was a "leader of lineage leaders" (Campbell 2018: 177) who distributed rights and duties. Some of the royal prerogatives were bestowed down to lineage leaders. Shang elites thus had their own forces to levy people for labour or war, the so-called "ranked multitudes" (Campbell 2018: 162). This was also true for the lords of allied polities which made the king dependent on extensive networks of alliance and patronage (Campbell 2018: 131-132).

Shang kinship was patrilocal (couple living at the site of the man's parents), patrilinear/agnatic (family membership determined by the father's lineage), and patriarchal (males dominate in leadership) (Campbell 2018: 164).

The names of royal/princely consorts (fu 婦) were derived from places of origin, according to the pattern { 女+□} = woman from □, like Fu Jing 婦妌 "Queen Jing" from Jing 井 (Campbell 2018: 167). In contrast to later ages, there was indeed endogamous intermarriage between patrilineage groups, making Shang descent groups more inclusive (Chang 1980: 166; Campbell 2018: 170) than that of the Zhou, which used the shi 氏 as the name of a male lineage, and xing 姓 as the family name of a female. The Shang had no xing surnames (Campbell 2018: 170). Somewhat older scholars like Chang Kwang-chih (1980: 163) held up the Zhou-period paradigm that the xing name, transmitted by the mother, was used along with the shi (local) name of the father (see family name).

Allies and enemies

The "Great Settlement Shang" (Da yi Shang 大邑商), as Anyang was called in oracle bone inscriptions, was an urban as well as a spatial concept (Campbell 2018: 143). There was an administrative kind of "bizone", consisting of the metropolitan region controlled by the king and his close relatives and the outer regions (hou 侯 and dian 甸). This model was taken over by the Western Zhou dynasty 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), yet this arrangement it did not correspond to a territorial state, but rather to a "network-state", where lines of alliances were crossing territory with communities not controlled by or even inimical to the Shang (Campbell 2018: 143).

Alliances were not stable, but changed over time. The Zhou in the far west, for instance, appear in early oracle inscriptions as an enemy, then as an ally or agent, and then again as an enemy, before they disappear from the inscriptions when the Shang lost control over the western region.

In order to keep at bay enemies and to control allies, the Shang kings carried out punitive campaigns with such a high frequency that Campbell (2019: 121) speaks of "endemic warfare". The Shang kings launched a "continual program of pacification aimed at producing and maintaining the civilizational order" (ibid.). Royal hunts and war were thus similar activities of demonstrating power: The king "hunted" for Qiang 羌 captives (Campbell 2018: 115-116). He was supported in this enterprise by the adoption of the chariot (see Shang military) in the early Anyang phase. This tool drastically increased the Shang king's authority beyond the symbolic used of axes as symbols of royal power.

The Shang king requested (qi 乞) tributes from allies and dependents which delivered (yi 以, ru 入=na 納, gong 共, deng 登) tortoises and cattle as "status-affirming" animals and presented cowry shells, ores for bronze, jades, salt, or part of the harvest of fields (Campbell 2018: 113-118).

Commoners and slaves

At the apex of Shang society stood the "High God" Shang Di 上帝 as the highest authority (see Shang religion) also concerning legitimacy. He was followed in hierarchy by various powers of the land and pre-dynastic ancestors, and royal ancestors. Among the living, the king and the royal clan dominated society, followed by members of subordinate (princely) lineages, high officials, and political allies. The next level were lower-ranking officials, minor lineage leaders, ordinary lineage leaders, and finally slaves, captives, and livestock (Campbell 2018: 110). In this latest societal model, "freemen" do not appear as individuals, but always as lineage leaders. Yet oracle bone inscriptions speak of free "villagers" (yiren 邑人) (Zhou 2000: 197).

