商朝 (Shang)

December 28 2006

C 1500-c 1050 BC


This conveniently undetailed Wikipedia Commons map shows the area reached by Shang culture and the sites of various Shang capitals. This is where Chinese civilisation, and the Han ethnic group, originated, and from where both pressed steadily south.

The historic river was not the Yangtze (Cháng Jiāng, pinyin; Ch’ang Chiang, Wade-Giles; Yángzǐ Jiāng, pinyin, is, strictly, the name of the river in its lowest reaches), but the northern Yellow River (Huáng Hé, pinyin; Hwang-ho, Wade-Giles), which ends in the Bohai Sea, which is a bay or backwater of the Yellow Sea.

The metropolis close to the Yellow River today is Tianjin (postal map spelling Tientsin). Tianjin lies north of, but not on, the river, and inland, though it has a manmade port at a distance. The other Bohai Sea port, Dalian, once called Port Arthur, is on the opposite shore, in Manchuria. Shang civilisation also developed inland.

Beijing, of course, is well north of the Yellow River, and its site and Tianjin’s are north east of the main zone of influence of the Shang dynasty.

Western people, before they study China, sometimes imagine that its historical roots are further south than they really are, because they enter China mentally through the ports they know about: Shanghai, on the Yangtze; or, further south still, Hong Kong, at the mouth of the Pearl River (Zhū Jiāng, pinyin), which is an extension of the southern river, the Xijiang (Xī Jiāng, pinyin; postal map spelling Si Kiang).

Going upstream, the Yellow River bends sharply north roughly on the longitude of Hainan island. So the river which might appear from the map to be the upper stretch of the Yellow River is the Wei tributary. The source of the Wei river is in Gansu (Kansu, Wade-Giles) province, the source of the Yellow River in Qinghai (Ch’ing-hai, Wade-Giles) province.

In China, a regional civilization – labelled with the name of the Shang (alias Yin) dynasty – made its appearance c. 1500 B.C. [Wikipedia gives its dates as c 1766 BC – c 1050 BC.] Some of its elements were derived from the last phase (ie the Lung-Shan black pottery phase) of the regional Neolithic culture; and the emergence of civilization was not accompanied in China by a change of location, as it had been in the Fertile Crescent of South-West Asia and in Egypt [a move into low-lying watery areas where vast water-management systems could be set up]. In China, as in the Levant, the regional Neolithic culture had depended on rainfall [not irrigation] for watering its crops; its locus had been the belt of relatively high-lying wind-blown loess soil that had been deposited in Kansu and in the basin of the Wei tributary of the Yellow River and also farther east, along the watershed between the Yellow River and the Rivers Han and Hwai, and this was also the locus of the Lung-Shan Neolithic culture’s successor the Shang civilization.

This is the western half of the area shown on the map. The Han (Han Jiang, pinyin) is a tributary of the Yangtze, meeting it at Wuhan (the place where the Yangtze makes an inverted v shape).

That position is roughly south of the source of the Huai (Huái Hé, pinyin), which flows east between the Yellow River and the Yangtze. The Huai appears on the map to flow to the sea, but in fact passes from the lake to join the Yangtze. Like the Yangtze, it is sometimes seen as a dividing line between north and south China.

The creators of this civilization did not open up the alluvial soil of the valley-bottoms for cultivation and settlement. Water-control on the Sumerian and Egyptian scale did not become a salient feature of the Chinese economy till about a thousand years after the appearance of the earliest civilization in China.

[…] There was, however, one common and comparable new departure. In China, as in Sumer, the transition from a Neolithic culture to a civilization was accompanied by a sharp differentiation, in wealth and in privilege, between rulers and subjects. The royal tombs at Anyang, the last of the capital cities of the Shang dynasty, resemble the tombs of the First Dynasty of Ur, though these were more than a thousand years older. The Shang tombs, too, are grandiose, and the grave-goods, including human victims, are lavish. In Sumer, the increase in the community’s aggregate wealth through the opening-up of the alluvium for cultivation enabled a dominant minority to live – and to die – luxuriously. In China the same invidious change was imposed on the community without any simultaneous increase in the community’s total economic resources.

