Shang altar
Priests in the Shang period (1600 – 1046 B.C.) practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition held a very high place in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty. Some of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “A full description of Shang religion would include many facets.We would need to explore in detail the way in which the ancestral spirits were conceived, we would need to survey all non-ancestral deities and observe their powers, as reflected in divination, we would have to examine the complex system of ritual and sacrifice that paralleled Shang religious beliefs, we would need to discuss the symbolic significance of the sacrificial bronzes that constitute the outstanding emblem of Shang society, and we would need to examine indirect evidence for other forms of religious practice. " Oracle bone inscriptions that deal with non-ancestral deities can "seen as the reflection of a tripartite pantheon of spirits and gods. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

Shang Dynasty Deities

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: From the oracle bones, “we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China” in the 1950s: “The Shang period had a religion with many nature deities, especially deities of fertility. There was no systematized pantheon, different deities being revered in each locality, often under the most varied names. These various deities were, however, similar in character, and later it occurred often that many of them were combined by the priests into a single god. The composite deities thus formed were officially worshipped. Their primeval forms lived on, however, especially in the villages, many centuries longer than the Shang dynasty. The sacrifices associated with them became popular festivals, and so these gods or their successors were saved from oblivion; some of them have lived on in popular religion to the present day. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The supreme god of the official worship was called Di; he was a god of vegetation who guided all growth and birth and was later conceived as a forefather of the races of mankind. The earth was represented as a mother goddess, who bore the plants and animals procreated by Di. In some parts of the Shang realm the two were conceived as a married couple who later were parted by one of their children. The husband went to heaven, and the rain is the male seed that creates life on earth. In other regions it was supposed that in the beginning of the world there was a world-egg, out of which a primeval god came, whose body was represented by the earth: his hair formed the plants, and his limbs the mountains and valleys. Every considerable mountain was also itself a god and, similarly, the river god, the thunder god, cloud, lightning, and wind gods, and many others were worshipped.

Oracle Bone Divinations

Shang priests practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious" signs and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Shang people practiced divination by boring a series of pits into either a tortoise plastron (the bottom part of the tortoise shell) or a cattle scapula. A hot bronze rod was applied, producing cracks, which were interpreted as answers to questions (often expressed as a pair of two possible outcomes) that the king and/or his diviner had posed. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Sometimes the questions, a record of the divination, and occasionally even a record of the actual outcome were inscribed on the plastron or scapula. Through such divinations, the Shang hoped to discover the causes of events, the will of their ancestors and of their highest deity, Di, and the correct course of action to take when faced with difficult decisions.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The practice of divination by Shang kings generally involved the official diviner drilling indentations into the reverse side of a turtle shell or cattle bone and then burning the indentations to cause cracks, called "chao" (signs), to appear on the other side. On the basis of these cracks, omens or information were determined. After completing the divination, the time, name of the diviner, question asked, determination of the omen or information, and whether it came true, were often engraved on the shell or bone, either beside the cracks or on the reverse. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Divination by bone and shell was a highly formulaic process. The charges to the bones and the rituals of cracking proceed independent of the issue of getting an answer to the divination – even after the identification of the spirit...the entire process must be pursued to the end. The object of the divination questionswas the realm of the spirits, and the relevant spirits were most often royal ancestors. It was they, above all others, who exerted influence upon the person of the king and the body of the state – the two often seem to have been viewed as inseparable. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Spirits that Share Ancestral and Non-Ancestral Features

Dr. Eno wrote: “There are a number of figures who appear in the oracle texts who may be remote forbears of the Shang royal Zi lineage, but whose may instead be independent tribal “gods,” whom the Shang incorporated into what essentially constituted “state” religious practice, perhaps as a way of asserting Shang royal control over tribes that, through conquest or negotiation, had been incorporated into the polity controlled by Shang rulers. These figures are conventionally referred to as the “Former Lords.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“One of these figures may serve as an example. His name is represented by the oracle text graph, sometimes read as Kui, which most analysts interpret as referring to the figure known as Ku, or “Emperor Ku,” the great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor. In some traditional accounts of received texts, Ku is described as an ancestor of the Shang kings – in a sense, at least: the founder of the Shang line in these accounts, Xie, is said to have been the child of a consort of Ku, who conceived the baby after swallowing whole the egg of a mysterious “Dark Bird.” (You may recall that another consort of Ku conceivedthe progenitor of the Zhou people by stepping on a giant footprint. It does seem that if Ku was a real person, he was unusually accepting of spousal explanations for inexplicable pregnancies.) /+/

