SHANG KINGS AND GOVERNMENT

SHANG PERIOD GOVERNANCE


Tang the Successful

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Shang was a period during which the various neolithic cultures of China were coalescing into a coherent and widespread civilization. While the power of the late Shang king appears limited when compared to the autocratic might of later Chinese rulers, it probably represented a quantum leap from far weaker advantages enjoyed by pre-Shang chieftains over much less extensive or cohesive populations and territories. As we “explore certain features of the late Shang polity to get a broader picture of what Shang society was like... it should be recalled as we do so that our information remains fragmentary in many respects, and is skewed by the fact that the overwhelming majority of our data is derived from the oracle texts, which portray the Shang solely through the interests of the royal house. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

During the Shang Period, a line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, one of which was at the site of the modern city of Anyang, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits and to honor sacred ancestors were highly developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Eno wrote: “Shang society was built upon an agricultural base. The member regions of the Shang polity were generally themselves agricultural, and the enemies of the Shang tended to be nomadic societies. Unlike the nomadic peoples surrounding them, the Shang seem to have amassed surplus wealth that was very unevenly distributed within Shang society. Shang agriculture was productive, and its surplus tended over time to accumulate increasingly within the Shang elite class and at the Shang capital. Power in the Shang was associated with walled cities where the elite dwelt, surrounded by artisans, who provided them with luxuries, and nearby farming lands for the peasants whose labor provided them with steady incomes. Shang civilization was clearly one in which wealth and power was distributed in a highly “stratified” fashion: the small elite class virtually monopolized both, and the king stood at the pinnacle of that class. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

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 Kings

At the head of the Shang state was a king, posthumously called a "Di" or "Ti.", the same word as in the name of the supreme god. We have found on bones the names of all the rulers of this dynasty and even some of their pre-dynastic ancestors. These names can be brought into agreement with lists of rulers found in the ancient Chinese literature. The ruler seems to have been a high priest, too; and around him were many other priests. We know some of them now so well from the inscriptions that their biographies could be written. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The title of the Zhou rulers, which we translate as “king,” was, in Chinese, “Wang,” a term whose original meaning is uncertain. It is possible that in its earliest form, the graph for wang depicted a battle axe (blade down), symbolizing the military power of the king. The way in which Zhou royal titles appear in Chinese places wang after the posthumous name of the king, hence Wen Wang and Wu Wang are the names of the founding rulers of the Zhou.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

The oracle bone texts “introduce us to all the significant members of the Shang royal house once they are dead, but tell us very little about the living. They refer at times to living queens and concubines and to the princes of the Shang, but the information they provide is limited. Nevertheless, we are able to piece together some structured information, such as the career of the queen Fu-hao, which we will examine later, that give us important insight into the royal family and its behavior. In addition, as we will see, the structure of the royal ancestors may provide important information concerning Shang kinship. /+/

“Once the oracle texts had been sorted chronologically, scholars observed that there were certain differences in the practices and apparent attitudes of the kings and diviners during different periods of the late Shang. For example, the inscriptions dating from the era of Wu -ding include a very broad range of topics and give every indication that those divining are deeply interested in the responses that the spirits may offer. We have already seen that Wu -ding troubled the spirits to explain the root causes of his toothaches. In addition, he queried them concerning the following topics: warfare, harvests, hunting, the weather, royal childbirth, whether he should issue certain commands, his headaches, the safety of the upcoming night or ten-day week, and issues of sacrifice. /+/

“All indications are that Wu-ding was a particularly charismatic leader: only he and Pan- geng stand out as effective rulers in the “Shiji”’s descriptions of the late Shang kings, and it appears to have been Wu-ding, rather than Pan- geng, who established at least the great ceremonial complex at Xiaotun that included the massive tombs of the late Shang kings and queens. In addition, it is in the inscriptions from Wu-ding’s period that we see the greatest number of records of Shang conquests in war, and the decapitation of thousands of captives in honor of the ancestors. Wu-ding was, most likely, one of the great rulers of ancient China. And like most of these great rulers, he appears to have been highly religious (we might prefer the term superstitious). During his reign, oracle inscriptions are at their most detailed and colorful. /+/

“After Wu-ding’s death, his successors adopted varying attitudes towards the function of divination. Wu-ding’s son, Zu- geng, continued to place emphasis upon bone and shell oracles, but after his time, the practice began to change from a lively form of communication with the spirits to a far more routine ritual associated with a set schedule of ritual sacrifices. By the time we reach the last of the Shang kings, Di- xin30, also known as Zhòu, the oracle texts have become a voluminous but not very interesting record of the basic sacrificial calendar of the Shang. (That calendar itself, however, is of considerable interest, and we will discuss it further in a later reading concerning Shang religion.)

