Shang-era bronze cowrie-shell-shaped money

The Shang dynasty (ca. 1600-1050 B.C.) featured bronze technology, writing, walled cities, and a complex state structure. Shang tombs, thousands of which have been excavated, provide rich evidence of Shang material culture and ritual practices. Ritual activity and a highly stylized aesthetic marked the lives of the Shang elite.

Most ordinary Shang lived in thatched roof huts with pounded earth foundations, supported by wooden poles placed in stoned-filled trenches. Excavations of Shang villages show a large number of pits which could have been used for storage or as underground dwellings. Cowrie shells were used as currency. They most likely originated in the Indian Ocean. Wheat, millet and rice were cultivated by farmers. Many Chinese scholars have claimed that the Shang practiced slavery but this may be based more on making data fit the Marxist model of evolution than on hard evidence. In the tens of thousands of oracle bones there are no references to slavery or the purchase of people.

The oracle texts provide some information about Shang-era agriculture, economics and social structure. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Queries or tentative statements to the spirits indicate the state of the harvests, the types of grain being offered, and their expectations of natural disasters. But the information tends to be indirect and sparse.We hear about types of tribute gifts that arrive at the capital because the king will occasionally wonder whether they will arrive, but there is little systematic information on trade. (The most obvious information is in the form of the large number of turtle shells which were procured from the southeastern coast areas for the purposes of divination.) We learn something about animal husbandry by the inventories of sacrificial animals offered to the ancestors, and queries about the royal hunt and its catch give us information about wild animals and the diet of the Shang privileged classes.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

A lot of what we know about Shang life comes from archeological sources. “The presence of the Shang Culture on the landscape of China made a radical impact on the land itself. The Shang represented the most developed of the agricultural peoples of China, which during the second millennium was probably more broadly settled by hunting and fishing cultures in the east and central regions and nomadic pastoral peoples to the north and west. Shang Culture developed on the North China Plain in the basin of the Yellow River, where rich soils deposited by winds blowing from the deserts in the west made the domestication of grains a profitable endeavor. /+/

“As the Shang people first settled these relatively vulnerable plains during neolithic (new stone age) times, they defended their presence by constructing walled enclosures of varying sizes and functions. The largest of these walls, which could reach twenty feet in height and forty feet in thickness, protected large settlements, within which other walls demarcated neighborhoods. The farming population generally lived within or near to walled settlements, with their fields spread over the areas beyond the walls. The political presence of the Shang people was less a matter of controlling vast tracts of territory than one of establishing a network of secure walled settlements in which its farming economy could thrive. /+/

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 Location, Population and Settlements

The Shang civilization had elements of the Longshan culture ( ), and Xia Dynasty ( The central territory of the Shang realm was in present-day north-western Henan Province, near the Shanxi mountains and extending into the plains. It had cities and towns. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

At various times, different towns and cities served as the Shang capital. Yinxu in Anyang, Henan was their sixth and last capital and is the only one which has been extensively excavated. We do not know why the capitals were removed to new locations; it is possible that floods were one of the main reasons. The area under more or less organized Shang control comprised towards the end of the dynasty the present provinces of Henan, western Shandong, southern Hebei, central and south Shanxi, east Shaanxi, parts of Jiangsu and Anhui. We can only roughly estimate the size of the population of the Shang state. Late texts say that at the time of the annihilation of the dynasty, some 3.1 million free men and 1.1 million serfs were captured by the conquerors; this would indicate a population of at least some 4-5 millions. This seems a possible number, if we consider that an inscription of the tenth century B.C. which reports about an ordinary war against a small and unimportant western neighbor, speaks of 13,081 free men and 4,812 serfs taken as prisoners.

Anyang, the Shang capital from 1300 to 1028 B.C., was probably surrounded by a mud wall, as were the settlements of the Longshan people. In the centre was what evidently was the ruler's palace. Round this were houses probably inhabited by artisans; for the artisans formed a sort of intermediate class, as dependents of the ruling class. From inscriptions we know that the Shang had, in addition to their capital, at least two other large cities and many smaller town-like settlements and villages. The rectangular houses were built in a style still found in Chinese houses, except that their front did not always face south as is now the general rule. The Shang buried their kings in large, subterranean, cross-shaped tombs outside the city, and many implements, animals and human sacrifices were buried together with them. The custom of large burial mounds, which later became typical of the Chou dynasty, did not yet exist.

Inscriptions mention many neighbors of the Shang with whom they were in more or less continuous state of war. Many of these neighbors can now be identified. We know that Shanxi at that time was inhabited by Tibetan-Qiang tribes as well as by Ti tribes, belonging to the northern culture, and by Xianyun and other tribes, belonging to the north-western culture; the centre of the Qiang tribes was more in the south-west of Shanxi and in Shaanxi. Some of these tribes definitely once formed a part of the earlier Hsia state. The identification of the eastern neighbors of the Shang presents more difficulties. We might regard them as representatives of the Dai and Yao cultures.

