gleenet logo
  Gleenet.Info  |   ftp search  |   Native American Indians  |   Marcosoft  |   Search Engines  |   Kvarnby Mills  |   Links  |   e-mail
Gleenet info
FTP search
Native American Indians
Search engines
Kvarnby Mills

come to




phoenix translations

Historic China

The fossil record in China promises fundamental contributions to the understanding of human origins. There is considerable evidence of Homo erectus by the time of the Lower Paleolithic (the Paleolithic Period began c. 2,500,000 years ago and ended 10,000 years ago) at sites such as Lan-t'ien, Shensi; Ho-hsien, Anhwei; Yan-mou, Yunnan; and, the most famous, that of so-called Peking man at Chou-k'ou-tien, Peking Municipality. The Lower Cave at the last site has yielded evidence of intermittent human use from c. 460,000 to 230,000 years ago. Many caves and other sites in Anhwei, Hupeh, Honan, Liaoning, Shantung, Shansi, and Shensi in North China and in Kweichow and Hupeh in the South suggest that H. erectus achieved wide distribution in China. Whether H. erectus pekinensis intentionally used fire and practiced ritual cannibalism are matters under debate.

Significant Homo sapiens cranial and dental fragments have been found together with Middle Paleolithic artifacts. Such assemblages have been unearthed at Ting-ts'un, Shansi; Ch'ang-yang, Hupeh; Ta-li, Shensi; Hsu-chia-yao, Shansi; and Ma-pa, Kwangtung. Morphological characteristics such as the shovel-shaped incisor, broad nose, and mandibular torus link these remains to the modern Mongoloid race. Few archaeological sites have been identified in the south.

A number of widely distributed H. erectus sites dating from the upper Pleistocene manifest considerable regional and temporal diversity. Upper Paleolithic sites are numerous in North China. Thousands of stone artifacts, most of them small (called microliths), have been found, for example, at Hsiao-nan-hai, near An-yang, Honan; Shuo-hsien and Ch'in-shui, Shansi; and Yang-yan, Hopeh; these findings suggest an extensive microlith culture in North China. Hematite, a common iron oxide ore used for colouring, was found scattered around skeletal remains in the Upper Cave at Chou-k'ou-tien (c. 10th millennium BC) and may represent the first sign of human ritual.

Neolithic Period

The complex of developments in stone tool technology, food production and storage, and social organization that is often characterized as the Neolithic Revolution was in progress in China by at least the 6th millennium BC. Developments in the Chinese Neolithic were to establish some of the major cultural dimensions of the subsequent Bronze Age.

Climate and environment

Although the precise nature of the paleoenvironment is still in dispute, temperatures in Neolithic China were probably some 4 to 7 F (2 to 4 C) warmer than they are today. Rainfall, although more abundant, may have been declining in quantity. The Tsinling Mountains in northwest China separated the two phytogeographical zones of North and South China, while the absence of such a mountain barrier farther east encouraged a more uniform environment and the freer movement of Neolithic peoples about the North China Plain. East China, particularly toward the south, may have been covered with thick vegetation, some deciduous forest, and scattered marsh. The Loess Plateau in the northwest is thought to have been drier and even semiarid, with some coniferous forest growing on the hills and with brush and open woodland in the valleys.

Food production

The primary Neolithic crops, domesticated by the 5th millennium BC, were drought-resistant millet (usually Setaria italica), grown on the eolian or alluvial loess soils of the northwest and the north, and glutenous rice (Oryza sativa), grown in the wetlands of the southeast. These staples were supplemented by a variety of fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, and aquatic plants. The main sources of animal protein were pigs, dogs, fish, and shellfish. By the Bronze Age millet, rice, soybeans, tea, mulberries, hemp, and lacquer had become characteristic Chinese crops. That most, if not all, of these plants were native to China indicates the degree to which Neolithic culture developed indigenously. The distinctive cereal, fruit, and vegetable complexes of the northern and southern zones in Neolithic and early historic times suggest, however, that at least two independent traditions of plant domestication may have been present.

The stone tools used to clear and prepare the land reveal generally improving technology. There was increasing use of ground and polished edges and of perforation. Regional variations of shape included oval-shaped axes in central and northwest China, square- or trapezoid-shaped axes in the east, and axes with stepped shoulders in the southeast. By the Late Neolithic a decrease in the proportion of stone axes to adzes suggests the increasing dominance of permanent agriculture and a reduction in the opening up of new land. The burial in high-status graves of finely polished, perforated stone and jade tools such as axes and adzes with no sign of edge wear indicates the symbolic role such emblems of work had come to play by the 4th and 3rd millennia.