List of Shang Kings


Daji, favorite concubine of last Shang king

Shang royal succession, according to the “Shiji” (history of ancient China finished around 94 B.C. by Sima Qian): 1) Xiea – Zhao-mingb – Xiang-tuc – Chang-ruod – Cao-yue – Mingf – Zheng –; 2) Weih; 3) Bao-dingi; 4) Bao-yij; 5) Bao- bingk; 6) Zhu-renl; 7) Zhu- guim; 8) Tian-yin/1 (Tang the Successful); 9) [Tai-ding1a]... Wai- bing2 – Zhong-ren3; 10) Tai-jia 4; 11) Wo-ding5 – Tai- geng6; 12) Xiao-jia 7 – Yong- ji8 – Tai-wu9; 13) Zhong-ding10 – Wai-ren11; 14) He-dan-jia 12; 15) Zu-yi13; 16) Zu- xin14 – Wo-jia 15; 17) Zu-ding16 – Nan- geng17; 18 ) Yang-jia 18 – Pan- geng19 – Xiao- xin20 – Xiao-yi21; 19) Wu-ding22; 20 ) Zu- geng23 – Zu-jia 24; 21) Lin- xin25 – Keng-ding26; 22) Wu-yi27; 23) Tai-ding28; 24) Di-yi29; 25) Hsin30 (Zhòu). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Shang Kings as recorded in oracle text sacrifice inscriptions: 1 ) Shang-jia h; 2) Bao-yij; 3) Bao- bingk; 4) Bao-dingi; 5) Shi-renl; 6) Shi- guim; 7) Da-yin/1 (Tang); 8) Da-ding1a; 9) Da-jia 4 – Bu- bing2; 10) Da- geng6 – Xiao-jia 7; 11) Da-wu9 – Lü- ji8; 12) Zhong-ding10 – Bu-ren11; 13) Zu-yi13 – Qian-jia 12; 14) Zu- xin14 – Qiang-jia 15; 15) Zu-ding16 – Nan- geng17; 16) Xiao-yi21 – Xiao- xin20 – Pan- geng19 – Xiang-jia 18; 17) Wu-ding22; 18) Zu-jia 24 – Zu- geng23***; 19) Keng-ding26; 20) Wu-yi27; 21) Wen-wu-ding28; 22) Fu-yi29 4.

Dr. Eno wrote: The “Shiji” list “includes superscript letters (for pre-dynastic kings) and numbers (for dynastic kings), as well as indicating by the positioning of the kings how the succession proceeded from older to younger brother or from father to son.” The oracle text list “is a reconstruction of the lineage implied by the oracle texts. The kings who appear in both are identified by the same superscript designation (note that while the “Shiji” says that Tang’s son Tai -ding1a died before ascending the throne, the oracle texts treat him as though he had ruled as a king). /+/

“The oracle texts largely confirm the “Shiji”’s account of the line of Shang kings, but certain segments of the royal line are clarified. The “Shiji” lists thirteen “pre-dynastic” Shang kings – that is, Zi-clan rulers who predated Tang the Successful’s conquest of the Xia Dynasty. There is some debate as to whether the earliest of these, starting from Xiea, do appear in the oracle inscriptions (oracle text characters often do not match up well with later characters and this makes identifications of person and place names particularly difficult). However, once we reach the king known as Weih, the situation becomes clear.Wei is referred to in some texts as Shang-jia , and the distant ancestor who is most often listed first when we encounter long strings of king names in the oracle texts is indeed a king whose name includes the Heavenly Stem sign jia. /+/