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, "working people", and slaves. The historian Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) therefore applied the methodological approach of historical materialism to prove, on the grounds of inscriptions and archaeological finds, that the Shang were an early slave-holder society (Chang 1980: 63). Yet who did indeed build city walls, moats, temples, palaces, or streets, is unknown: Was it slaves, or freemen liable for corvée?

The social class of commoners included craftsmen, traders, and peasants. Farming was carried out collectively by the so-called "multitudes" (zhongren 眾人). It might have been that commoners were organized in occupational units, like potters (tao 陶), cordmakers (suo 索), fencemakers (fan 樊), makers of wine vessels (changshao 長勺, weishao 尾勺), flag makers (shi 施), cooks (qi 錡) or bronze casters (Chang 1980: 231). Agents controlling agriculture, either persons from the lineage, or "ministerials" (xiaochen 小臣) were closely related to the king (Campbell 2018: 125). The royal court needed a huge social economic web of miners, smelters, woodcutters, charcoal burners, ceramic mould crafters, bronze casters, etc., all of which contributed to the upward flow of ressources.

It is quite sure that zhong were not slaves, but whether their status was that of low-class freemen, or even that of members of the Shang aristocracy, belonging to localized Shang lineages, is unclear. Perhaps they were organized as lineage members and were dependents of the "petty elite" (Keightley 1999: 282-283).

The word nu 奴 "slave" or other characters that might be identfied as a word for "slave", do not occur in oracle bone inscriptions, nor were instances of buying or selling persons discovered (Keightley 1999: 285-286). The status of Qiang or other "unfree" persons might rather be defined by grades of dependency and privilege rather than by that of ownership and personal freedom. Not even the many victims butchered for sacrifices or burials might have been slaves, because nothing is known about their lives before being sacrificed. Their death was an expression of dependency from their lord, the service to whom was to be continued after the master's death.

The lowest social stratum of society were prisoners of war, for instance, from the tribe of the Qiang. They perhaps served as slaves, and were often butchered during human sacrifices to the ancestors or for the interment of a king.


There were basically three types of schools for members of the royal linage of the Shang, namely xiang 庠, xu 序, and Guzong 瞽宗. The use of xiang schools was to "nourish the aged persons [of the lineage]" (yanglao 養老). The chapter Wangzhi 王制 of the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 explains that the place where the "members of the main lineage of the royal house" (guolao 國老) were ritually "nourished" (i.e. banketet and venerated), was called Youxue 右學 "School to the Right", and that for the ceremonial nourishment of the "lesser lineage members" (shulao 庶老), Zuoxue 左學 "School to the Right".

The latter was located in the centre of the royal palace and instructed the dignitaries of the government in the duties of filial piety. In the Youxue, students were instructed in carrying out ceremonies, including the use of various robes worn during the offerings, the types and numbers of vessels, victims, and types of food offered to the ancestors. The ceremonies also included banquets during which the elderly members of the royal lineage were feasted. The xu-type "schools" offered instruction in martial arts like archery.

A description of the activities of the Guzong School can be found in the book Guoyu 國語 (ch. Zhouyu 周語 B). They were responsible for the arrangement of ritual music and the tempering of bells. Gu 瞽 was the name of an ancient, blind music master, and Guzong the name of a shrine dedicated to this person.

It can be concluded that rituals, music, and ancestral shrines consisted a unity as early as the Shang period.

Campbell, Roderick (2018). Violence, Kinship and the Early Chinese State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Chang, Kwang-chih (1980). Shang Civilization (New Haven/London: Yale University Press).
Guo Qijia 郭齊家, Qiao Weiping 喬衛平 (1994). Zhongguo yuangu ji sandai jiaoyu shi 中國遠古暨三代教育史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe). (Zhongguo quanshi, bai juan ben 中國全史,百卷本)
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.
Zhou Ziqiang 周自強 (2000). Zhongguo jingji tongshi 中國經濟通史, Vol. 1, Qian-Qin jingji 先秦經濟卷, part 1 (Beijing: Jingji ribao chubanshe).