The oracle texts occasionally refer to Ku as “High Ancestor” Ku, and this does seem to make clear that he was, in some way, pictured as linked to the Shang royal lineage. Depending on ones interpretation of the bone texts, at least one other member of the Former Lord group and perhaps others are also designated by the term High Ancestor. Such figures share with the most senior members of the Shang ancestral lineage power over such natural features as rain and harvest. /+/

“This type of evidence raises a central question concerning Shang religious practices and beliefs: was there any clear conceptual distinction between those spirits who were worshiped because they were in life the physical progenitors of the Shang kings and spirits without any blood connection or, perhaps, previous physical existence as living people? Further, was there any clear distinction between the religious practices of the royal Zi clan as a lineage – a group of people united by common descent – and those practices that belonged to “state religion” per se, practices that the Shang kings presided over by virtue of their royal office, rather than because they were senior leaders of the Zi clan? /+/

Or should we conceive of the ties between the ruling Shang king and the realm of spirits as shading gradually from the fully corporal kinship linkages that would have been evident with respect to recently deceased parents and grandparents to tenuous, but still substantial kinship association with the most remote and exalted spirits, beings that appear in most respects to be universal deities – spirit forces of the non-human world of Nature and, perhaps, an ultimate High God, Di? If so, the Shang kings would, perhaps, have truly been regarded as deities-on-earth. /+/

Shang Spirits from the Natural World

Stone monster

Dr. Eno wrote: “The oracle texts document worship of a variety of deities that seem clearly associated not with any human lineage group, but rather with phenomena of the natural world. Some of these seem to have been concrete physical objects – the Yellow River and Mt. Song, a peak located in the region we believe housed a series of Shang Dynasty capital cities prior to the move north to the Anyang region. Others are probably better characterized as “forces of Nature”: the winds of the four cardinal directions, the soil, the sun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

Inscriptions Concerning Nature Deities: I) Weather and Sky Deities: 1) Sun: A) “Crack-making on wu-xu day: Call within for Que to shu-sacrifice to the rising sun and the setting sun sheep and goat.” B) “Crack-making on bing-zi day; Ji divined: The King will receive the sun as guest; sacrifice will be without fault.” C) “On xin-you day rong-sacrifice to the four quarters//On gui-you day sacrifice to the rising sun.” /+/

2) Cloud: Fire sacrifice to Di-cloud: “Call upon Que to fire sacrifice to Cloud a hound.” 3) Wind: A) “Perform a sacrifice of dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind.” B) A shaman shall perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind.” C) “A shaman shall perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind with nine hounds.” D) “Perhaps perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Wind, and sacrifice to Yi Yin sheep and pig.” /+/

4) Rain: A) “Perform a dog-dismemberment [to end] Rain at Yue Peak.” B) Perform a dog-dismemberment [to still] Rain at the altar of the earth.” C) “In the cases of wind and rain, it is unclear whether sacrifices are offered to Wind and Rain as gods, or to other spirits who can control the wind and the rain.” 5) Snow: “Perhaps perform a fire sacrifice to Snow; there will be a great rain.” /+/

II) Natural Features of the Landscape: 1) The Yellow River: “Crack-making on xin-you day, Bin divining: We shall pray for harvest to (at the) River.” [Analysts are agreed that the River of our inscription is the Yellow River].” 2) Huan River: “Will not the Huan River bring disaster to this city? B) Will the river bless this city? /+/

3) Yue Peak: A) “Crack-making on xin-hai day, Zhong divining: We shall pray for harvest to (at) Yue Peak; fire sacrifice three sheep and pigs; decapitate three oxen.” Second month.” [The term yue means “peak”; I have rendered it “Yue Peak” for clarity.”Most analysts believe the peak in question in Mt.” Song, a tall mountain near the confluence of the Luo River and Yellow River which later eras regarded as a sacred peak]. B) “Perform a rain-dance to (at the?) River and Yue Peak.” C) Crack-making on Wu-wu day, Pin divining: By a rong-sacrifice pray for harvest to Yue Peak, River, Kui.” /+/