Shang Dynasty Bronze, Silk and Ceramics

Bronze implements and especially bronze vessels were cast. We even know the trade marks of some famous bronze founders. The bronze weapons are still similar to those from Siberia, and are often ornamented in the so-called "animal style", which was used among all the nomad peoples between the Ordos region and Siberia. On the other hand, the famous bronze vessels are more of southern type, and reveal an advanced technique that has scarcely been excelled since. There can be no doubt that the bronze vessels were used for religious service and not for everyday life. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

For everyday use there were earthenware vessels. Even in the middle of the first millennium B.C., bronze was exceedingly dear, as we know from the records of prices. China has always suffered from scarcity of metal. For that reason metal was accumulated as capital, entailing a further rise in prices; when prices had reached a sufficient height, the stocks were thrown on the market and prices fell again. Later, when there was a metal coinage, this cycle of inflation and deflation became still clearer. The metal coinage was of its full nominal value, so that it was possible to coin money by melting down bronze implements. As the money in circulation was increased in this way, the value of the currency fell. Then it paid to turn coin into metal implements. This once more reduced the money in circulation and increased the value of the remaining coinage. Thus through the whole course of Chinese history the scarcity of metal and insufficiency of production of metal continually produced extensive fluctuations of the stocks and the value of metal, amounting virtually to an economic law in China. Consequently metal implements were never universally in use, and vessels were always of earthenware, with the further result of the early invention of porcelain. Porcelain vessels have many of the qualities of metal ones, but are cheaper.

The earthenware vessels used in this period are in many cases already very near to porcelain: there was a pottery of a brilliant white, lacking only the glaze which would have made it into porcelain. Patterns were stamped on the surface, often resembling the patterns on bronze articles. This ware was used only for formal, ceremonial purposes. For daily use there was also a perfectly simple grey pottery.

Silk was already in use at this time. The invention of sericulture must therefore have dated from very ancient times in China. It undoubtedly originated in the south of China, and at first not only the threads spun by the silkworm but those made by other caterpillars were also used. The remains of silk fabrics that have been found show already an advanced weaving technique. In addition to silk, various plant fibres, such as hemp, were in use. Woollen fabrics do not seem to have been yet used.

Shang Period Agriculture and Animal Husbandry


The Shang were primarly agriculturists. There was no real plough yet; hoes and hoe-like implements were used, and the grain, mainly different kinds of millet and some wheat, was harvested with sickles. The materials, from which these implements were made, were mainly wood and stone; bronze was still too expensive to be utilized by the ordinary farmer. As a great number of vessels for wine in many different forms have been excavated, we can assume that wine, made from special kinds of millet, was a popular drink. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “The main crops during the early Shang period were millet, rice, and wheat. These crops had been grown in the Yellow and Yangzi river valleys since the Neolithic period, but the scale of agricultural production greatly increased during the Shang period. We can infer this because larger surpluses were used to prepare fermented beverages, judging from the large quantities of vessel forms such as jia tripods, gu beakers, and jue tripods in early Shang graves. Plant remains from the Taixi site (rank 2, phase IV) show that fruit trees and vegetables also were grown. Pits from more than 30 types of fruits were recovered, including peach, Nanking cherry ( Prunus tomentosa) and Korean cherry ( Prunus japonica). [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 / ~|~]

“Animal husbandry also thrived in this period. The skeletons of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and dogs were found at different locations within the large site of Zhengzhou. These animals were used for food and for sacrificial offerings. The most common type of sacrifice at early Shang sites in all areas is the placement of sacrificed dogs in waist pits for mortuary ritual. At Zhengzhou archaeologists also found a pit that was only used to bury dogs (Henan Provincial 2001 : 493). ~|~

“It appears that cattle and pigs were sacrificed for ritual purposes as well. A pit containing cattle heads and horns was found at the Xiaoshuangqiao site (rank 1, phase III). One pit at Zhengzhou (rank 1, phases I–II) was found with cattle, pigs, and human victims buried together (Henan Provincial and Zhengzhou 1996). During the early Shang period, people may have used cattle in addition to horses for chariots, since cattle bone has been found at sites. ~|~

Food and Drink in China, 3000 Years Ago

What did Chinese people eat 3,000 years ago? How did they cook? What kind of tableware or cooking utensils did they use? The increasing number of archaeological finds over the past few decades, especially the discoveries of ancient bronze wares, have shed new light on these questions. Many of the unearthed bronze wares were found with the remains of food or wine. [Source:, March 13, 2003, This article first appeared in 2003's third issue of Collections, a Chinese language monthly magazine ~]

