San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Shang Dynasty
of the Yellow River Valley
Culture in Ancient China

The civilization on the Huanghe (Yellow Rive at Anyang and Loyang arose about 2000 BCE It arose relatively late among the ancient river valley civilizations of the world, but it rose quickly to brilliance. The Shang was the first of those brilliant civilizations for which there are records. There were stories of a Xia dynasty that preceded the Shang dynasty but there is no written or archaeological evidence for it.

The Shang Empire emerged about 1800 BCE and survived until about 1000 BCE. It was located on the plain of north China and extended from the Yellow River valley north into what is now Shandong province and west to where there is a great bend in the river, the area that is now Henan province. As is common among nomad there were several capitals that were occupied at different times of the year. Finally in the 1300's BCE the Shang rulers chose An-yang as their permanent capital.

The excavations at Anyang reveal chariots, bronze weapons and the compound bow, indicating a conquest of invaders from the steppe regions of Asia.

The people of the Shang state were skilled potters and produced glazed fired clay vessels. They may have used a potters' wheel. They had black, white and brown glazes. This technology probably was developed by the Yellow River civilizations before the area was conquered by the Shang rulers.

The people of the Shang state were especially skilled in casting bronze. They cast beautiful devotional vessels as tripod urns. The designs were probably based upon the Shang ceramic vessels. These bronze vessels were elaborately and aesthetically decorated, often with a particular motif called the tao tieh. This sophisticated design involved a double image of a horned mask and back-to-back dragons,

Apparently the tao tieh evolved from a shaman's mask of the sort shown here.

And here.

A new technology for carving jade developed during the period of the Shang dynasty. It was used to produce religious objects and also decorative fittings for weapons.

The Shang also built war chariots and could field several thousand of them for pitched battles. The social structure of the Shang state was feudal. There was a ruling class responsible for waging wars, defensive and offensive. The Shang emperor appointed the governors of the sections of the state. There was an attempt to maintain central control.

The major industry was agriculture and agriculture required careful timing of planting, especially in the severe climate of the north China plain.

The imperial authorities gave notice to the peasants when it was time to plant the crops. The Shang developed a calendar of 12 months of 30 days each. This lunar calendar is short 5.25 days so the authorities had to make periodic adjustments of the calendar.

The Shang people also developed writing. They used pictographs and phonetic symbols as well as ideographic characters. The ideographic characters later evolved into the Chinese characters.

The Kingdom of Shang was long thought to have been only a myth, but was verified by archeological evidence to have existed as a city-state confederation in the vicinity of present day Shandong Province. The traditional dates for its existence are from 1760 BCE to 1122 BCE. The starting date is uncertain. The ending date is uncertain for a different reason. The reason is that later emperors began to call themselves the Yin dynasty.

For more on the history of China see China.

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