c. 1700 BC – c. 1046 BC
Time to head back into China, this time talking about real history that we can sort of prove happened in at least some way. Far from the days of immortal emperors, but not so far removed from the days of a dynasty that may have been fanciful in the Xia, as the Shang themselves have a few legendary origins, the Shang dynasty, or the Yin, as they are called by the Han historian Sima Qian, were the first dynasty to extend real mastery over the area of China. Or at least, the first dynasty in the traditional ordering of Chinese history that we have archaeological evidence to prove that they existed.
Location and Archaeology
Not really known exact borders but estimates put the Shang as having about double the territory of the Xia, as the Shang family already had lands outside of Xia jurisdiction when they took the the throne and we have archaeological records all across the Yellow River indicating a significant structure for dates within when the Shang dynasty was ruling.
Given that they are the first significant dynasty it’s safe to assume they controlled most of the Yellow River valley and probably had contacts outside of those borders whereby any of the tribes living there would have considered them the masters of the region even if the local village heads did not pay tribute directly to the Shang. We only identified Shang sites in the 20th century, before then, the Zhou dynasty was the earliest verified. So maybe in the future the Xia will be verified, but for now, the Shang are the oldest certain Chinese dynasty. The most important Shang site is at Yinxu, in the centre of that landmass, modern Anyang. It’s the most known because they found dragon bones there. Not making that up, but if you want the boring truth they were ox bones that were marketed as dragon bones because they were probably used for oracle purposes. Also, there was a lot of Shang bronze discovered in the last 100 years indicating that China really was a highly advanced society at that time.
For later Chinese dynasties, one succeeds the other, Ming falls and Qing rises. Quite possibly not so for the earlier dynasties, the Shang were probably an independent state that ended up conquering the Xia lands from the last Xia emperor Jie. Indeed, the founding myth of the Shang says that their ancestor, as well as being miraculously conceived because his mother swallowed a sacred egg, also helped Yu The Great, the first Xia emperor, stop the floods.
Even when we get to the actual Shang emperors, we’re rather uncertain about most of their lives, with only a few details for most of this. And most of our non-archaeological sources come from Sima Qian’s Annals Of The Yin so there’s still a bit of guesswork to be done. The first king recorded as being part of the Shang by tradition is Tang of Shang, because rhyming names always went down well with the troops. He overthrew the evil emperor Jie, who was the overlord of his Shang state, and made the Shang state the dominant power in China. Tang is called by Qian ‘Tang The Completer’, suggesting he brought together the destiny of the Shang dynasty to make it complete. According to one of the differing chronologies (just like with Babylon, timeline discrepancies are common), he brought the Shang to power somewhere between 1650-1600 BC. He built a palace called Xia She to ‘remember the Xia dynasty by’, code for ‘these guys are now history and will soon have historians doubting their existence, bow to your new masters the Shang’. It worked.
Tang’s first son, Tai Ding, died before he could inherit the throne or just after his father died, so his brother Wai Bing took the throne. These names are serious. There’s often two versions of them as well, depending on which source you use, Wai Bing could also be called Bu Bing. These names are serious .
There’s a bit of a confused line of succession then, differing sources have these kings in different orders, e.g. the oracle bones indicate that Bu Bing comes after Tai Jia, but Tai Jia comes to the throne at some point and is a cruel ruler who treated his people badly and was exiled to a monastery by his prime minister until it was deemed the king had learned his lesson. You know, like sending a child to their room for bad behaviour, and it seems that this actually… worked, Tai Jia became a virtuous ruler thereafter. A nice little moral tale to read to future young emperors before bed I’m sure.
Then there’s Xiong Jia, Tai Wu, Yong Ji, Zhong Ding, Bu Ren, Jian Jia, Zu Yi, Zu Xin, Qiang Jia, Zu Ding, Nan Geng and Xiang Dia. Aside from noting the odd rebellion and a few more detailed events from Tai Wu’s reign, not much is recorded in the sources, this time the Records Of Emperors and Kings by 3rd century Huangfu Mei.