Eno wrote: “The last mentioned figure, Kui, is one we encountered earlier – this is the “Former Lord” Ku, sometimes referred to as “High Ancestor,” and recorded in received texts as a progenitor of the Shang royal line. This important inscription, not by any means unique, indicates that spirits with ancestral features could be worshiped in the same context as spirits that were tied to features of the landscape – an important indication of the possible overlap between the lineage religious practice of the Shang ruling clan and the universal religious figures that the Shang kings worshiped in their role as state leaders. /+/

Di: the Premier Shang God

Dr. Eno wrote: Above the Shang nature gods and spirits, “too remote for direct worship through sacrifice but exemplifying the greatest range of powers, was a high deity known as Di. In the Shang oracle texts, no mention is made of the high god we are familiar with from the Classical era: Tian. Tian seems not to have been a part of the religion of the Shang, but rather to have been a religious figure of the Zhou people that was introduced into broader religious practice only after the conquest of 1045. Instead, Di seems to occupy the place of supreme spirit power in the oracle texts. So similar does Di seem to Tian, however, that it seems unsurprising that after the Zhou conquest, the terms seem to be used almost interchangeably in Zhou religious discourse [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

In this section, we will introduce a series of inscriptions concerning D....The passages cited are divided so as to illustrate the full array of powers we see ascribed to Di. In some of these inscriptions, Di seems to control natural forces as if controlling individual spirits in a hierarchy, and this has led many scholars to picture Di as the apex of an organized pantheon, perhaps including the Shang ancestors as well as nature deities. /+/

I) The Powers of the High God Di: 1) “Di controls rain: A) Di will order rain sufficient for harvest // Di perhaps will not order rain sufficient for the harvest.” B) “Many oracle texts take the form of paired affirmative // negative statements, which we will occasionally indicate here.” C) “From today to the day geng-yin Di will order rain.” 2) “Di controls wind: Next gui-mao day Di will perhaps order wind.” 3) Di controls cloud dispersal: Di will perhaps, upon it reaching the thirteenth month, order the clouds to clear.” 4) Di sends down drought: Di will perhaps send down drought upon us.”/+/

5) Di provides military and other support: A) As for attacking the Qiong-fang, Di will provide us support.” B) The King will survey the fang lands; Di will provide us with support.” C) It does not rain; Di will not perhaps provide us with support.” 6) Di provides food: “ [We] should... call out; Di will send down food and provide support.” 7) Di provides approval: A) “The King will establish a town; Di will approve.” B) “The King will not follow Guo; Di approves//Guo calls upon the King xx; Di approves.” C) “It does not rain like this; Di brings disaster upon this city and does not approve it.” /+/

8) Di sends down disaster: A) The fang destroy in attack; Di has ordered that disaster be inflicted upon us.” Divined: “We will make a blood sacrifice; Di will perhaps not send down disaster.” Tenth month.” B) Rain: a) “Di greatly... sends down disaster upon this city.” “Di will perhaps inflict disaster upon the King.” 9) “Di aids or harms crops: Di will bring disaster to our harvest//Di will not bring disaster to our harvest//The King prognosticated saying, It shall not be that Di brings disaster.” /+/

10) Di influences the King: A) It shall not be that Di harms the King.” B) “Di will not support the King.” C) “Di will perhaps inflict disaster upon the King.” 11) “Di influences towns and cities: “Di shall perhaps bring an end to this city.” /+/

II) Some inscriptions seem to picture Di as commanding subordinate deities: 1) “For Di’s envoy Wind, two hounds.” 2) “The King receives as a guest the envoy of Di.” 3) “[Sacrifice] to Di’s minister.” There will be rain.” 4) X will sacrifice to Di’s Five Ministers.” There will be a great rain.” 5) “In autumn [sacrifice] to Di’s Five Meritorious Ministers – cracking at the temple of Ancestor Yi.” /+/

What Exactly Is Di

Dr. Eno wrote: “It is generally the case that when we approach a body of unfamiliar evidence, we attempt to interpret it in terms of structures with which we are already familiar. The entire notion that the Shang possessed a “pantheon,” or structured population of spirits, is borrowed largely from our models of Greek and Roman religion (Chinese scholars probably model their pictures on both the Western examples and also on later Chinese popular religion). In particular, the figure of Di corresponds in some ways with the notion of a “Zeus” (stripped of his rich background of narrative myth) for Westerners, or of Tian, the high deity of the Zhou, for Chinese scholars. (It is well worth noting that the deity “Tian” does not appear in the oracle inscriptions, although the term Di, used almost as a synonym of Tian, is not at all uncommon in later Zhou texts.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

