imagining of Shang life

The Shang Dynasty by one reckoning lasted from 1600 to 1046 B.C. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Three features of the Shang Culture apart from literacy marked it as different from other cultures on the Chinese mainland: its agricultural economic base, its sharp class distinctions, and its kinship structures with their associated religious dimensions. These features continue to characterize the culture of China during the Classical period (usually dated 770-221 B.C.) when the philosophical traditions developed. While there was clearly great diversity within Shang Culture and change over time, for the purposes of this course, we will introduce only a brief and highly schematic model of this pre-philosophical culture. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Perhaps the most important type of information we encounter concerning social organization involves the evidence of the king’s power to mobilize labor, particularly for two massive types of undertakings: warfare and the construction of city walls. The texts frequently refer to the “multitudes,” or masses, and while we are unclear precisely to whom this refers and under whose control these people were (were they peasants or permanent armies? – under the control of the Shang king or of regional allied lords?), these masses of people were certainly viewed principally as a manpower resource, without high social standing.In sum, by confirming the basic historicity of the “Shiji” accounts of the Shang, the oracle texts have provided us with our first real factual knowledge of this long period. However, the nature of the data they provide is so selective and skewed to our own interests as historians that the image of the Shang that they project remains oddly distorted and analytically challenging. /+/

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

Social Classes During the Shang Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Shang Culture was distinguished from other contemporary cultures by the clear differentiation of social classes and extremely high concentration of wealth. Shang settlements generally segregated their populations by occupational groups, locating these groups in discrete neighborhoods. Farmers, who made up the vast majority of the population, generally were housed on either side of the outer walls and were the least advantaged group economically. Groups of artisans and traders lived near the market areas within the town. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Most of the resources of Shang society were under the control of a small set of powerful kinship groups which formed the Shang aristocracy. These clans maintained a monopoly on political power. Their precincts within Shang cities were opulent and separately walled. From among these clans, one emerged as supreme and supplied the larger polity of Shang culture with a central line of rulers, whose home settlement served as the administrative and religious capital of the emerging Shang state. /+/

“The stratified agricultural society of the wall-building Shang proved efficient in directing rich resources to its own enlargement. Through wars and cultural hegemony, the society impinged on its many neighbors and gradually incorporated them, though the process was not uniform, and tribes that joined the polity were able to preserve, to varying degrees, local cultural forms distinct from the metropolitan culture of the Shang.” /+/

Graves as Indicators of Social Hierarchy

Fu Hao tomb

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. ~|~

“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. ~|~

Importance of Kinship and Religion in Shang Society

another imagining of Shang life

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Shang Culture placed great stress on the importance of extended lineage structures, particularly among the elite. We have little information concerning the farming class, but it appears that lineage identity was also very important to artisan groups. Indeed, occupations seem to have generally been determined by lineage membership. Among the elite, lineage structures were large and complex. Trunk-line lineages of eldest sons dominated the larger clan. Branch lineages descending from younger sons could only establish social and religious autonomy by moving to new geographical locations. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Indeed, the entire idea of individual autonomy seems alien to what we know of the Shang Culture, within which individuals were tightly identified by membership to clan, and clans tightly identified by membership to social class or occupation. The subservience of individuals to larger power structures is symbolized at the most intimate level by the cultural norm of “filiality”: the belief that the worth of children is best measured by the degree to which they honor and serve their parents without disobedience. /+/

“The emblem of the centrality of lineage to the Shang is the cult of ancestor worship that lies at the center of Shang religious practice. The line between the living and the dead was a thin one. Ancestors continued to possess powers that could be exercised over the physical space in which the living dwelt, and they maintained close control over the lives of their descendants. Power distributions, which in Shang clans were strictly aligned according to seniority, extended to the world of the dead. Just as children were expected to serve and honor their parents and seniors in society, so adults served and honored their ancestors with daily rituals and offerings of substantial nourishment. The etiquette of serving the ancestors – a series of actions which became necessarily elaborate to compensate for the rare and uncertain confirmation of adequacy provided by the dead – provided to Shang society a prominent ritualistic cast that continued to influence Chinese society in later eras. /+/