There are some differences between the two lists. “For example, the first character in the names of the kings as they appear in the bones sometimes vary from the “Shiji” names. Thus, for example, the proper dynastic title for Tang the Successful appears in the “Shiji” as Tian-yi (Heavenly yi), while the oracle texts list him as Ta-yi (Great yi), as well as with the name Tang. A more important difference is that while the “Shiji” records in detail when the throne was passed to a younger brother, when to a son, and when to a nephew, the oracle texts only indicate which kings were part of the “major lineage branch” (that is, whose fathers and sons both ruled as kings) and which were not. Thus on the second” list, “this main trunk line occupies the left-hand position, while brothers or uncles whose sons did not succeed to the throne branch to the right; in some cases the order of succession moves from right to left, as notes indicate. There are also some cases where the oracle texts list a king not mentioned in the “Shiji”, and vice-versa. Finally, the last king listed in the oracle texts is obviously not Zhòu, who did not have the opportunity to be honored as an ancestral spirit, but Di-yi, whom the oracle texts call “Fu-yi” (Father yi), since the only ones in which he appears are those divined during the reign of his son.

Shang King Names


oracle bones

Dr. Eno wrote: “The names of the Shang kings are a puzzle. The Zhou referred to their kings by a set of posthumous names which were supposed to capture an essential quality of each king’s reign. For example, King Wen was called “Wen” (pattern/culture) because during his reign, the Zhou people assimilated Shang culture (wen); King Wu was called “Wu” (martial) because as the conqueror of the Shang he was recalled for his military exploits...Although the names of the Shang kings may not seem an intrinsically interesting topic, certain problems connected with explaining why they are named as they are have generated a particular theory about the relation of the throne to the kinship and power structure of the royal Zi clan. The theory is a good example of important historical ideas that rest upon small details of documentary evidence. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Shang referred to their ancestral kings by a two or three character title of which the last was a Heavenly Stem sign. Prefixing this sign was an element that carried some specific meaning: for example, “Da” means Great, “Zu” means Ancestor, “Xiao” means Small, “Wu” means Martial. While the prefixes are not a puzzle, the Heavenly Stem element is. The traditional interpretation of these names, which were known from the Shiji account, was that they were assigned to kings on the basis of their birthdays: each king was marked by the day of the ten-day “week” on which he was born. The birthday theory makes good sense, but there are problems with it. /+/

“There are ten Heavenly Stems, but among the names of the thirty-four pre-dynastic and dynastic Shang kings recorded in the oracle texts, plus the last king, Zhòu (Di-xin), the distribution of the stems is oddly uneven. This is how they line up: jia 7, yi 6, bing 2, ding 7, wu 1, ji 1, geng 4, xin 3, ren 2, gui 1. While it is not out of the question to have a random distribution like this, it is unusual to have three of the ten elements of a series such as this capture such a large proportion of the total.” /+/

Harvard’s K.C. Chang and Shang Kingship Rules

Dr. Eno wrote: “Some years ago, the most prominent archeologist of ancient China then working in the United States, Kwang-Chih (K.C.) Chang of Harvard, set out to explore the issue of these Heavenly Stem names. Chang first observed that further information on the use of these signs could be obtained from another source: many Shang ritual bronzes had inscribed upon them the name of an ancestor whom they were cast to honor. These fathers, mothers, and grandparents, were, like the Shang kings, referred to with a cyclical sign. Chang did a statistical analysis of the frequency of occurrence of these signs in almost 1300 bronze inscriptions. His results indicated a distribution pattern entirely inconsistent with the random patterns of birthdays. With regard to these non-royal ancestors, the “birthday theory” does not seem to require revision. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Chang then observed that in the oracle texts, sacrifices to the former kings and queens were generally offered on the cyclical day corresponding to their Heavenly Stem designation. He also noted that it was always the case that the stem sign of ancestral queens was different from that of their royal spouses. This led him to wonder whether these signs were in any way related to issues of kinship and rules of exogamy – that is, the rule that men and women of the same clan may not marry. /+/