In what way Di should be conceived as the apex of a pantheon – or whether we should conceive of Di that way at all – is a question that has generated a series of theories that help us become more conscious about the difficulties of interpreting religious terms and concepts.” We we will look briefly at three approaches to “identifying” Di: 1) Identification of Di with High Ancestor Ku; 2) Di as the Celestial Pole; and 3) “Di” as a Generic Term Referring to No Single Deity. “They represent three different styles of interpreting Shang religious evidence; each solves certain problems presented by the oracle text evidence, but all are problematic in some feature. /+/

“Perhaps the most surprising characteristic of the Shang high god Di is that of all the members of the Shang spirit world, Di alone received no sacrifices. The enormity of this omission can’t be overstated – it suggests that somehow Di alone possessed none of the corporal needs of the spirits, nor required any of the outward signs of respect accorded to every other spirit to pacify it and guarantee its friendly disposition towards the world of men. One possible explanation for this last fact is that Di was truly a super-god, the only being in the universe that truly transcended the natural order, which governed man and spirits alike. This would push Shang religion in the direction of a type of attenuated monotheism – while there were many spirits, there was only one true God (not so unlike one type of Judeo-Christian vision, which peoples Heaven with angels and others, but keeps God elevated on a qualitatively different plane). This explanation, of course, makes it even more surprising that the term Di could be applied to individual deceased fathers, or come to name a sacrifice to one’s father. /+/

“But there is another, simpler, explanation. That is that there was no concept of a high god at all, and that instead Di was a “corporate” term, referring to all the spirits, or at least all the ancestors, together: its sense would be something like “The Deceased-Fathers.” In other uses, it would serve as a generic term, assignable to individual deceased fathers by their sons, which would account for the title Di being applied by some Shang kings to their own fathers in divination inscriptions. These two explanations imply entirely different directions for Shang theology. The former would support the image of a royal roll of spirits, subservient to a high god in much the way that ministers serve an emperor. The inscriptions that appear above which seem to picture a “court” of the high god Di can be used to support this notion. David Keightley has found in this imagery the earliest evidence of proto-bureaucratic thinking in China. The alternative model points towards a spirit world with no single unifying apex; it removes the “command structure” of the other world, and portrays Shang theology as a truly ancestor-based polytheism. Such a model would lead us to reinterpret our readings of the “court of Di” inscriptions, and tends to be supported by the plural and extra-religious uses of the term Di. /+/

Identification of Di with High Ancestor Ku

Dr. Eno wrote: “A substantial number of scholars take the position that the term Di is an alternative way of denoting the figure identified in the historical text “Shiji” as the first ancestor of the Shang – Ku – who is named as “High Ancestor” in at least four inscriptions on separate oracle bones. The proposal that Di and Ku represent the identical Power has been endorsed by prominent scholars, and its implications for our understanding of Shang theology are profound. If the highest power in Shang state religion, exercising control over the spirit powers of the natural world, was an ancestor of the reigning Shang king, then the Shang kings would be easily seen as embodying in themselves an aspect of the divinity of the High Power Di, “thearchs” (deity-rulers) by birth. This identification of the Shang house with Di would, in essence, universalize the ancestral worship of the Zi clan, whose lineage ancestors would share control of events throughout the world below. Since we do, in fact, see some of the Shang ancestors exercising power over natural phenomena in oracle texts, the identification of Ku with Di would provide an underlying rationale for such a portrait. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The identification of Di with Ku is also attractive because it offers a way to bring greater coherence to the Shang pantheon and to elucidate in a systematic way the relationship between the ancestral and Nature sectors of the pantheon. However, appealing as this solution is, there are problems with it that are hard to reconcile. For example, the names Di and Kui (the more precise way of rendering the pronunciation of the graph are employed in the oracle texts quite differently. Di issues orders to other spirits – Kui does not. Di is frequently pictured sending down “approval” – Kui is never so pictured. Kui receives sacrifices – Di does not. Moreover, as illustrated in above, Kui is appealed to in series with other Nature spirits (and Former Lords as well) in some oracle texts, suggesting a horizontal relationship between them that undermines any portrait of Kui as the apex of a structured pantheon. While these problems remain, among scholars who address the issue of Di’s identity, Ku (or Kui) is the figure that attracts greatest attention.” /+/