According to “People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties highly valued their way of dining. Delicious and nutritious food was regarded as the basis of ordinary life. Inscriptions engraved on ancient bronze items showed rice and wheat were the major staple foods since the Shang Dynasty. Shi Jing (The Book of Songs), one of the seminal works of the Chinese civilization, featured records of growing grain as well as grain processing. According to Li Ji (Records of Ritual), one of the five early Chinese classics, people at that time had begun to make cake with flour. Generally, the staple food was either boiled in a li or steamed in a yan (See Cooking Below). ~

“As far as meat went, archaeological findings showed Shang people enjoyed a wide variety of animals including horse, cow, chicken, pig, sheep and deer. Of course, only the upper-class was able to enjoy these delicacies. For common people, however, fish was probably the best food they could attain. Over a dozen kinds of fish were mentioned in Shi Jing. Fish-shaped jade items were often excavated, which proved the prominent role of fish in people's daily diets. ~

“People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties set forth culinary standards that are still followed today, such as the practice of cutting food into bite size pieces during preparation and not at the table. They stressed both the food and the culinary vessels must be cleaned completely before cooking. They also decreed that harmony among ingredients with respect to their size, shape, fragrance, taste and texture should be the goal of the chef. Diets should be changed with different seasons. To gain a balanced diet, vegetables and fruits were assorted with the main dishes. Seasoning varieties were also dazzling with sweet, hot, sour or spicy flavours, which made the dish tasty and healthy. Sauces made of meat, fish and oyster were also popular. ~

“On the imperial palace menu was the drinking side of the dining experience.Artifacts produced during the Shang Dynasty consisted mainly of wine vessels. It shows the important role wine drinking played in the lives of Shang people. According to historical documents, the best wine at the time was made with millet. Historians argued that the imperial class was so fond of a drop it led to the collapse of the Shang Dynasty. Rulers of the Western Zhou Dynasty learned from Shang people and restricted drinking. ~

“Ancient Chinese were also concerned about the freshness of food and worked out effective ways to preserve food. They built large underground "Lingyin" (cold storage) areas, which were chilled enough to keep food fresh in winter. Salting meat, fish and pickling vegetables was another effective method.” ~

Cooking in China, 3000 Years Ago

bronze ding (cooking vessel)

According to “The Chinese have always considered cooking to be one of the first steps out of savagery into civilization. Legend has it that cooking and food were so important in ancient China that Emperor Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.), appointed as his prime minister Yi Yin, a renowned cook who created China's cooking culture.[Source:, March 13, 2003 ~]

“Historians had argued that Shang people living over 3,000 years ago had mastered cooking techniques like steaming, stir-frying, frying and deep-frying. Archaeologists have found that in addition to pottery vessels, a dazzling variety of bronzes were once popular cooking utensils and tableware among the upper-class, which played a significant role in the study of Chinese culinary history. ~

“According to Li Xueqin, an expert on Chinese bronzes at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, these pieces were regarded as sacred vessels and only used during complex ritual ceremonies. Generally, the bronze vessels are divided into four categories according to their uses: cooking vessels, food containers, wine vessels and water vessels. As Li wrote in his works Chinese Bronzes, the ding was one of the most important types of bronzes used for cooking meat. It is either three-legged and round or four-legged and rectangular, which was designed to elevate the vessel and provide a space underneath for a fire to be built. The li was another kind of cooking vessel characterized by its pouch-like hollow legs. Liquid could flow to the legs and be heated more rapidly. ~

“The ding and li often came with spoons featuring a long handle and a sharp tip, which was used for picking meat out of the vessel. The yan was a steamer. It has pouch-like legs that can be filled with water like a li. Its upper part was like that of a ding. A rack was connected to the base so it could hold the food to be steamed. Historical documents showed each type of vessels was designed for a specific kind of food and could not be misused. As for the bronze wine vessels, the jue and gu were the most common. The jue was an odd-looking wine cup with three long, flat, pointed legs. It had a handle and a long spout with an upward tail that served as a counterweight. ~

“The most peculiar features were two small umbrella-like columns on the top. Research shows the two columns might have been used for hanging spice bags, which were immersed in the wine. Another assumption is that since men did not shave their beards at that time, the columns were used to divide their beards and prevent them from being stained by the wine. ~

“In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, the bronze wares were not only used for cooking, but were an indication of social status. Often, a series of ding of varying sizes showed the rank of the owner, depending on how many pieces were in a set. According to historical documents, emperors in the Western Zhou Dynasty could use nine ding, dukes could only use seven, senior officials five and lower-ranking officials three. Commoners were forbidden to use them and violators could be punished by death.” ~

Shang Wine

Analysis of 3,000-year-old bronze vessels revealed that the Shang drank rice and millet wines flavored with herbs, flowers and tree resins. Nadia Durrani wrote in World Archaeology: “The local liking for liquor continued down the centuries, according to McGovern’s research. He also analysed samples of 3,000-year-old wine from hermetically sealed bronze vessels found in Shang Dynasty burial tombs from the Yellow River Basin. Here, wine was deposited in the tombs of high-ranking individuals to sustain them in the afterlife. [Source: Nadia Durrani, World Archaeology, January 6, 2005 ++]