Major cultures and sites

There was not one Chinese Neolithic but a mosaic of regional cultures whose scope and significance are still being determined. Their location in the area defined today as China does not necessarily mean that all the Neolithic cultures were Chinese or even proto-Chinese. Their contributions to the Bronze Age civilization of the Shang, which may be taken as unmistakably Chinese in both cultural as well as geographical terms, need to be assessed in each case. In addition, the presence of a particular ceramic ware does not necessarily define a cultural horizon; and transitional phases, both chronological and geographical, cannot be discussed in detail in the following paragraphs.

Incipient Neolithic

Study of the historical reduction of the size of human teeth suggests that the first human beings to eat cooked food did so in South China. The southern sites of Hsien-jen-tung in Kiangsi and Tseng-p'i-yen in Kwangsi have yielded artifacts from the 10th to the 7th millennium BC that include low-fired, cord-marked sherds with some incised decoration and mostly chipped stone tools; these pots may have been used for cooking and storage. Pottery and stone tools from shell middens in South China also suggest Incipient Neolithic occupations. These early southern sites may have been related to the Neolithic Bac-Son culture in Vietnam; connections to the subsequent Neolithic cultures of northwest and North China have yet to be demonstrated.

Sixth millennium BC

Two major cultures can be identified in the northwest: Lao-kuan-t'ai, in eastern and southern Shensi and northwestern Honan, and Ta-ti-wan I--a development of Lao-kuan-t'ai culture--in eastern Kansu and western Shensi. In these cultures pots were low-fired, sand-tempered, and mainly red in colour, and bowls with three stubby feet or ring feet were common. The painted bands of this pottery may represent the start of the Painted Pottery culture.

In North China the people of P'ei-li-kang (north central Honan) made less use of cord marking and painted design on their pots than did those at Ta-ti-wan I; the variety of their stone tools, including sawtooth sickles, indicates the importance of agriculture. The Tz'u-shan potters (southern Hopeh) employed more cord-marked decoration and made a greater variety of forms, including basins, cups, serving stands, and pot supports. The discovery of two pottery models of silkworm chrysalides and 70 shuttle-like objects at a 6th-millennium-BC site at Nan-yang-chuang (southern Hopeh) suggests the early production of silk, the characteristic Chinese textile.

Fifth millennium BC

The lower stratum of the Pei-shou-ling culture is represented by finds along the Wei and Ching rivers; bowls, deep-bodied jugs, and three-footed vessels, mainly red in colour, were common. The lower stratum of the related Pan-p'o culture, also in the Wei River drainage area, was characterized by cord-marked red or red-brown ware, especially round and flat-bottomed bowls and pointed-bottomed amphorae. The Pan-p'o inhabitants lived in semisubterranean houses and were supported by a mixed economy of millet agriculture, hunting, and gathering. The importance of fishing is confirmed by designs of stylized fish painted on a few of the bowls and by numerous hooks and net sinkers.

In the east by the start of the 5th millennium the Pei-hsin culture in central and southern Shantung and northern Kiangsu was characterized by fine clay or sand-tempered pots decorated with comb markings, incised and impressed designs, and narrow, appliqud bands. Artifacts include many three-legged, deep-bodied tripods, goblet-like serving vessels, bowls, and pot supports. Hou-kang (lower stratum) remains have been found in southern Hopeh and central Honan. The vessels, some finished on a slow wheel, were mainly red coloured and had been fired at high heat. They include jars, tripods, and round-bottomed, flat-bottomed, and ring-footed bowls. No pointed amphorae have been found, and there were few painted designs. A characteristic red band under the rim of most gray-ware bowls was produced during the firing process.

Archaeologists have generally classified the lower strata of Pei-shou-ling, Pan-p'o, and Hou-kang cultures under the rubric of Painted Pottery (or, after a later site, Yang-shao) culture, but two cautions should be noted. First, a distinction may have existed between a more westerly, Wei Valley culture (early Pei-shou-ling and early Pan-p'o) that was rooted in the Lao-kuan-t'ai culture and a more easterly one (Pei-hsin, Hou-kang) that developed from the P'ei-li-kang and Tz'u-shan cultures. Second, since only 2 to 3 percent of the Pan-p'o pots were painted, the designation Painted Pottery culture seems premature.