Di as the Celestial Pole

Dr. Eno wrote: “Recently, two scholars, one Chinese and one American, have proposed that Di was conceived as a function of astronomical aspects of Shang religion. This argument imagines that interest in the sky formed a basic structural feature of religious practice, both during the Shang and during earlier eras, stretching back to the late Neolithic. Evidence for this religious attention to the night sky may be reflected in the foundations of palatial and ceremonial structures at pre-Shang and early Shang sites. During the centuries of the late Neolithic and dawn of the Bronze Age, the night sky underwent a slow but dramatic change as a normal astronomical phenomenon called “stellar precession” led to the gradual displacement of one “pole star” located at the unmoving “true north” point of the sky with another star, with a long intervening period when that location was occupied by no significant visible star at all. (Today, in the northern hemisphere, all the stars appear to revolve around the unmoving “pole star” Polaris, but because of wobbles in the earth’s orbit, other stars occupied that apparent place in the past, and will again in the distant future.) Despite the fact that the pole star of the late Neolithic gradually moved from true north, and that another star gradually moved into that position during the early centuries of the Shang, palace foundations built throughout these eras were aligned with the true North Celestial Pole. Maintaining such accuracy despite shifts in the field of stars necessarily reflects highly sophisticated astronomical observation and understanding. Clearly for the Shang, the location of the true pole was of critical importance. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“One American scholar, David Pankenier, has illustrated how the oracle text graph for Di can be projected on the north polar region of the ancient sky in the time of the Shang in such a way that its extreme points correspond with significant visible stars, while the intersection of linear axes at the center will map to the vacant Celestial Pole. On this basis, Pankenier argues that Di was conceived as the spirit dwelling at the true Pole, an idea familiar from later eras of Chinese religion, seemingly tying Shang religious practice to traditions attested in received texts from the Classical period. By engaging the pantheon of the oracle texts so deeply with a tradition of religious astronomy that is well known only for a much later period, Pankenier suggests the possibility of a subtext of celestial organization underlying but largely unobservable in the oracle texts. /+/

“Pankenier’s theory is perhaps even more attractive than the identification of Di with the Shang ancestor Ku. However, there is a problem of evidence – the oracle texts nowhere seem to testify to the type of religious interest in the stars that the theory requires. While expertise in calendrics and observational interest in matters such as eclipses is clearly indicated by the oracle evidence, we encounter in the inscriptions only occasional mention of asterisms and other celestial phenomena, and this lack of positive evidence means that Pankenier’s theory must be treated as “speculative,” a term that denotes its logical reasonability but tenuous links to the data we possess.” /+/

“Di” as a Generic Term Referring to No Single Deity

Dr. Eno wrote: “There are several features of the way the oracle texts use the term Di that suggest that we may be on entirely the wrong track when we picture the Shang pantheon as a structured hierarchy with Di at the apex. A third approach to the issue of the meaning of “Di” argues that there may have been no “high god” at all in Shang religion, and that in oracle texts, the word di is a generic term – in the same way that the word “king” may refer both to one specific king, to all kings, or to a subset of all kings. Under this theory, our reading of di as denoting a high god is a projection onto the oracle texts of a pattern of word usage that arises only after the Zhou conquest, when the term di became associated with the Zhou high god Tian. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“To begin with a straightforward issue: scholars have argued since the oracle texts were first deciphered whether Di was an ancestral deity or a nature deity. Di seems in some inscriptions to command natural forces in a way no ancestral spirit otherwise appears to, and there is a famous oracle text that wonders whether Di will destroy the Shang capital itself – something an ancestor, dependent for sustenance on the food offerings of descendants, would be unlikely to do. These features suggest that Di was not conceived as an ancestor of the royal lineage. /+/

“But it is also true that term di has a direct ancestral usage: deceased kings could be referred to in the bones as “Di.” The usage is limited: kings are only named as “Di-x” (x being a stem sign) while their sons are ruling, but it is nevertheless a surprise to see kings referring to their fathers as “God so-and-so.” Scholars of ancient China have been less surprised at this than one might think because the term Di also means “emperor”: the name Yellow Emperor, for example, translates a Chinese term, “Huang Di,” where Huang means yellow and Di is the term we are discussing here. So pervasive is this use of the term Di, that we have lost track of how strange its use actually is. /+/