“The wine, which was clear and colourless, had been preserved because a thin layer of rust had sealed the bronze jars completely. When opened, it was initially floral scented, but after exposure to the atmosphere the aroma quickly degraded and gave off a scent akin to nail-polish remover. Analysis later revealed that the wine was flavoured with herbs and flowers or tree resins. One of the ancient jars also contained a liquid that had traces of wormwood, suggesting the beverage might have been an early version of absinthe.” ++

3,000-Year-Old Cellar with Melons and Apricots Found in North-Central China

bronze ritual wine container

In November 2010, Chinese archeologists announced they had found remains of ancient fruit — mostly well-preserved apricot and melon seeds — in a 3,000-year-old cellar in China’s Shaanxi Province. Zhang Xiang of Xinhua wrote: “The cellar was a rectangular pit about 105 centimeters long, 80 centimeters wide and 205 centimeters deep, said Dr. Sun Zhouyong, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology. Sun and his colleagues found the pit in 2002, about 70 centimeters underground the Zhouyuan site, ruins of Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 B.C.) 100 kilometers from Xi’an. After eight years of research, they concluded it was a cellar used to preserve fruits for aristocrats. [Source: Zhang Xiang, Xinhua, November 20, 2010 ^]

“In each corner of the pit, Sun and his colleagues found a little round hole. “We assume the cellar had something like a shade that was fixed on the four holes but had decayed over the years.” Inside the cellar the researcher could see, even with naked eye, huge piles of nuts and seeds. “We sorted them out with care, and found about 500 apricot nuts — 108 of which were complete with carbonized pulp, at least 150 melon seeds and 10 plum seeds,” said Sun. They also found millet and grass seeds. “Most of the seeds were intact and very few were carbonized,” said Sun. “It was so amazing that scientists who conducted lab work suspected they were actually put away by rodents in more recent times.” ^

“Sun and his colleagues sent three apricot nuts to Beta Analytic in Florida, the United states, last year for carbon 14 test to determine their age. “The test results indicated they were about 3,000 years old, dating back to a period between 1380 B.C. and 1120 B.C.,” said Sun. “Seemingly the fruits had been stored in an acidic and dry environment, so dehydration was extremely slow and the nuts were not carbonized even after so many centuries.” ^

“Zhouyuan site, where the cellar was unearthed, was believed to be a dwelling place for Duke Danfu, an early leader of the Zhou clan. It was known as the cradle of the Western Zhou Dynasty, one of the earliest periods of China’s written history. “Presumably, the aristocrats had stored fruits in their family cellar,” said Sun. The cellar, with roughly 1.7 cubic meters of storage, could store up to 100 kilograms of fruits, he said. ^

Settlement Patterns of the Early Shang Period

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Examining the distribution of site sizes for each phase reveals clear differences, so we can refer to the presence of tiers in the settlement hierarchy. It also is important to investigate early Shang settlement patterns from a diachronic perspective.[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 / ~|~]

“Differences in site size for the early Shang period can be explained with reference to terms for different kinds of settlements from various Chinese historical texts. It seems that the different settlement tiers identified by archaeologists represent a hierarchical social structure which included large settlements that were regional capitals ( du..), military towns or large sites that served as auxiliary capitals (yi..), small cities that functioned as military strongholds, and common settlements. My colleagues and I have identified four sizes or ranks of settlements for the early Shang period as a whole (ranks 1–4, from large to small). My discussion below focuses on interpreting the functions of each type of site for the entire early Shang period. [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 / ~|~]

“Commoners lived in the smallest (rank 4) settlements about 10–30 hectares in size. They must have had close relations with larger, neighboring sites. For instance, Mengzhuang is relatively large and circular in shape, around 30 hectares in size. The excavations there discovered trash pits, building foundations, pottery kilns, water wells, and burials.” ~|~

Shang Cities

Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “The very large or rank 1 sites such as Zhengzhou, Xiaoshuangqiao, and Huanbei should be interpreted as capitals. Each of these sites is several hundred hectares in size, and each has a walled palace zone. The layout of the ancient city of Zhengzhou has been identified after many years of excavations. The city plan is nearly rectangular with two rings of protective walls that form the outer and the inner city. The inner city is approximately rectangular with a perimeter of almost 7,000 meters and an area of 300 hectares. The outer city wall only protects the southern and western portions of the site, located 600–1,100 meters away from the inner city wall. The outer wall was designed to follow natural topography surrounding the inner city, obviously having a defensive function. [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 well-planned inner city walled area was built to protect the palace. There is evidence for the establishment of a drainage system. The residential area, workshops for craft production, and cemetery are located in the outer city. The total size of the site is more than 1,300 hectares (Yuan and Zeng 2004). Now most scholars believe that Zhengzhou was the capital Bo mentioned in later historical texts. ~|~

