An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE)

Feb 9, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), in Chinese sources often called Yin 殷, was a house ruling over a substantial part of what is today northern China. From their capital, located at Xiaotun 小屯 close to the modern city of Anyang 安陽, Henan, the kings of the Shang exerted power and cultural influence on polities and statelets as far as south of the Yangtze River. The history of the Shang state is only known from much later sources that counted the Shang among one of the Three Dynasties of anquity (Sandai 三代: Xia 夏, Shang and Zhou 周). According to historiography, the Shang dynasty was founded by Tang the Prefect 成湯, and it found its end under the depraved King Zhou 紂.

Chinese scholars of the late imperial period doubted the authenticity of historiographic accounts on the Shang and dismissed them as myths and tales. Only the discovery of inscribed oracle bones near Anyang in the early twentieth century proved that the Shang and their kingdom had been historical fact. Yet while historiography pretends that the Shang ruled as a single dynasty over "China", archaeological finds of later decades brought to light numerous prospering cities and thus proved that the Shang were but one of many states, albeit the most powerful one. In the eleventh century the Shang kingdom was conquered by the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), a family ruling over the western extensions of the Shang kingdom.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Shang (where historical narrative is contrasted with archaeological findings), the geography of the kingdom and its surroundings, provides a critical list of kings, describes the administration and political structure of the kingdom, gives insights into the religion, economy and technical inventions of the Shang, and explains the origins of art and literature in the shape of oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文) and bronze vessel inscriptions (jinwen 金文).