“Another surprising piece of evidence is that Di sometimes appears to be a plural term in the oracle texts. Ancient written Chinese made no distinction between singular and plural terms; context and usage patterns alone signal whether a term is being used in the singular or the plural. In some bone texts that belong to longer sets of inscriptions, the term Di appears in some members of the series parallel to specifically plural terms which appear in all the other texts of the set, terms such as “the many grandmothers,” or “the spirits above and below.” If the term di could denote many spirits, can we be sure that any particular instance denoted a single high deity?

“The notion of di as a generic term is directly challenged by only one piece of strong counter-evidence. There exists a plastron on which a series of texts pair together ancestral figures in the context of a ritual involving a spirit-host and a spirit-guest. The spirits named are all ancestral kings except one, who is called, simply, “Di,” and who seems to be treated as senior to all the others. If this is indeed a High God and not a shorthand reference for a spirit whose identity was understood, then the theory of di as a generic term would be difficult to maintain, and it would also be difficult to maintain the view that Di was not an ancestral figure. /+/

“The fact that three different models may all be supportable – but none irrefutably so – on the basis of the evidence provided by the oracle texts exemplifies the difficulties of interpretation that beset those who are engaged in reconstructing the history of Shang religious ideology. It shows very clearly how the ambiguities of historical scholarship do not necessarily evaporate in the face of rich stores of primary data that have been preserved untampered. /+/

Shang Burial Practices

Tomb of Fu Hao

The Shang were buried with bronze ritual vessels, weapons and jade. Bronze vessels were often filled with food and wine to nourish the dead on their trip to the afterlife. All in all, though, the number of funeral objects found in Shang tombs was considerably less than those found in tombs of other civilizations.

The tomb of Lady Hao, the consort of Wu Ding, a Shang military ruler that once led a force of 13,000 men in battle, is one of the most important Shang discoveries. One of the few undisturbed Shang tomb found, it is is 25 feet deep, 18 feet long and 13 feet wide with various niches and ledges containing 16 sacrificed men, women and children, and six dogs. The tomb is located in Yinxu, near Anyang. It was excavated in 1976. Only a few fragments of the lacquered coffin remained.

Among the 1,900 objects found in the tomb of Lady Hao were 195 bronze ritual vessels, of which over 100 were marked with Lady Hao’s name; 250 bronze bells, knives and weapons and other objects; 755 jade objects; 6,900 cowries shells, stone sculptures and ivory carvings. The bronze objects alone weighed 3,500 pounds.

Graves as Indicators of Social Hierarchy

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Many graves from the early Shang period have been excavated and nearly 300 are described in publications. Many graves were excavated at Zhengzhou, Yanshi, Dongxiafeng, Taixi, and Panlongcheng. Other sites yielding graves include Xishicun (in Xingyang, Henan; phases I and II) and Qilipu (Shan county, Henan, phase I). The greatest amount of information we have about burials comes from the cities of Zhengzhou and Panlongcheng. [Source: “Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture” by Yuan Guangkuo, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013 / ~|~]

“Early Shang graves can be classified into five types indicative of variation in social rank on the basis of grave size and the quantity and quality of grave goods. Graves of type 1, the largest, are about 10 square meters in size. The large graves are earthen, rectangular graves. They tend to contain both inner and outer wooden coffins that are elegant and decorated with carved or painted patterns. They also have second-level platforms ( ercengtai) for grave goods and “waist pits,” or small pits dug below the waist of the deceased often containing the skeletons of dogs and jade ge...dagger-axes. Grave goods are abundant, and many graves contain sets of bronze ritual vessels. For instance, when bronze vessels likely for fermented beverages are present, mourners usually placed jue .. tripods, jia .. tripods, and zun.. jars together. Another common pattern is the presence of four sets of jue tripods, jia tripods, and gu.. goblets in one large grave. Many large graves also have other kinds of bronze vessels such as food containers and water vessels in addition to bronze weapons, bronze tools, and delicate jade objects. ~|~

