Type of Government
A hereditary monarchy, the government of the Shang dynasty was a form of theocracy, in which the king’s chief role was religious. The king was supported by a hierarchy of officials who performed specialized functions. Local aristocrats and tribal chiefs controlled regions away from the center of government with the approval of the king.
The Shang dynasty was the second of three hereditary dynasties—the Hsia, Shang, and Chou—that ruled ancient China. The period of Shang rule is traditionally dated 1766 to 1122 BC. The Shang controlled the North China Plain, an area near the Yellow River roughly corresponding to the modern provinces of Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, and Shanxi. For many years, it was not clear whether the Shang was a mythical creation or a historical reality, but during the twentieth century new archaeological evidence confirmed the existence of the Shang and gave it a concrete chronological basis. Much of the contemporary knowledge about the Shang comes from a rich collection of artifacts, such as bronze vessels, pottery, and oracle bone inscriptions and excavations from burial sites.
The Shang was preceded by the Hsia dynasty, and archaeological evidence suggests that the two shared a common culture and may have overlapped. According to legend, the Shang dynasty was established in 1766 BC, when Ch’eng T’ang (fl. c. 1766–c. 1754 BC) overthrew Jie (1818–1766 BC), the last of the tyrannical Hsia rulers, and made the city of Bo (modern-day Zhengzhou) the capital. Chinese history portrays T’ang as a benevolent and virtuous ruler who sought to restore good government to the kingdom. In all, the Shang dynasty encompassed approximately thirty kings over seventeen generations. Shang rule was marked by a relatively stable political structure.
The Shang capital was moved at least five times during the dynasty. The final and most significant move occurred around 1350 BC, during the reign of King Pangeng (fourteenth century BC), when the capital was relocated to the ancient city of Yin (modern-day Anyang). The late Shang period, from Pangeng’s rule to the end of the Shang line, is sometimes referred to as the Yin dynasty.
Rituals figured significantly in the politics of the Shang dynasty, particularly the practice of oracle bone divination. Shang rulers carried out a ritual called scapulimancy, a form of divination in which the shoulder bones of animals were cracked with a heated poker. The pattern of the resulting cracks was thought to give answers (derived from the wishes of ancestors) to important questions, which the king then used in his decision making. Later, these so-called oracle bones were inscribed with the name of the diviner, the question and answer, and the date and collected into primitive books. These inscriptions provide some of the earliest evidence of the development of Chinese written language.
The Shang dynasty was a hereditary monarchy headed by a king; during the late Shang period the king was known by the title wang. The government was a form of theocracy in which the king’s chief role was religious. The Shang king was, first and foremost, a mediator between the physical world and the divine. The Shang worshipped the high god Di, and the king was believed to be the person who could best communicate with the god via his royal ancestors. Thus, rituals played a large role in the king’s rule—in particular, the interpretation of divine omens and signs was a key part of royal decision making.
Succession to the kingship passed through the male line, typically from father to son and from elder brother to younger brother. The king and his lineage were at the center of the Shang political, economic, and religious structure, and the people were loyal to the king, rather than the state or its institutions—indeed, the king often referred to himself as yu yiren, meaning “I, the one man.” The king considered matters of government to be his personal business, and public officials carried out their functions as a form of personal service to the ruler. Likewise, the military authority of the state was tied directly to the king—local armies and Shang allies could be mobilized only if the king agreed to fight alongside them.
The king was supported by a hierarchy of officials who performed specialized functions. At the top was a secretariat of councilors that was responsible for managing the kingdom’s agricultural calendar, handling palace business, and organizing feasts. This tier also included diviners, ceremonial specialists, and court chroniclers. The next level of administrators comprised civic officials who held ranked positions and military officers.
Even though the Shang dynasty encompassed a fairly large territory, the king’s authority was limited in scope. At the center of the kingdom was an administrative and ceremonial complex in the capital, where the ruling elite had residences, ancestral temples were located, and governmental functions were carried out. Farther away, however, the king had less influence and thus depended on a system of vassalage to oversee his territories. Areas outside the capital were controlled by local aristocrats, who collected taxes, guarded the frontiers, recruited workers for public projects, and provided soldiers for the military; in return for these services the aristocrats were granted honorary titles from the king. At the outer reaches of the Shang territory tribal chiefs had power over the local population, authority that was confirmed by investiture from the king.
Political Parties and Factions
Shang society was characterized by significant class divisions. At the top of the hierarchy were the king and the royal family, followed by an elite class of aristocrats who filled the most important military positions and acted as the chief administrative officials. Artisans and craftsmen (particularly bronze workers) comprised an intermediate class; they were distinguished from the peasantry mainly by the quality of their dwellings. The lowest class was made up of peasants, who lived in a state of serflike dependence. Relationships among the classes were based on a strong shared sense of obligation, whether to the king, to one’s ancestors, to one’s superiors, or to one’s dependents.
The most significant event of the Shang dynasty was the relocation of the capital to the ancient city of Yin in 1350 BC. The capital remained at Yin for the last two centuries of the Shang dynasty, a period sometimes referred to as the Yin dynasty. Archaeological evidence shows that Yin was not surrounded by a city wall—a traditional feature of Chinese cities at the time—suggesting a great display of strength. Archaeologists believe that Yin was the most important city of the Bronze Age (the period beginning in approximately 2000 BC in China).
The Shang dynasty came to an end in 1122 BC. The traditional story of its demise echoes the account of its beginning: The last Shang king, a tyrannical ruler named Chou Hsin (c. 1154–c. 1122 BC), was overthrown by King Wu Wang (d. 1115 BC), the ruler of the western frontier state of Chou. Wu justified his actions by proclaiming that he had a “mandate from heaven” to rescue the suffering Shang people. The Chou military campaign succeeded quickly, its forces bolstered by the defection of thousands of Shang troops. It is likely that the decentralized system of vassalage that the Shang used to control its outlying territories had weakened, providing an opportunity for the Chou to overtake the faltering dynasty.
Keightley, David N., ed. The Origins of Chinese Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.