“The large Xiaoshuangqiao site was excavated in 1990 (Henan Provincial 1993). Current data indicate the site area is about 600 hectares. The walled palace zone (which I call the palace city), the foundations of large, high rammed-earth buildings, the foundations of small houses, the large-scale area with traces of sacrificial remains such as offerings pits dug when constructing building foundations, waste pits, and remains from bronze-casting were all found in the northeastern part of the site. The remains include pottery vessels, bronze items, jades, proto-porcelains, bone, horn, teeth, shell, gold foil, characters on objects written with cinnabar, malachite, and copper slag (Henan Provincial and Zhengzhou 1996). ~|~

“The Xiaoshuangqiao site yielded rich cultural information. The site is located in a geographic area that seems to correspond to the area where the ancient Ao capital would have been situated along the southern bank of the Yellow river. The age of the site is close to the date for the early Shang city of Zhengzhou, a time range in accordance with that recorded by historical documents when the Shang king Zhong Ding moved his capital to Ao. Most scholars believe it was the capital Ao attributed to the Shang dynasty on the basis of later historical texts. ~|~

“The Huanbei site is rectangular in form, covering an area of about 470 hectares. The external city wall is 2,200 meters (north–south) by 2,150 meters (east–west). The walled palace zone is located in the southern part of the city, and several large rammed-earth foundations were discovered there. Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology, China Academy of Social Sciences (IA,CASS 2003 : 274–276) also found bronze artifacts and cemeteries in this site. More will be learned about the nature of this site from additional excavations.” ~|~

Large Shang Towns

Anyang sites

Guangkuo wrote: “Rank 2 settlements are large sites that served as auxiliary capitals or important military stations. Most of these sites have a surrounding wall of rammed earth. The site of Yanshi, for example, is rectangular and covers an area of 190 hectares. Extensive investigations identified a surrounding wall of rammed earth in all areas except along the south side. Nine gaps representing gates were identified; gate 2 in the west wall was excavated. Archaeologists also discovered several avenues and four rammed-earth foundations for large buildings at Yanshi. [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 smaller, inner city with its palace zone is located to the southwest of the large city, and it is approximately rectangular in form. It is about 1,100 meters north–south and 740 meters west–east. The palace zone is in the southern part of Yanshi. In 2000, 13 foundations of large buildings were excavated in the northern part of the palace zone. Among the remains archaeologists discovered two large palaces, a large pond, and 10 areas devoted to sacrificial offerings of varying size. There also are many commoner graves in the inner city. ~|~

“Yanshi Shang city also has a refined military defense system including three layers of walls, the walled inner palace zone, and a fuku arsenal for the storage of weapons. The interpretation of an arsenal was made because the structure of the building was similar to that of an arsenal at Luoyang dating to the Han period (206 B.C. to AD 220) and Wei period (A.D. 220–534). In addition, it appears that the city walls of Yanshi were deliberately shaped with a military function in mind. The city walls are not straight as seen in most other early cities. This is particularly clear for the inner city walls. The bulging northwestern and northeastern ends give the plan of the inner city what has been called a “ mamian, horse-face” design for defense (Du 2004 : 328–332). ~|~

“There are other reasons why many scholars believe Yanshi was an important military town. First, Yanshi is located only 6 kilometers away from Erlitou, the capital of the Erlitou culture. Most scholars in China believe that Erlitou was the capital city of the Xia dynasty, whose residents were the enemy of Shang. Second, the large, inner walled area at the Shang city of Zhengzhou that was contemporaneous with, or a little earlier than, the city of Yanshi is 300 hectares in size, while Yanshi is only 81 hectares in size. The unusually small size suggests that Yanshi had a special function. Third, as mentioned above, the concave and convex sections of the city walls seem to represent a conscious design for defense. The remains of a large arsenal or storage area for weapons also indicate the military function of the site. ~|~

“Rank 2 sites also include the Daxinzhuang site in Shandong and the Taixi site in Hebei, which must have been important military sites. Archaeological remains at Taixi include building foundations, storage pits, pottery vessels, stone tools, artifacts made from bones and horns, seashells, lacquer, oracle bones, woven textiles (apparently flax, yama ), seeds and a considerable number of inscriptions on pottery. A yue .. battle-axe with an iron blade found at Taixi is one of the earliest iron products in the world (Hebei Provincial 1985 : 167–168).” ~|~

Shang Military Garrison Towns

Zhou-era chariot fitting

Guangkuo wrote: “Rank 3 sites are relatively small cities that served as military fortresses. These settlements are considered cities because they are walled. Generally they are located at important transportation junctions in the peripheral region of the early Shang dynasty. [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 / ~|~]