“Early Shang graves were found in the east, west, and northern areas of the city of Panlongcheng. The large, type 1 graves have only been found at Panlongcheng. Grave M2 found in Lijiazui village beyond the wall of the palace zone is the largest early Shang burial known to date (Peking University and Hubei 2001 : 70–78). Two layers of wooden chambers are built inside the earthen grave. The coffin and chambers were elegantly made, with refined carvings on the exterior surface of chambers. ~|~

“Beneath the exterior chamber was a waist pit with crushed bones (the cause is not known, or whether the bone is from an animal or human being) and five broken, jade ge dagger-axes. Grave goods found on the bottom of the grave pit close to the northern and eastern walls included bronze objects, jades, wooden objects, and pottery vessels. Most of the 63 bronze objects in the grave are ritual vessels and weapons. The jade objects include the ge dagger-axe, handle-shaped objects or bingxingqi, and ji hairpin-shaped pendants, jixing peishi. There were many wooden objects in the northwestern corner between the inner and outer chamber. It also contained three human sacrificial victims. ~|~

bronze animal in Fu Hao's tomb

“Type 2 graves, the next largest in size (about 2–4 square meters), also have second-level platforms and abundant grave goods. Some of these graves have both an inner and outer coffin, while others only have an outer coffin. Some have waist pits containing buried dogs and jade dagger-axes. Type 2 graves tend to contain one or two sets of bronze ritual vessels, usually gu beakers , jue tripods, and jia tripods. Sometimes they also contain bronze ding.. tripods and li.. tripods. It is worth noting that protoporcelains were discovered in some graves of this type at Panlongcheng. These also would have been prestigious goods symbolizing the status of the deceased. Such artifacts were not found in the residential area of this site. ~|~

“A good example of the type 2 grave is BQM1 at the Zhengzhou site (Henan Provincial 2001 : 60). The floor of the grave pit was covered with cinnabar ( zhusha ), and in the middle of the grave floor was a waist pit with a buried dog. Archaeologists recovered 39 grave goods including bronze, jade, bone, pottery, and ivory objects. Type 3 graves from the early Shang period are usually 1–2 square meters in size with no second-level platform. Most of these graves contain waist pits, and several have buried dogs. The most common type of grave good is ceramic vessels, although some of these graves also contain bronze or jade objects. ~|~

“Early Shang graves of type 4 and type 5 are especially small in size. Type 4 graves are about 1 square meters in size, with no second-level platform. Only a few graves of this type have waist pits. The only grave goods are small quantities of pottery. Graves of the fifth type are under 1.0 square meters in size – only big enough for a contracted body. These graves do not contain any objects. They have been discovered not in cemeteries but in residential areas, bronze production areas, and areas thought to have been used for ceremonies. ~|~

“It can be seen that the early Shang period graves vary in terms of size, structure, and quantity of grave goods. The larger, more complex, and decorated graves contain more objects. The quantity of bronze vessel sets is positively correlated with the size of the grave pit. It is likely that during the early Shang period, bronze vessels, and especially containers for fermented beverages, symbolized high status.” ~|~

Social Stratification as Reflected in Early Shang Graves

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Social stratification started developing in China prior to the Shang period and was largely solidified by the Shang dynasty. As previously discussed, settlement patterns are one kind of data that support this conclusion. The highest-ranking people would have lived in the cities, and the large capital city of Zhengzhou was where the king would have resided. The elite residents of smaller cities in other areas such as Panlongcheng, Yuanqu, and Yanshi would have been local governors or military leaders who were chosen by the Shang king. The cemetery data reveal that early Shang society had three major classes of people: the ruling class, a middle class, and a lower class. “The upper and middle classes can be further divided. The upper class would have included the Shang king and his relatives, the leaders of local polities allied with the Shang, and other nobles. The middle class would have been divided with respect to differences in wealth among households. [Source: “Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture” by Yuan Guangkuo, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013 / ~|~]

“The mausoleums of the early Shang kings have not yet been found. The major early Shang cemetery that has been identified is the Lijiazui area of the Panlongcheng city site, where the largest early Shang graves were discovered. Panlongcheng was an important military stronghold for the Shang government, and it played an essential role in state affairs with respect to acquisition of resources in addition to defense. The person who was in charge of this city must have been a noble who was entrusted by the king. He could have been a leader of the local polity in the southern part of the Shang territory. ~|~

