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Civilization on the North China Plain

Shang and Zhou Dynasties and Empire | Religious transformations from Shang to Zhou

Shang civilization
Approximate Shang controlled areas on the North China Plain, with its capital, Yin, after 1384 BCE

wine vessel

Bronze wine vessel.

Map of Zhou Dynasty territory

Zhou Dynasty approximate territory around 1000 BCE, drawn by Ian Kiu and offered by Harvard University Press.

Shang and Zhou Dynasties and Empire

By 5000 BCE, tribal agricultural communities had spread through much of what is now called China, and there were agricultural villages from the Wei River Valley eastward, parallel with the great Yellow River (Huang He), which flowed out of the Kunlun Mountains to the deciduous forest and loess soil region of the North China Plain. Where people were free of forest and had access to water they grew millet – as early as 5500 BCE – while they continued to hunt deer and other game, to fish and gather food. And they raised dogs, pigs and chickens. They built one-room homes dug into the earth, with roofs of clay or thatch: pit homes grouped in villages. They had spinning wheels and knitted and wove fibers. And they made pottery decorated with art.

Flooding along the Yellow River was worse than it was along the Yangzi River to the south. Along the Yangzi River, through the Hubei Basin and on the coastal plain to Hangzhou Bay, farming had also developed, but people along the Yellow River had to work harder at flood control and irrigation, and perhaps this stimulated a greater effort at organization. At any rate, the North China Plain became the largest area with a relatively dense population.

Where people were producing more food than they needed to survive, warriors had the incentive not only to plunder but also to conquer. Conquering kings arose on the North China Plain as they did in West Asia.

The first dynasty of kings in the North China Plain has been described as belonging to the Xia family – whose rule is thought to have begun around 2200 BCE. But the first dynasty of which there is historical evidence is that of the Shang family. The Shang clan came out of the Wei River Valley just west of the North China Plain. By around 1500 BCE, give or take a century or so, the Shang unified people along the North China Plain. The military had chariots, each with an aristocrat archer, a driver and sometimes also a man with a spear. The Shang built an empire in much the same way as other conquerors: by leaving behind a garrison force to police local people, by turning a local king into a subservient ally free to manage local matters, and by taxing the conquered.

Around 1384 BCE the Shang moved their capital to Yin. As a regular pastime the Shang emperors and nobles hunted in organized game drives. Emperors and aristocrats had splendid homes with walls of pounded earth or earthen bricks while common people continued to live in their pit homes of earlier times. A Shang emperor was chief priest, and he had an administrative bureaucracy, with councilors, lesser priests and diviners. As with other warring civilizations, slaves were taken, the slaves laboring at growing crops. And women in Shang civilization were subservient to men, with aristocratic women enjoying a greater freedom and equality than common women.

During the Shang dynasty, the civilization along the Yellow River had canals for irrigating crops. Communities had drains that ran water out of town. They made beer from millet. They extended their trading and used money in the form of cowry shells. Shang merchants traded in salt, iron, copper, tin, lead and antimony, some of which had to be imported from far away. As early as the 1300 BCE a bronze casting industry had developed. This was later than the rise of bronze casting in Europe and West Asia, but it was the most advanced in the world.

It was around 1300 BCE that the first known writing appeared in Shang civilization. This writing was for divination, done on plate-like portions of the bones of cattle or deer, on seashells and turtle shells and perhaps on wood. By applying a pointed, heated rod to a bone or shell, the item cracked, and to which written symbol the crack traveled gave answers for various questions: what the weather was going to be like, would there be flood, would a harvest succeed or fail, when might be the best time for hunting or fishing, questions about illness or whether one should make a journey.

Shang Violence and Splendor

To the east, north and south of Shang civilization were those the Shang saw as barbarians, including the farming people along the Yangzi River. Shang emperors sent out armies to repulse invaders, and the Shang emperors went beyond their domains to plunder and to capture foreign peoples needed for sacrifice to their gods. Uncovered tombs of emperors from the Shang period indicate that they could put into the field as many as three to five thousand soldiers. Found buried with the emperors were their personal ornaments and spears with bronze blades and the remains of what had been bows and arrows. Buried with the emperors were also horses and chariots for transporting soldiers to battle. And with the emperors in death were their charioteers, dogs, servants and people in groups of ten – people who had been ceremonially beheaded with bronze axes.

Zhou Empire, Religion and Human Sacrifice

Shang rule was threatened by forces from outside and from within its empire. To the west of Shang civilization, in the Wei River Valley, lived a pastoral people called Zhou who led an alliance that included other tribal peoples neighboring Shang civilization. While the Shang emperor, Zhouxin, was occupied by a war against tribal people to his southeast, rebellions broke out among people that Shang monarchs before him had conquered. The Zhou and their allies saw the Shang emperor's troubles as an opportunity to move against him, and in 1045 BCE they overpowered him at the battle of Mu-ye and had him beheaded.

A dynasty of Zhou emperors began ruling what had been Shang civilization. They claimed that all lands belonged to heaven, that they were the sons of heaven and therefore that all lands and all people were their subjects. Seeing the lands they had conquered as too vast for one man to dominate, the Zhou emperors divided these lands into kinship regions, assigning rule perhaps to a tribal chief who had been allied with them against the Shang.

Each kinship ruler had at his disposal all the lands around him. He had his own militia. And from the Zhou emperors the local rulers received gifts such as chariots, bronze weapons, servants and animals. The local rulers received the title of lord (gong). Local rulers passed their positions to their sons, their titles of lord becoming hereditary. And to control their areas better, the lords made sub-lords of those who had dominated the common people before they arrived. A hierarchy of status and obligations emerged among families and within families, with older brothers ranking higher than younger brothers, with rules of succession as to which of the males would head his family. If a married aristocrat became infatuated with another woman, rather than drive his wife from his home he could bring the other woman into the family as a concubine, where she would rank beneath his wife.



Copyright © 1999-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.