Group Structures in Shang Society

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the features of Shang society that we can discern both in bone texts and in the terse inscriptions on some bronze vessels is the existence of clan structures tied to specialized social roles. There are two Chinese characters that were used to refer to lineage groups in the Shang texts. One of these graphs, “zong”, pictures a “spirit-tablet,” or symbolic temple image of the dead, within the structure of a shrine building. This word expresses the religious essence in clan membership. It points at once to the nature of a clan as a large common descent group and to its primary integrating activity: ancestral sacrifice. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The second graph, “zu”, refers to smaller lineage sub-groups, cadet branches of the clan, which formed socially independent units of Shang society, but were still ritually tied to the larger descent group. The graph of “zu”pictures an arrow underneath the waving banners of a battle flag. Here, the symbol of the group is not related to its internal cohesiveness based on descent and ritual, but to its external function in society, pictured in terms of the key activity of military participation. /+/

“The population of the Shang may be conceived of as a conglomeration of “zu”, or “corporate lineage groups”: that is, familial organizations that shared a single occupation in contributing to Shang society.A “zu”might be a clan of bronze casters, of horse breeders, of bow makers, butchers, shepherds, and so forth. Occupations were probably inherited, and the geography of the Shang city probably organized the population simultaneously according to lineage and social function in this way. /+/

“One particularly direct expression of this form of social organization is the pattern of “clan insignia” that we find on Shang bronzes. These pictorial representations in many cases represent with great clarity the professional nature of the clan, as in the following examples: The basic concept of Shang society as a collection of groups rather than of individuals is reinforced in the oracle texts. The inscriptions in that corpus frequently refer to people in groups, signaled by affixing a prefix-pluralizer meaning “the many” before the group name. For example, the royal family is referred to in terms of “the many princes” (the younger members of the royal house) or “the many wives”; allied chiefs and Shang nobles with semi-independent estate lands are called “the many elders” or “the many lords”; supervising personnel are called “the many officers” or “the many field foremen”; military officials are “the many horsemen”; craft groups are “the many arrowsmiths” or “the many shieldsmiths.” Earlier, we encountered this manner of speaking extended to the spirit world in the term “the many grandmothers.”

“The thrust of this model can be captured by the sense of the character “zu”, picturing the clan as a military company. It suggests a metaphor of all Shang society as a cohesive battalion composed of consanguineal (blood-related) “companies” of specialists in all the arts of value to the state. And this notion may not be far distant from the way in which Shang civilization viewed itself, at least in its geographical core regions. /+/

Common People in the Shang Era

Dr. Eno wrote: “As you should expect, we do not know a great deal about the lives of commoners during the Shang. We can see that certain artisan groups, such as bronze casters, probably enjoyed certain privileges, and the very fact that there are clan emblems that seem to record and even celebrate a clan identity as butchers or shepherds indicates that such well defined occupational groups stood out from the common mass. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The common mass, of course, were farmers. Our understanding of the peasants and of commoners in general is derived from the appearances of a single word in the oracle texts, a word signifying “the multitudes.” The graph used to designate the multitudes (modern Chinese.) was written by drawing three persons underneath an eye or the sun. The graph itself suggests the image of the peasant under the gaze of an overseer, or simply outdoors in the fields. There are inscriptions when the term clearly refers to the peasants, but there are other inscriptions where the multitudes constitute a military force, presumably drafted from the peasantry. /+/

“The multitude are not always pictured as under the control of the King; the multitudes of Shang allies were also of concern to the King, whether because their welfare was important to keep the allied state strong or because they were mobilized as soldiers fighting with Shang armies. It is unclear whether these multitudes are the peasants of an essentially alien ally, or Shang commoners attached to a royal estate holder at the time that individual traveled to his or her domain to oversee it and guarantee its order for the Shang. If it is the latter case, the King's concern could have rested on both political and cultural bases. /+/

“There has been much debate about the status of the multitudes. Should they be seen as lower class but politically significant actors? As slaves – Shang people with no independent rights as people? As captives – essentially non-Shang slaves? The evidence is ambiguous. The late text recording the supposed speech of Pan-“geng”to his people pictures him trying to “persuade”the multitudes to move with him: hardly the stance a ruler takes towards slaves, but the text may not be authentic. As far as the issues of slaves and captives go, there is abundant evidence that the Shang brought great numbers of captives to their capital. The inscriptions record their slaughter in huge sacrificial ceremonies. But whether such captives provided the source of the Shang peasant class or a significant portion of it seems doubtful. For now, the status and livelihood of the commoners in Shang China and the nature of the “multitudes” we meet in the inscriptions remains fundamentally unclear. /+/