“Finally, Chang noted an interesting specific case in the oracle texts. In the “Shiji” account of the founding of the Shang, Tang was successful in conquering the Xia largely because of the aid provided by his chief minister, a man called Yi Yin. Yi Yin outlived Tang and, according to the narrative, eventually came into conflict with the young king Tai-jia 4, whom he banished, taking the reins of government into his own hands. /+/


ritual wine vessel

Dr. Eno wrote: “The king was a political, military, and religious leader. The oracle texts show him determining the building of cities, attending to the welfare of the harvests, communicating with allied chieftains, and leading campaigns against nomad enemies. But above all, they show him communicating with the world of spirits in the assurance that they are prepared to give him guidance. “For the people of the Shang, the King was the axial contact between the worlds of human beings and of the spirits. It is significant that in many of the oracle texts, the King serves as his own divination master, cracking the bones himself, and it is only the King who is ever recorded as interpreting the message of the cracks (the “diviners” would more properly called the “crackers,” only the king divined). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

The powers of the King as diviner are illustrated by the following selections from the oracle texts (the King in all cases is Wu-ding22): “Crack-making on gui-si day, Que divining: These ten days there shall be no disaster. The King prognosticated saying, “There shall be misfortune.” It was as he said. On jia-wu day the King went hunting a rhinoceros. The horse and chariot of Petty Minister Zai toppled over, and the King's son Yang, who was driving the King's chariot, also fell. Crack-making on gui-wei day, Que divining: These ten days there shall be no disaster. The King prognosticated saying, “There shall, however, be misfortune.” On the sixth day thereafter, wu-zi, the King's son X died. In the First Month. /+/

“The King prognosticated saying, “There shall be misfortune.” On the eighth day, geng-xu, clouds in the form of a face covered the sun; a rainbow appeared and drank from the Yellow River. “Crack-making on gui-si day, Que divining: These ten days there shall be no disaster. The King prognosticated saying, “There shall be misfortune; there will perhaps come ill news thrice over.” On the fifth day thereafter, ding-you, there did indeed come ill news from the West. Guo of Zhi reported saying, “The Tu-fang have attacked my eastern territories; they have ruined two walled towns; also, the X-fang have overrun the fields of my western territories. /+/

Eno wrote: “The spirits with whom the Shang king consulted were a mixed lot, as we have earlier seen. They included his own ancestors and a variety of nature spirits as well. We did not note in our earlier discussion that there appear also a variety of poorly understood deities, represented by oddly picturesque graphic forms like that of the deity Kui, described in later texts as a one-footed monster, probably a relative of the ape, and also as Emperor Shun's music master. Who was this Kui? How did he and others like him make their way into the Shang pantheon? Scholars give a variety of responses, but one of the most satisfying of these suggests that these deities represent an incorporation of the gods of tribes which the Shang had, over many years, absorbed into the polity. As part of the process of such tribes aligning themselves with the Shang and surrendering their sovereignty, the Shang “adopted” their gods into the Shang religious system, and the King became, in effect, a high priest, ministering to the needs of these tribal gods or ancestors as he did to his own. /+/

“If this model is valid, then the power of the King would have derived in part from his role as a religious center, mediating among the otherworldly members of all the component parts of the greater Shang polity. This religious process, combined with powers derived from success in warfare and the growing influence that Shang urban centers had on patterns of trade and the diffusion of cultural artifacts, would have contributed substantially to the growth and coherence of the Shang state.” /+/

The Wu-ding22 :inscriptions translated here are very unusual in their length and presentation – all were carved in exceptionally large characters on bones that had not been prepared or used for actual divination. They have traditionally been treated as “display inscriptions,” divinations that demonstrate the king’s powers with particular strength and that were thus selected for recopying and further viewing, perhaps by the ancestral spirits, an approach recommended by the foremost Western analyst of oracle texts, David Keightley. That is how I am treating them here. However, Adam D. Smith, whose work on oracle text writing was cited in reading 3.2, points out unusually close formal parallels among these inscriptions and suggests they may not have been actual divination records, but were composed as practice texts, to be copied by oracle scribes learning their craft (“Writing at Anyang,” 373-384). If he is correct, these would also represent the earliest surviving examples of imaginative writing in Chinese history. /+/