“The finely made, wooden coffins in the large graves in the Lijiazui area of Panlongcheng have detailed patterns such as the taotie “animal mask” design and yunlei “cloud-and-thunder” design carved on the walls of the outer coffins. The carved lines are colored with red pigment and the surface is covered with some kind of black material. This type of decorated, colored wooden coffin also was detected at Houjiazhuang, part of the late Shang site of Yinxu, and it is usually from the graves of elites. ~|~

“The human sacrifices at Panlongcheng also reveal the high status of the deceased. It appears that burying people alive in graves began during the Neolithic period, and it became more common as social stratification increased. This practice may be explained as a reflection of religious ideas, but the marked inequality between people that existed during the early Shang period should not be overlooked (Huang 2004 : 5–6). In the early Shang period, burying victims was not common, and M2 at Panlongcheng is a rare example. Therefore the individual buried in M2 may have been the ruler of the city. The other large graves in the same area must have been for other elites. ~|~

“As discussed above, the smaller, type 2 graves still tend to have a complex structure and to be buried with a variety of objects including valued goods such as bronze vessels and jades. The deceased entitled to such graves must have been nobles. Each had at least one set of bronze vessels. The quantity of vessel sets for fermented beverages that were interred can be used to further subdivide the elite class. Bronze vessels were not common during the preceding Erlitou period, and they became more abundant during the early Shang period. At this point the practice began of displaying noble status with sets of bronze vessels in burials. Rules for this practice become clearer and stricter in later historical periods. ~|~

“The people buried in type 3 and 4 graves all would have been common people, although differences in wealth can be identified on the basis of grave goods. They would have been free people who comprised the majority of the society. The smallest, type 5 graves that contained adults rather than children would have represented the lowest social class. These people probably were slaves. ~|~

Shang Tomb of Fu Hao

bronze bat found in Fu Hao's tomb

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ Shang royal burial practices confirm the abiding interest of the Shang rulers with their ancestors. At Anyang (in present-day Henan province), the last capital of the Shang, many huge royal tombs have been found. The tomb of the consort Fu Hao, is the only royal Shang tomb of a member of the Shang royal family to have been found unlooted. Fu Hao was mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions as the consort of King Wu Ding and a general who participated in several military campaigns. She also presided over important sacrificial ceremonies and controlled her own estate. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Dated around 1250 B.C., it is a tomb of modest size located outside the main royal cemetery. The tomb is a single large pit, 5.6 meters by 4 meters at the mouth. The floor level housed the royal corpse and most of the utensils and implements buried with her. Below the corpse was a small pit holding the remains of six dogs, and along the perimeters lay the skeletons of 16 humans. Inside the pit was a wooden chamber 5 meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 1.3 meters high. Within the chamber was a lacquered coffin which has since rotted away. There also seems to have once been a structure built over the tomb for holding memorial ceremonies./=\

Altogether Fu Hao's tomb contained: A) 468 bronze objects including 130 weapons, 23 bells, 27 knives, 4 mirrors, and 4 tigers or tiger heads; B) 55 jade objects; C) 63 stone objects; D) 5 ivory objects; E) 564 bone objects including nearly 500 bone hairpins and over 20 bone arrowheads; F) 11 pottery objects; and G) 6,900 pieces of cowry shell. Altogether the bronzes found in Fu Hao's tomb weighed 1.6 metric tons, a sign of the enormous wealth of the royal family. These vessels were not only valuable by virtue of their material...but also because of the difficult process of creating them. Many of the vessels were inscribed with Fu Hao's posthumous title, "Si Mu Xin." /=\

The bronze vessels included a pair of zun vessels used for wine. Each vessel is 46.3 centimeters tall and weighs 16 kilograms and is supported by a creature standing on two legs; a down-turned tail forms the third leg. The back of the head is a removable lid with a miniature bird and dragon as knobs. /=\

More than ten round or relief sculptures of human figures were found in Fu Hao's tomb. One figure wears a long robe with a wide sash at the waist and has a short braid at the back of the neck. Many small jade ornaments in the shapes of animals were also found. They combine an interest in three-dimensional form with an exploration of surface decoration. It is not clear if these were ornaments or served some other function. One pendant of a spread-winged hawk is ingeniously carved so that the weight of the sweeping tail allows the creature to be vertically suspended with the head up. This jade was probably several hundred years old when Lady Hao acquired it. Members of the Shang elite often collected precious objects that had been transmitted from ancient times. /=\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Shang Altar, Ohio State University;

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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