“Panlongcheng is located about 5 kilometers from Wuhan city, Hubei province. Since it has a walled palace zone, it also probably once had a wall surrounding the settlement as well. Therefore, many scholars regard it as a city. The walled zone is approximately rectangular in plan, encompassing an area of 75 hectares. The land is higher in the northeast and lower in the southwest. Remains of palaces were found on higher ground in the northwestern area. Foundation 1 in the upper layer representing the early Shang period was a large palace with four rooms. The palace was as wide as 38.2 meters. ~|~

“Although the city of Panlongcheng is not large, with the size of the walled zone only about 5 percent that of Zhengzhou, many large-scale buildings and graves of high-class individuals were identified. This probably indicates that the ruler of the city was quite powerful. Panlongcheng was a stronghold of the early Shang dynasty in southern China (Peking University and Hubei 2001 : 1–3). The well-known copper mines along the Yangzi river, Tongling tongkuang in Ruichang, Jiangxi province, and Tonglushan in Daye, Hubei province, were used as early as the early Shang period. Panlongcheng, located in the southernmost part of early Shang territory, was most likely a stronghold set to control the copper mine nearby (Chen 2003). Yuanqu (National Museum et al. 1996) and Dongxiafeng (IA,CASS et al. 1988), the two early Shang period cities located in the north, would have controlled the gateway from southern Shanxi to the Central Plain.” ~|~

Interpreting Shang Settlement Patterns

Guangkuo wrote: “The numerous cities from the early Shang period served as centers for political organization, defense, and economic activities. Archaeological fieldwork has identified many medium-sized and small settlements in the areas around cities. For example, this pattern is very clear around the large city of Zhengzhou. This city served as the center of a settlement hierarchy including more than 40 settlements around it. It appears that most sites in this area of about 40 square kilometers were inhabited from phase I to phase III (Zhang 2010). [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 / ~|~]

“Another noticeable pattern is the fact that the early Shang cities of Zhengzhou, Dongxiafeng, Yuanqu, and Fucheng are located in the middle Yellow river valley on both sides of the river. The linear distance between the sites is about 60–80 km. These sites served as economic, administrative, and cultural centers for an area of hundreds of kilometers. On a smaller scale, as discussed above, there were groups of settlements of different sizes with cities as regional centers. This distribution pattern seems in accordance with the customs of the Shang as suggested by textual data that people with the same ancestor would live together. ~|~

“From a macroscopic perspective, early Shang settlements can be divided into five spatial groups of settlements. The first group includes the center of Zhengzhou and smaller sites found within the area of modern Zhengzhou city and its northwestern suburb. The center of the second spatial group is Yanshi. The sites in this group are mainly found in the Yiluo river basin, which had once been the key region of the Erlitou culture. The third settlement group is clustered around the city of Panlongcheng in the Huan.. and She.. river valleys (Jiang 2008). The center of the fourth group is in southern Shanxi and western Henan provinces, location of the two most important and powerful city sites (rank 3), Yuanqu and Dongxiafeng. The fifth settlement group is centered on the early Shang city of Huanbei in northern Henan.” ~|~

Shang sites

Changes in Shang Settlement Patterns

Guangkuo wrote: “The first phase of the early Shang period mainly involved the settlement group that included the cities of Zhengzhou and Yanshi, covering the west-central part of Henan province and roughly overlapping the core area of the preceding Erlitou culture. This spatial pattern might represent the replacement of the Xia dynasty by the Shang dynasty. During the second phase of the early Shang period, the city of Zhengzhou was still thriving and played an essential role in the region. Also during this phase, two other groups of settlements emerged: one in southern Shanxi and western Henan, and another including the city of Panlongcheng to the south in Hubei province. [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 / ~|~]

“In addition it is clear that Shang settlements during this phase were established in what is now central Shaanxi province. The regional center here is the site of Laoniupo (Liu Shi ’ e 2002). This small settlement group did not include many sites, but it still played an important role during the early Shang period. ~|~

“During the third phase of the early Shang culture, the distribution pattern of the settlement groups did not change much, but some new small sites were established. During the fourth phase of the early Shang period, the focus of settlement shifted to the north and east, while there was a decline of settlement in other places. The formation of the settlement group including the city of Huanbei represents the northeast boundary of early Shang settlements. At this time, the city of Zhengzhou to the southwest began to be abandoned. Thus there was a shift in the center of power to the north. ~|~

Why the Shang Established Cities

Guangkuo wrote: “The establishment of cities during the early Shang period was a political strategy for controlling natural resources and for defense. The city of Panlongcheng (phase II) permitted the power of Shang elites to extend to the Yangzi river basin. “The city with its military power played a key role in dealing with other polities in the south. The military power of the more northern cities of Yuanqu (phase II), Dongxiafeng (phase II), and Fucheng (phase II) allowed the control of salt and copper mines in the area and the control of other polities located there. The city of Yanshi (phases I–II), located in the region of the capital at Zhengzhou, must have been established for protection of the new state against threats by allies of the former Xia dynasty and for consolidation of the new Shang power. It also served as the base of the westward expansion by the state (He and Hu 2004). ~|~ [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 construction of the city of Huanbei (rank 1) during phase IV signaled a shift in the center of Shang state power to the northeast, away from the Zhengzhou area. A new effort to control areas in the east began during phase III from the establishment of the Daxinzhuang settlement in what is now Shandong province. This is the earliest dated Shang site in Shandong, and it is similar in age with Huanbei. Archaeologists have interpreted Daxinzhuang as a military stronghold for conducting war with people the Shang regarded as “barbarians” further east. Sea salt in the Jiaodong peninsula region of northern Shandong must have been one of the principal resources that the Shang leaders wished to acquire. Thus, by moving eastward, Shang people could not only attack rebel forces and guard their state, but could also seize important resources. ~|~