Shang Royal Family


Dr. Eno wrote: “The King's family is, naturally, a subject of great concern in the oracle texts. The “many princes” were an important part of the Shang power structure, and it appears that they actually had their own religious prerogatives independent of the King. A small but significant percentage of inscriptions appear to have been made by diviners in the service of the princes rather than the king. The King's sons were entrusted with a variety of roles, and were undoubtedly among the most powerful members of the Shang polity. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The brief selection of texts below relate to the role of princes in warfare, their training, and in the last case, to the king's concern for his son's success in the hunt. 1) “The King's son Lu shall encounter disaster.” 2) “On the next ding-wei day, the King's son Shang shall destroy the Ji-fang.” 3) “The King's son Xiao is ill; shall he capture no Qiang tribesmen?The many sons shall proceed to the hall of instruction... they shall not encounter a great rain.” 5) “The many sons shall catch deer.: /+/

Eno wrote: “Divinations concerning royal women are largely confined to questions concerning childbirth, and more particularly to issues of whether the expected child will be “fortunate” (in other words, a boy) or “unfortunate.” But we will see further below that there are cases that go beyond this narrow range of concern. 1) “The consort of the King's son Shang, Yu, shall give birth shall it not be fortunate?On jia-yin day the birth will not be fortunate: it shall be a girl. 2) “The boy child of Consort Ning shall be called Zhi.”

“New light was cast on the nature of the royal family by a large cache of well preserved inscribed turtle plastrons unearthed in 1991 just south of Xiaotun at a village site known as Huanyuanzhuang. When the materials were published in 2003, it was clear that they represented our first sustained glimpse of the Shang world from a perspective other than that of the king’s divination context. The “master” of the Huayuanzhuang inscriptions was not the king, he was a Shang prince living in the time of Wu-ding, at the early stages of oracle inscriptions. Although a portion of previously known oracle texts from Anyang had been commissioned by other princes, the size and coherence of the Huayuanzhuang find allows us to examine in some detail a single node of the royal family outside the palace. /+/

“We do not know for certain the relationship of the Huayuanzhuang Prince and the royal family, but because his oracle texts frequently mention visits of Wu-ding and his consort Fu-hao, we can conclude that the Prince was closely connected with the trunk lineage of the Zi clan. One of the surprising features of these texts is that they reveal that the Prince, like the king, was licensed to foretell the future: ‘ Cracking on xin-wei day we divined about whether Yuqiang’s illness would not be fatal. The Prince prognosticated saying, Qiang will die today; disaster will occur today.’ We also see the Prince divining about affairs of the Shang state: ‘ Cracking on xin-wei day we divined about whether Wu-ding will order Fu-hao to follow Elder Huo in attacking the Shao.’” /+/

Shang Bureaucracy

The king was aided by a kind of bureaucracy. There were "ch'en", officials who served the ruler personally, as well as scribes and military officials. The basic army organization was in units of one hundred men which were combined as "right", "left" and "central" units into an army of 300 men. But it seems that the central power did not extend very far. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The King presided over a range of civil and military officers at the capital and beyond that provided him with the essential leverage needed to exercise political power. It is our presumption, based on the trends evident in the Western Zhou and later, that these governmental offices were hereditarily determined, but we do not have direct evidence that this is so. While we see a wealth of data concerning the various officers of the Shang in the oracle texts, I know of no study that has yet organized this data into a coherent reconstruction of the structures of Shang government. The passages that are collected in categories below represent a selection of relevant information, but the translations of official titles are all very speculative. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Minister” and “Petty Minister” were important Shang titles of uncertain scope which carry on over into the subsequent Zhou Dynasty. We learn the range of duties of ministers from the inscriptions. 1) ‘We shall order the Petty Minister to bang-sacrifice a lamb and fowl.’ 2) ‘The King will go out to chase rhinoceros; Petty Minister Zi will provide horse and chariot.’ 3) ‘Petty Minister X will appear in audience.’ 4) ‘Perhaps [we shall] call upon Petty Minister Ce to follow [in battle].’ 5) ‘We shall not call upon our many Ministers to attack the Qiong-fang.’ 6) ‘We should call upon our many Ministers to follow Guo of Zhi.’ 7) ‘Divined: the Petty Ministers should order the multitudes to plant grain. 8) ‘Our former senior Ministers will not make misfortune for us.’ This last text is interesting in that it suggests that the power of ministers to influence events persists after death. This evidence would help support a claim that high officers of state would have been members of the royal clan. /+/

