Shang Dynasty

A bronze ding from the Shang Dynasty (11th c. BCE). Santa Barbara Museum of Art
  • Dates: c. 1750-1045 BCE?
  • Chinese/Japanese: 商 (Shang / Shou)

The Shang Dynasty was the second of China's semi-legendary Three Dynasties, and the earliest period from which written evidence is extant - mainly in the form of oracle bones. Writing is believed to have emerged as an indigenous development in China towards the end of this period, likely little earlier than 1200 BCE.[1] The period is also known for its bronzes. Evidence of Shang era walled cities have been discovered at Anyang (a short distance northeast of Luoyang, along the Wei River), and elsewhere.[2] Yinxu, near present-day Anyang, served as the capital or center of the Shang Dynasty from around 1300 BCE to 1045 BCE. Though long believed merely legendary, finds of oracle bones at Anyang in 1900[3] and other finds since then have led most scholars to today agree there is enough evidence to believe that the Shang actually existed.

Excavations at Erligang in northwestern China have revealed a complex society, which produced intricate bronze works, and which traded or otherwise disseminated its bronzes across a rather wide area. The Shang overlapped in time with a culture indicated by finds at Erlitou, near Luoyang; whether Erlitou was a city of the Xia Dynasty - the dominant dynasty which according to legend preceded the Shang - or of simply some other, separate, culture which the Shang then conquered or subsumed, is unclear.[1]

Some sources suggest that it was the use of war chariots - the technology itself, and the tactics for their use coming from the Near East - which allowed the Shang to subdue and unite the lands they did, in order to establish the dynasty.[4]

The Shang buried their kings and other elites in grand tombs, filled with extensive amounts of grave goods. This represents a continuation, and expansion, of social stratification seen in earlier periods (such as in the Longshan culture, c. 3000-2000 BCE, and far less so in the Yangshao culture, c. 5000-3000 BCE). The tomb of Lady Hao, a consort of King Wuding, who was surely not the highest ranking of Shang elites (being only a consort, and not a king herself, let alone one of the greatest kings of the period), contained 1.5 metric tons of bronzes, 755 jades, and nearly 7,000 cowry shells. The Shang also continued and expanded upon the Longshan culture's practice of human sacrifice, burying a dozen or as many as several hundred prisoners of war, or other people, in an elite's tomb.[5]

Other archaeological finds, at sites such as Xingan in Jiangxi province and at Sanxingdui in southwestern China, have uncovered examples of bronzes which scholars say were clearly not made by Shang artisans, nor are mere copies of Shang creations. Whether these other cultures learned the technology of bronze-smelting and casting from the Shang or developed it independently is unclear, but these finds do seem to be good evidence that the Shang were not the only bronze-making cultures in the region (or, at least, not for long).[6]

The Shang fell around 1045 BCE to the armies of King Wu of Zhou, who came from the west. Even after the fall of the Shang, the descendants of its rulers maintained the lineage and a certain degree of cohesiveness, territory, and power, and continued to perform sacrifices to their royal ancestors, praying for liberation from the Zhou invaders/overlords.[7]

Rulers of Shang

Preceded by:
Xia Dynasty
Shang Dynasty
c. 1750-1100 BCE?
Succeeded by:
Zhou Dynasty


  • K.C. Chang, Art, Myth, and Ritual, Harvard University Press (1983), 132.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 7-8.
  2. Albert Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 4-5.
  3. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.[1]
  4. Walter McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History," in Ross Dunn (ed.), The New World History, Bedford/St. Martin's (2000), 152.
  5. Schirokauer, et al, 11-12.
  6. Schirokauer, et al, 15.
  7. Schirokauer, 18.