Following are a group of inscriptions relating to the multitudes: 1) Divined: “We should report by means of burnt offerings that the multitudes have marched to Ding.” Eighth month.”11 The King shall issue a great order to the multitudes saying, “Cultivate the fields”; we shall receive a harvest.”” 2) “Divined: X should call upon the Petty Minister of the Multitudes.” 3) “Crack-making on “wu-yin”day, Bin divining: The King shall go and lead the multitudes in planting grain at Jiong.” 4) “We shall not call upon the multitudes to precede [us] to Qian.” 5) “The Commissary Officers should lead the multitudes to march.” 6) “The King should perhaps take the multitudes, attack X, and so obtain (capture) people; then the people of the border territories will encounter disaster.” 7) “Shall [our ally] Bi not lose his multitude? Call out at the altar to attack and defend against the Qiang-“fang”, the men shall destroy the Qiang and not lose the multitude.” /+/

Role of Shang-Era Women: the Case of Fu-hao

Fu Hao

Dr. Eno wrote: “We know very little about the role of women during the Shang. It is presumed that their status was low and their occupations constrained to those pictured in the Zhou “Book of Songs”, which began to be composed not long after the fall of the Shang. There is, however, one case of a royal woman whose role, as recorded in the oracle texts, was so remarkable as to demonstrate that during the Shang women were not, at least, conceived as inherently incapable of social, political, and even military participation. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Fu-hao (Lady Hao) was a consort of King Wu-“ding”, whose great power she clearly helped to secure. The oracle texts concerning her deal with issues common to other consorts, such as childbearing, but also reveal that she played an important political and military role. In two of the inscriptions, Fu-hao appears as a general in charge of troops, carrying out an essential mission to link her forces to those of Wu-“ding”'s chief independent ally, Guo of Zhi, and coordinate a rendezvous with the troops under the king's direct command. The inscription to this effect cited below can be compared to one cited earlier from the Huayuanzhuang oracle corpus, which also pictures Fu-hao undertaking a military role, perhaps in the same campaign. /+/

“Fu-hao's eminence has been confirmed in another way. In 1976, archaeologists excavated the richest intact tomb ever located at the Xiao-tun site. Found within it were well over 400 ritual bronze vessels and almost 600 carved jade ornaments, as well as 7,000 cowrie shells, the cash of Shang commerce. Inscriptions on the bronzes confirmed that this was the grave of Fu-hao, who was clearly honored in death in a manner consistent with her role in life.

1) “Crack-making on “yi-chou”day, Que divining: On the next “geng-yin”day, Fu-hao shall give birth. 2) “Crack-making on “wu-chen”day, Que divining:When Fu-hao gives birth, shall it not be fortunate? 3) “Crack-making on “ding-you”day, Pin divining: Fu-hao shall have a fortunate birth. The King prognosticated saying, if she gives birth on a “jia” day there will be misfortune. 4) “Crack-making on “jia-shen”day, Que divining: Fu-hao shall have a fortunate birth. The King prognosticated saying, if she gives birth on a “ding” day it shall be fortunate; if on a “geng”day, it shall be greatly auspicious. On the thirty-third day thereafter, on “jia-yin”, Fu-hao gave birth. It was not fortunate; it was a girl. /+/

5) “Crack-making on “xin-wei”day, Cheng divining: Fu-hao shall follow Guo of Zhi and attack the X-“fang”. The King shall attack Zhong-lu from the East to where Fu-hao shall be. 6) “Divined: The King shall not order Fu-hao to follow Guo of Zhi and attack the X-“fang”; will we not perhaps receive support? &) Divined: Fu-hao is ill; is there some evil influence? 7) Crack-making on “ji-mao”day, Que divining:We shall perform an “ju” -sacrifice to Father “yi” on behalf of Fu-hao. We shall X-sacrifice a lamb, decapitate a boar, and “ce”-sacrifice ten sets of sheep and pigs. /+/

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 November 2016

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