Oracle bone inscriptions on military officials: 1) ‘We shall call upon our many Archers and Infantry leaders.’ 2) ‘Call upon Guardmasters Ran and Ning to mobilize the multitudes.’ 3) ‘The Guardmasters of the five lineages should not mobilize the King's multitudes.’ 4) ‘Master of Hounds Yu has reported deer; should the King follow, he will perhaps make a catch.’ 5) ‘The many Masters of Horses will pursue and catch deer.’ 6) ‘The many Masters of Horses and Commissary Officers shall perhaps encounter disaster.’ 7) ‘The King shall order the Commissary Officers to follow the Bo of Fou and attack the fang.’ 8) ‘Order the many Commissary Officers: Officer Ni shall meet with Officer Yong to survey Yi-lin to the lands of the Hou of Cang, and they shall follow the River Song in the company of the Hou of X.’ /+/

The roles of civil officials are harder to discern than those of military ones. Below are inscriptions touching on the duties of a court recorder, a court scribe-priest, governors (perhaps, loyal leaders of groups of common people), and craftsmen (who may have been music masters).1) ‘The King will requite Small Minister X: the Recorder shall reward... and the King shall have no regrets.’ 2) ‘On ding-you day the scribe-priest shall rong-sacrifice, making a report at the Southern Shrine.’ 3) ‘The Three Governors shall go to the West.’ ) ‘Order the Governor to open up large areas of fields.’ 4) ‘The King shall order Shan to supervise our craftsmen.’ 5) ‘On yi-wei day, the many craftsmen shall perform ‘She-X.’

Shang Dynasty Feudalism

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China” in the 1950s: In the more distant parts of the realm were more or less independent lords, who recognized the ruler only as their supreme lord and religious leader. We may describe this as an early, loose form of the feudal system, although the main element of real feudalism was still absent. The main obligations of these lords were to send tributes of grain, to participate with their soldiers in the wars, to send tortoise shells to the capital to be used there for oracles, and to send occasionally cattle and horses. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

There were some thirty such dependent states. Although we do not know much about the general population, we know that the rulers had a patrilinear system of inheritance. After the death of the ruler his brothers followed him on the throne, the older brothers first. After the death of all brothers, the sons of older or younger brothers became rulers. No preference was shown to the son of the oldest brother, and no preference between sons of main or of secondary wives is recognizable. Thus, the Shang patrilinear system was much less extreme than the later system. Moreover, the deceased wives of the rulers played a great role in the cult, another element which later disappeared. From these facts and from the general structure of Shang religion it has been concluded that there was a strong matrilinear strain in Shang culture. Although this cannot be proved, it seems quite plausible because we know of matrilinear societies in the South of China at later times.

Below the nobility we find large numbers of dependent people; modern Chinese scholars call them frequently "slaves" and speak of a "slave society". There is no doubt that at least some farmers were "free farmers"; others were what we might call "serfs": families in hereditary group dependence upon some noble families and working on land which the noble families regarded as theirs. Families of artisans and craftsmen also were hereditary servants of noble families—a type of social organization which has its parallels in ancient Japan and in later India and other parts of the world. There were also real slaves: persons who were the personal property of noblemen. The independent states around the Shang state also had serfs. When the Shang captured neighboring states, they resettled the captured foreign aristocracy by attaching them as a group to their own noblemen. The captured serfs remained under their masters and shared their fate. The same system was later practiced by the Zhou after their conquest of the Shang state.