Transportation in the Shang Period

Guangkuo wrote: “Almost all of the early Shang cities were built near rivers. The Suoxu and Jialu rivers flow in the western and northern suburbs of modern Zhengzhou city; the ancient city of Zhengzhou (rank 1, phases I–II) is to the east. The Shang city of Panlongcheng (rank 3, phase II) is located at the junction of the Fu, She, and Yangzi rivers. The city is surrounded by rivers to the east, south and north. The city of Yuanqu (rank 3, phase II) is located on the loess tableland between the Boqing river and the Yellow river. The city of Yanshi (rank 2, phases I–II) lies in the middle of the Luoyang basin, facing the Luo river in the south. The rivers provided enough water for daily use, served as a natural protective barrier to the city, and were useful for transportation. Also, many cities were situated by a mountain on one side, which served as another means of defense. [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 / ~|~]

“Excavations have confirmed that chariots were used in the late Shang period for war and transportation. Their value can be seen by the fact that they often were buried with nobles. Some elite graves even contain partially destroyed chariots during the late Shang period (Liu Yiman 2000 : 29–32). There is some evidence indicating the use of chariots during the early Shang period as well. In 1996, archaeologists discovered two parallel tracks on a prepared earthen surface in the northeastern part of the early Shang city of Yanshi. They concluded that the surface was a Shang period road, and that the tracks resulted from chariot wheels (Second Team 1998 ; Du and Wang 2004). Thus, two- wheeled chariots may have existed by the early Shang period (Second Team 1998), but no remains of chariots have been found yet. ~|~

“It is likely that transportation by water was the most common method during the early Shang period. As the early Shang capital during phases I–II, the city of Zhengzhou needed good transportation routes. The nearby Jialu river system connects to the Shaying river system, and then flows into the Huai.. river. The river systems allowed the rulers at Zhengzhou to control the Huai river basin. At the same time, 15 kilometers away from Zhengzhou the main channel and branches of the Yellow river would have connected the cities of Yuanqu and Yanshi and adjacent regions with the capital at Zhengzhou. The river system connected the capital with local strongholds and protected the central government during the first three phases of the early Shang dynasty before power began to decline during the fourth phase.” ~|~

bronze cowrie money

Shang-Era Economic Organization

Guangkuo wrote: “Several changes in the economy from the Erlitou period are noticeable. One can conclude that there were developments with respect to farming, animal husbandry, and craft production. First, there were improvements in tools for farming. [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 / ~|~]

“A variety of materials were used to make tools such as chan shovels, lian sickles, fu axes, and ben.. adzes. In addition to stone, bone, and shell, people began to use bronze to make fu axes and chan shovels. The use of bronze for axes and shovels is quite important, because during the Erlitou period, bronze was only used for small tools such as zhui awls, zao chisels, and dao knives. The larger axes and shovels must have been advantageous for agricultural production. ~|~

“It is likely that increased agricultural production allowed more people to become engaged in craft production during the early Shang period, triggering improvements in this aspect of the economy as well. The most significant forms of craft production involved bronze, pottery and bone. Most of our knowledge comes from the extensive excavations at the large city of Zhengzhou. ~|~

“The clear functional division of labor between the different workshop areas at Zhengzhou means that efficiency in production was a priority. The presence of workshops specializing in the production of particular kinds of goods indicates that there must have been considerable trade of goods during the early Shang period. This also suggests that a system of currency could have existed. ~|~

“Many scholars have proposed that the presence of cowries ( haibei ) in early Shang graves were used as currency. These shells usually are found in large graves. In comparison to the Erlitou graves with no more than 12, one early Shang grave had 460 cowries. The excavators at Zhengzhou did not find workshops for the production of ivory objects or jade items. It is possible that finished ivory and jade objects came to Zhengzhou by trade or as tribute.” ~|~