In the region of the lower Yangtze River the Ho-mu-tu site in northern Chekiang has yielded caldrons, cups, bowls, and pot supports made of porous, charcoal-tempered black pottery. The site is remarkable for its wooden and bone farming tools, the bird designs carved on bone and ivory, the superior carpentry of its pile dwellings (a response to the damp environment), a wooden weaving shuttle, and the earliest lacquer ware and rice remains yet reported in the world (c. 5000 to 4750 BC). The Ch'ing-lien-kang culture, which succeeded that of Ho-mu-tu in Kiangsu, northern Chekiang, and southern Shantung, was characterized by ring-footed and flat-bottomed pots, kuei pouring vessels, tripods (common north of the Yangtze), and serving stands (common south of the Yangtze). Early fine-paste red ware gave way in the later period to fine-paste gray and black ware. Polished stone artifacts include axes and spades, some perforated, and jade ornaments. Another descendant of Ho-mu-tu culture was that of Ma-chia-pang, which had close ties with the Ch'ing-lien-kang culture in southern Kiangsu, northern Chekiang, and Shanghai. In southeastern China a cord-marked pottery horizon, represented by the site of Fu-kuo-tun on the island of Quemoy, existed by at least the early 5th millennium. The suggestion that some of these southeastern cultures belonged to an Austronesian complex remains to be fully explored.

Fourth and third millennia BC

A true Painted Pottery culture developed in the northwest partly from the Wei Valley and Pan-p'o traditions of the 5th millennium. The Miao-ti-kou I horizon, dated from the first half of the 4th millennium, produced burnished bowls and basins of fine red pottery, some 15 percent of which were painted, generally in black, with dots, spirals, and sinuous lines. It was succeeded by a variety of Ma-chia-yao cultures (late 4th to early 3rd millennium) in eastern Kansu, eastern Tsinghai, and northern Szechwan. Thirty percent of Ma-chia-yao vessels were decorated on the upper two-thirds of the body with a variety of designs in black pigment; multiarmed radial spirals, painted with calligraphic ease, were the most prominent. Related designs involving sawtooth lines, gourd-shaped panels, spirals, and zoomorphic stick figures were painted on pots of the Pan-shan (mid-3rd millennium) and Ma-ch'ang (last half of 3rd millennium) cultures. Some two-thirds of the pots found in the Ma-ch'ang burial area at Liu-wan in Tsinghai, for example, were painted. In the North China Plain, Ta-ho culture sites contain a mixture of Miao-ti-kou and eastern, Ta-wen-k'ou vessel types (see below), indicating that a meeting of two major traditions was taking place in this area in the late 4th millennium.

In the northeast the Hung-shan culture (4th millennium and Liaoning and eastern Inner Mongolia. It was characterized by small bowls (some with red tops), fine red-ware serving stands, painted pottery, and microliths. Numerous jade amulets in the form of birds, turtles, and coiled dragons reveal strong affiliations with the other jade-working cultures of the east coast, such as Liang-chu (see below).

In east China the Liu-lin and Hua-t'ing sites in northern Kiangsu (first half of 4th millennium) represent regional cultures that derived, in large part, from that of Ch'ing-lien-kang. Upper strata also show strong affinities with contemporary Ta-wen-k'ou sites in southern Shantung, northern Anhwei, and northern Kiangsu. Ta-wen-k'ou culture (mid-5th to at least mid-3rd millennium) is characterized by the emergence of wheel-made pots of various colours, some of them remarkably thin and delicate; vessels with ring feet and tall legs (such as tripods, serving stands, and goblets); carved, perforated, and polished tools; and ornaments in stone, jade, and bone. The people practiced skull deformation and tooth extraction. Mortuary customs involved ledges for displaying grave goods, coffin chambers, and the burial of animal teeth, pig heads, and pig jawbones.