Shang Estate Holder System

Dr. Eno wrote: “Ruling from the Shang capital near present day Anyang, north of the Yellow River on the North China Plain, the King had little means of directly protecting the most vulnerable regions of his polity, those western areas north of the bend in the Yellow River where the nomadic enemies of the Shang wandered. Even within the heartlands of Shang, given the primitive conditions of transportation it would be difficult for the King to keep track of all of the lands and people nominally under his control. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“To deal with such issues, the Shang seem to have initiated the political strategies that culminated in the system of patrician estates developed fully in the Western Zhou, and often referred to as Zhou feudalism. In the Shang case, we can discuss this with regard to two different classes of semi-independent “estate holder”: those who were either members of the royal lineage or part of the core of Shang society, and those who were allied chieftains whose loyalties were less certain. /+/

“The oracle texts mention the names of “princes” or “wives” who seem to have possessed lands, or at least been responsible for control over them. As we will see later on, it was not impossible during the Shang for royal women to play a military role, and it may be that all of the royal family members so named were jointly nobles enjoying the income of designated lands and leaders of potential regional regiments in a central Shang military structure. In the case of the royal wives, it could be that these were women who had married into the royal house already in possession of territorial holdings derived from their birth clan. /+/

“We also see in the texts a group of men endowed with titles of “nobility”: hou, meaning “archer-lord” (rendered Marquis in later Zhou contexts); bo, meaning “elder” (sometimes rendered Earl); dian, meaning “field foreman” (or Baron). It is unclear in many cases whether these people were members of the royal Zi clan, or to what degree their dominion over their lands was personal, rather than contingent upon royal grace. But in some cases, the lands over which these individuals presided are referred to by the names of their lords, indicating the likelihood of a personal connection. Nevertheless, in many cases the King also refers to such territories as “our lands,” suggesting that these domains were understood to be the ultimate possessions of the Shang house. /+/

“Such “estate” holdings were focused, as in later eras, around a walled urban node. There are many examples of the King consulting the oracle to determine what date would be propitious for commencing work on walling such a city. It seems possible, then, that the benefits provided by the King to such estates included the provision of labor teams for public works and, as we learn in other inscriptions, troops in the event of attack. In return, the estate holder presumably shared a portion of his or her harvest income with the King, kept the regions belonging to the estate loyal to the Shang, and supplied warriors when they were needed in other parts of the polity. /+/

“We see also cases of more distant Shang allies who do not appear to have had any blood relationship with the Shang ruling house. These lords appear quite often in the oracle texts, most frequently in connection with large campaigns against one or another of the major “fang,” or non-Shang tribes at the periphery of the Shang regions, or in some pocket of unconquered land more centrally located. Chieftains like this, such as Zhi of Guo, mentioned in one of the inscriptions translated earlier, were truly the key protectors of the Shang; in the event their loyalties changed, the security of the Shang state could be irreparably damaged. /+/

“A selection of oracle inscriptions will illustrate the variety of ways in which we encounter domain chieftains of various types in these texts: 1) ‘Divining:... follow Hu, the Hou of Cang, in attacking the X-fang; we shall receive [spirit] support.’ 2) ‘Crack-making on gui-wei day, Yong divining: Qin will be able to lead the many Bo.’ 3) ‘Shall we perhaps follow the many Dian and the many Bo and campaign against Yan, the Bo of the Yu-fang?’ 4) On jia-wu day the King made cracks and divined: We will perform a rong-sacrifice. On the next rong-sacrifice day we shall go up to follow the Hou X to campaign against the Ren-fang. The ancestors above and below will provide support and not visit disaster upon us. We will report at the Great City Shang [that there has been] no disaster. The King prognosticated saying, “It is greatly auspicious.” In the Ninth Month upon the day of the shi-sacrifice to Shang-jia , in the tenth sacrificial cycle (year). 5) “We will sacrifice two Bo of the Qiang-fang to Grandfather ding and Father jia .’” /+/

“This last example is of particular interest because it bestows the honor of the “feudal” designation Bo (Elder) on leaders of an adversarial fang-tribe, and follows this polite reference with news of their imminent sacrificial beheading. Clearly, the lordly titles of the Shang have a wider range of significance than we might expect. /+/

“One tribe allied with the Shang was the Zhou, the eventual conquerors of the Shang.While we do not know nearly as much about the pre-conquest Zhou people as we would wish, summarizing some of the data of Shang-Zhou relations can suggest the nature of Shang diplomacy within the polity. /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Sanxiongdui art, Sanxiongdui musem and National Gallery of Art.

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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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