Shang Era Bronze Factories

Guangkuo wrote: “Foundries for bronze casting were found in the cities of Zhengzhou (rank 1) and Panlongcheng (rank 3). Two important bronze foundries were identified at Zhengzhou named Nanguanwai (located in the south, between the smaller, inner enclosure and the outer wall) and Zijingshan (in the north, outside the inner enclosure). At Nanguanwai, the main crafts were bronze vessels and tools. The workers at Zijingshan specialized in the production of bronze knives. [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 clay molds, crucibles, and furnaces from these areas of Zhengzhou reveal that early Shang casting technology was quite developed. Bronze vessels were produced by piece-mold casting, which involved four main steps: shaping the clay model, production of the clay mold, casting, and finishing. In general more tin was used to produce the early Shang bronze vessels than those of the Erlitou period, but overall, the amount of tin still was relatively low. The early Shang bronze objects also contain varying amounts of lead (Zhu 2009 : 689–694). ~|~

“With respect to decorative techniques for the production of bronze vessels, an interesting development was the appearance of animal heads in high relief during the early Shang period. This made the decorations more three-dimensional. This type of decorative technique became dominant during the late Shang period, as seen on the bronze vessels at Yinxu. The most complex form of decoration on bronze vessels was found at the city of Xiaoshuangqiao. The earliest Shang bronze construction component found there has a unique shape and is heavily decorated. The “beast face” ( shoumianwen) pattern was applied on the front and on both sides, seemingly indicating a fighting scene between a dragon and tiger. This artifact reveals a high level of bronze-casting technology and artistic expression during the early Shang period (Henan Provincial 1993 : 76). ~|~

Shang Era Ceramic Factories

Shang ceramic

Guangkuo wrote: “A large area (1,551 square meters) devoted to ceramic production was discovered in the northern part of Minggong Road within the Zhengzhou site, west of the smaller, inner enclosure. This locus contains the remains of kilns, an area for forming vessels, foundations of workshops, various kinds of pits (for the storage of pottery, for trash, or pits formed after the extraction of raw clay), and a well for water. Large quantities of clay lumps, unfired vessels, wasters, incised paizi beaters, molds, and sherds were found. The sherds reveal that most vessels made in this workshop area had a relatively fine paste and were wheel-thrown. The consensus is that the Shang potters used local clays. The potters here mostly produced pen.. basins and yan.. steamers. Vessels with coarse paste must have been made in other workshops at Zhengzhou. [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 discovery of proto-porcelain vessels in some graves and other contexts signifies an important development in ceramic production. These vessels were found at the cities of Zhengzhou (rank 1) and Yanshi (rank 2), as well as the small site of Mengzhuang. The body of the sherds was fine and hard. They were made with kaolin clay with an estimated firing temperature as over 1,000̊C. The shiny glaze (usually green, though sometimes green-yellow or brown) was usually applied to the exterior surface and inner rim. Proto-porcelain vessels also were recognized by early excavators at Erligang within the large site of Zhengzhou.” ~|~

“There were several methods of decorating pottery vessels during the early Shang period produced by stamping, incising, and appliqué, but one special motif deserves mention. At Zhengzhou, excavators found a pot sherd with a human-tiger motif from a cultural layer on a rammed-earth platform in the palace area of Figure 16.3 Sherd with “human-tiger” motif from the early Shang city of Zhengzhou. The motif was carved on a fragment of a gui ring-foot bowl. A human face showing eyes, nose, ears, and mouth, along with the neck and shoulder, is seen in the mouth of a kneeling tiger that probably was placed to look directly at anyone who held the vessel. Some scholars argue that the animal is a dragon instead (Tang and Zhang 2008). ~|~

Shang-Era Workshops Use Human Bones and Skulls

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Two workshops for the production of bone objects were found at Zhengzhou. “One, located in the north-central part of the site within the inner walled enclosure, was used to produce vessels made from human skulls (Henan Provincial 2001 : 476). In the second bone workshop located outside the north wall of the inner enclosure, there were more than a thousand bone tools and partially finished objects, raw materials, and tools such as whetstones and bronze knives in a rectangular pit. [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 finished and unfinished objects were mainly zu arrowheads and ji hairpins; a few zhui awls and zhen needles were also found (Henan Provincial 2001 : 465). Clearly the focus was on production of arrowheads and hairpins. More than half of the raw materials have been identified as human limb and rib bones. The workers also used cattle, pig, and deer bone. Around 250 horns recovered, mostly from deer, were used primarily for awls but were also used for spindle whorls, arrowheads, hooks, and rings. The excavators found small quantities of animal teeth, elephant ivory, and tusks from boar and river deer, too. ~|~

The economic activities at sites such as Zhengzhou served the theocratic Shang state. Some production areas seem directly related to ritual activities, such as the workshop area used for cutting human skulls identified in the inner city of Zhengzhou. More than 100 skulls, probably from war captives, were found with traces of saw marks. More evidence for a theocratic state can be seen at the large site of Xiaoshuangqiao (rank 1, phase III), which also is known for many sacrificial pits buried with human victims or animals. These might have been used for rituals in association with the construction of buildings. The extensive sacrificial activities at early Shang sites could have accelerated the production of several kinds of craft goods, including objects made from bone and bronze vessels.” ~|~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.