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Civilization on the North China Plain

Civilization and the Shang Dynasty | From Shang to the Zhou Dynasty

Shang civilization

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

Civilization and the Shang Dynasty

By 5000 BCE, tribal agricultural communities had spread in what today is China. There were agricultural villages from the Wei River Valley eastward parallel with the great Yellow River (Huang He). That river flowed out of the Kunlun Mountains through deciduous forest and along the loess soil of the North China Plain and then to the Gulf of Jili. (See above map.)

Where people were free of forest and had access to water they grew millet, while they continued to hunt deer and other game and 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. This greater organized effort along the Yellow River may have made it larger and more dense in population than what developed along the Yangzi.

Map of Shang Civilization

Shang Civilization, by Yu Ninjie

wine vessel

Bronze wine vessel.

Where people were producing surpluses of food – more food than they needed to survive – warriors had an incentive to conquer and to hold territory – rather than just plunder and move on. And conquerors arose on the North China Plain. The first dynasty of kings in the North China Plain has been described as belonging to the Xia family, whose rule is said 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 on the North China Plain. Their 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. As elsewhere a connection had arisen between political authority and religious authority. A Shang emperor was chief priest. The emperor 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 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 1300s BCE a bronze casting industry had developed. This was later than the rise of bronze casting in Europe and West Asia, but it became the most advanced in the world.

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. With their armies, Shang emperors repulsed 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.

Shang Religion

It was during the Shang Dynasty around 1300 BCE that the first known writing appeared among the Chinese. This writing was for divination. The writing was symbols on the bones of cattle or deer, on seashells or turtle shells and perhaps on wood. By applying a pointed, heated rod to a bone or shell, the item cracked, and the written symbol to which the crack traveled gave answers to assigned 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

The people of Shang civilization appear to have had the same religious impulses as others. They saw nature as numerous gods using magic, gods called kuei-shen, a word for ghost or spirit. They had a god that they thought produced rain. They had a god of thunder and a god for each mountain, river and forest. They had a mother god of the sun, a moon goddess, and a god of the wind. Like others who worked the soil, they had a fertility god. They believed in a master god who had a palace in the center of heaven and who rewarded people for their virtue. And their gods had faces that were more Asian in appearance than Western.

The priests of Shang civilization made sacrifices to their gods, attempting to bribe them, believing that the gods might exercise either benevolent or malevolent magic. The frequency of floods and other calamities led the people to believe that some gods were good and others demonic. They believed in an evil god who led travelers astray and devoured people.

The people of Shang civilization believed in an invisible heaven that people went to when they died. Shang emperors told their subjects that heaven was where the ancestors of Shang emperors dwelled. Aristocrats were concerned with their status and boasted about their ancestral roots. They kept records of their family tree, and they saw their ancestors as going back to gods who often took the form of animals – gods who became family symbols like the totems that were to be familiar in the Americas. But for common people it was different. They had no surnames and no pedigree and did not participate in ancestor worship.

Aristocrats believed that humans had a spirit that was created at conception. They believed that this spirit both continued to reside in one's body after death and ascended to the invisible world where the spirits of the dead dwelled. Aristocrats believed that in this invisible world their ancestors resided in the court of the gods and had powers to help guide and assist their living descendants.

Aristocrats saw their ancestors as needing nourishment. At grave sites they offered food and wine to their deceased family members and ancestors – a ritual that males alone were allowed to perform, adding to the preference for the birth of a male into a family. They believed that if offerings to the dead were discontinued, the spirits of the dead would become lost and starving ghosts who, in revenge, might do evil. When an aristocrat wanted a special favor from an ancestor, he supplemented the offerings by sacrificing animals. And the Shang knew of human sacrifice. If an emperor wanted a special favor from the gods he might sacrifice a human.


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