At the dawn of civilization in China there were also innovations that recall those that accompanied the apparently sudden appearance of civilization in the Indus Basin and in Egypt; and in China, likewise, the suddenness of the appearance of these innovations seems to indicate that, here too, civilization was brought to birth by a stimulus from abroad, in contrast to the apparently autonomous development of the Sumerian civilisation.


These innovations in China, from the west via the Eurasian steppe, were the use of horse-drawn chariots; the use of a script, entirely local in character, but whose concept and illogical mixture of phonemes and ideograms were almost certainly suggested by the Sumerian, as Egyptian hieroglyphs had been (we are not sure about the Indus script); and bronze-casting for (already recognisably Chinese) tools, vessels and ornaments.

The copper and tin required for bronze may have come from Yunnan or Malaya, which are the nearest sources to the Yellow River basin. The artistic style may have had local precursors in pre-Shang Neolithic-Age wooden artefacts [and surely also in pre-Shang pottery]. But the technique of making and casting the bronze came from the west. The earliest known Southeast Asian bronze culture, Dong Son, north Vietnam, dates from only a few hundred years BC.

The Shang-age Chinese had other tropical or southern elements in their culture. They cultivated rice as well as wheat and millet, they had the water-buffalo as well as ordinary cattle, and one of their breeds of pig was of southern origin. The provenance of these tropical elements is unclear. There is no evidence of advanced Neolithic cultures in tropical Asia of the type which preceded the Shang in the Yellow River basin. The nearest civilization to the Yellow River basin, that of the Indus valley, was separated from it not only by sheer distance, but by a series of mountain barriers. There is no evidence that the Indus civilization spread eastwards and southwards even into parts of India in which today rice, not wheat, is the staple crop.

According to the Chinese tradition, the whole of what has now become China to the south of the Yellow River basin, and, a fortiori, what has now become Vietnam, received civilization only through being Sinified, partly by the assimilation of its native population and partly by the infiltration of Chinese settlers from the north. This tradition cannot be dismissed as being a mere reflection of Chinese cultural prejudice; it is confirmed by the survival, down to the nineteenth century A.D., of enclaves of culturally primitive unassimilated natives in some of the less accessible highland districts in the southern half of the Yangtse basin. There are other still surviving primitive peoples along the border between the southern frontier of present-day China and China’s present South-East-Asian neighbours.


The archaeological evidence for the character of the Shang regime includes not only artefacts but also documents, namely, the inscriptions on the “oracle bones”. The discoveries of Anyang, which, according to tradition, was the last of five successive capitals of the Shang dynasty, indicate that this dynasty was the dominant power in the Yellow River basin in the Anyang period. No comparable contemporary site. which might have been the seat of a rival power of the same calibre, has yet been found. The site at Cheng-Chou, about one hundred miles farther south, is thought to have been an earlier capital of the Shang power itself. However, the “oracle bone” inscriptions show that the Shang lived in fear of enemies – a fear that was justified by the event.

The archaeological evidence does not reveal the extent of the Shang’s direct dominions or of their sphere of political influence; but it is clear that the Shang polity was not an empire equipped with a provincial administration that was effectively controlled by the central government, as the Chinese Empire was, in its successive avatars, after the political unification of China in 221 B.C. by Ch’in Shih Hwang-ti. The title “Shih Hwang-ti” (“First Emperor”) that was then assumed by the unifier, King Chêng of the victorious local state Ch’in, was well coined, for, in China, there had never before been a centralized empire embracing the whole of the Chinese civilization’s cultural domain. The Shang polity was not one of that kind. It was evidently much more like its own immediate successor, as the Chou regime is depicted retrospectively in the Chinese tradition.


Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

7 Responses to “商朝 (Shang)”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    “Enclaves of culturally primitive unassimilated natives in some of the less accessible highland districts” is not, on reflection, evidence that there was no civilisation before the Han Chinese arrived, since those districts would have been inaccessible to a pre-Chinese civilisation as well.

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