It gets a bit more for the latter half of the Shang dynasty, Pan Geng moves the capital of the Shang to Yinxu. He was falled by Xiao Xin and Xiao Yi and then Wu Ding. For Wu Ding we have records that he grew up among the common people, allied many tribes by marrying one woman from each, meaning China knew how to navigate the harem genre right, conducted rituals in honour of Tang of Shang, and conquered nearby unruly tribes, three of them which was quite the achievement. I suppose that we can extrapolate to say that Wu Ding had a, though good and successful and probably one of the best individual rulers of the Shang, an average ruler experience of this dynasty so the kings we don’t know anything about we could guess had similar (with marriage, possibly early life experience among the common people if their fathers were wise enough) but less profitable reigns.
Then, Zu Geng, Zu Jia, Lin Xin, Kang Ding (not making these up), and then we get on to Wu Yi. By the time that Wu Yi came to the throne, the future next dynasty to rule China, the Zhou were in existence and he had them as vassals at the time. The power of the Shang was in decline, but first, Wen Wu Ding and Di Yi ruled. Then we get to the final Shang king, Di Xin, who was called King Zhou by his enemies, intended to portray him as hedonistic and cold-hearted and corrupt. Sima Qian calls him an intelligent king, but one who gave himself over to drinking, abandoning all forms of morals and letting the country go to waste. The usual bad king story. But to make it even more extravagant, his palace contained a huge BC swimming pool to be filled with wine as well as an accompanying island made out of nothing but roasted meat, as well as filling all the trees with meat. He and his friends would drift on canoes in the pool, filling their glasses with wine and grabbing the meat as they sailed past the island, while concubines ran naked around the gardens. He also executed wrongdoers by heating a huge barrel and forcing them to hug the barrel until they died of heat, apparently getting aroused by doing this. Even if this is all an exaggeration, that’s the image that the people of China had of him, and coupled with high taxes, it’s the perfect time for a new dynasty to invade him. Even if that dynasty used their name on him to perjoratively insult him. There’s a translation thing in there that I’m missing I think.
Anyway, in 1046 BC, Jiang Ziya and Wu of the Zhou defeated the Shang army at Muye. With slaves that Di Xin/Zhou had forced into servitude defecting to the Zhou, Shang spearmen refusing to put up their spears and joining the Zhou mid-battle, the Zhou troops being better trained under a better lord and chariot charges disrupting the Shang ranks, Di Xin was defeated, fleeing into his palace where he, in one final act of cowardice, set the entire palace on fire. And new lords, the Zhou, would now rule China.
Zhou serves as a negative example of Confucian principles, which would come about under the Zhou and is the classic bad Chinese king.
The Shang were differently cultured from the Chinese that came later, they practiced some forms of ancestor worship and shamanism with sacrifices to both their ancestors and traditional gods like Di, the high god. organised religion was yet to come to China. They were the last dynasty to not involve themselves with the concept of the Mandate of Heaven that defined many later Chinese conflicts.
Ancestor worship was very important though and was a key part of court life for Shang emperors, the emperor would in some cases, even lead the sacrificial rituals, we have records showing Wu Ding did.
As detailed above, the chariot makes its first appearance in China in around 1200 BC, meaning that wars finally had something a bit more than spears and archery. Infantry also had early halberds or ‘dagger-axes’. Bronze was widespread and fine bronze was used for all the weapons, including the chariot wheels. The horse burials and possible horse archery and bow usage indicate some cultural contact with steppe peoples to the west because it is a similar army composition to the traditional setup of those cultures. Certainly the idea of the chariot probably came from that direction to China, the Egyptians had been using it for hundreds of years before.
The common people were mostly an agricultural society with a bit of hunting still apparent in their culture, but very little indication of trade beyond their borders, this would not be a significant part of Chinese culture until the Han.