In the middle and lower Yangtze River valley during the 4th and 3rd millennia the Ta-hsi and Ch'-chia-ling cultures shared a significant number of traits, including rice production, ring-footed vessels, goblets with sharply angled profiles, ceramic whorls, and black pottery with designs painted in red after firing. Characteristic Ch'-chia-ling ceramic objects not generally found in Ta-hsi sites include eggshell-thin goblets and bowls painted with black or orange designs; double-waisted bowls; tall, ring-footed goblets and serving stands; and many styles of tripods. Admirably executed and painted clay whorls suggest a thriving textile industry. The chronological distribution of ceramic features suggests a transmission from Ta-hsi to Ch'-chia-ling, but the precise relationship between the two cultures has been much debated.

The Ma-chia-pang culture in the T'ai Lake basin was succeeded during the 4th millennium by that of Sung-tse. The pots, increasingly wheel-made, were predominantly clay-tempered gray ware. Tripods with a variety of leg shapes, serving stands, kuei pitchers with handles, and goblets with petal-shaped feet were characteristic. Ring feet were used, silhouettes became more angular, and triangular and circular perforations were cut to form openwork designs on the short-stemmed serving stands. A variety of jade ornaments, a feature of Ch'ing-lien-kang culture, has been excavated from Sung-tse burial sites.

Sites of the Liang-chu culture (from the last half of the 4th to the last half of the 3rd millennium) have generally been found in the same area. The pots were mainly wheel-made, clay-tempered gray ware with a black skin and were produced by reduction firing; oxidized red ware was less prevalent. Some of the serving stand and tripod shapes had evolved from Ma-chia-pang prototypes, while other vessel forms included long-necked kuei pitchers. The walls of some vessels were black throughout, eggshell-thin, and burnished, resembling those found in Late Neolithic sites in Shantung (see below). Extravagant numbers of highly worked jade pi disks and ts'ung tubes were placed in certain burials, such as one at Ssu-tun (southern Kiangsu) that contained 57 of them. Liang-chu farmers had developed a characteristic triangular shale plow for cultivating the wet soils of the region. Fragments of woven silk from c. 3000 BC have been found at Ch'ien-shang-yang (northern Chekiang). Along the southeast coast and on Taiwan the Ta-p'en-k'eng corded-ware culture emerged during the 4th and 3rd millennia. This culture, with a fuller inventory of pot and tool types than had previously been seen in the area, developed in part from that of Fu-kuo-tun but may also have been influenced by cultures to the west and north, including Ch'ing-lien-kang, Liang-chu, and Liu-lin. The pots were characterized by incised line patterns on neck and rim; low, perforated foot rims; and some painted decoration.

Regional cultures of the Late Neolithic

By the 3rd millennium BC the regional cultures in the areas discussed above showed increased signs of interaction and even convergence. That they are frequently referred to as varieties of the Lung-shan culture (c. 2500-2000 BC) of east central Shantung--characterized by its lustrous, eggshell-thin black ware--suggests the degree to which these cultures are thought to have experienced eastern influence. That influence, diverse in origin and of varying intensity, entered the North China Plain from sites such as Ta-tun-tzu and Ta-wen-k'ou to the east and also moved up the Han River from the Ch'-chia-ling area to the south. A variety of eastern features are evident in the ceramic objects of the period, including use of the fast wheel, unpainted surfaces, sharply angled profiles, and eccentric shapes. There was a greater production of gray and black, rather than red, ware; componential construction was emphasized, in which legs, spouts, and handles were appended to the basic form (which might itself have been built sectionally). Greater elevation was achieved by means of ring feet and tall legs. Ceramic objects included three-legged tripods, steamer cooking vessels, kuei pouring pitchers, serving stands, fitted lids, cups and goblets, and asymmetrical pei hu vases for carrying water that were flattened on one side to lie against a person's body. In stone and jade objects, eastern influence is evidenced by perforated stone tools and ornaments such as pi disks and ts'ung tubes used in burials. Other burial customs involved ledges to display the goods buried with the deceased and large wooden coffin chambers. In handicrafts, an emphasis was placed on precise mensuration in working clay, stone, and wood. Although the first, primitive versions of the eastern ceramic types may have been made, on occasion, in the North China Plain, in virtually every case these types were elaborated in the east and given more precise functional definition, greater structural strength, and greater aesthetic coherence. It was evidently the mixing in the 3rd and 2nd millennia of these eastern elements with the strong and extensive traditions native to the North China Plain--represented by such Late Neolithic sites as Ko-la-wang-ts'un (near Cheng-chou), Wang-wan (near Lo-yang), Miao-ti-kou (in central and western Honan), and T'ao-ssu and Teng-hsia-feng (in southwest Shansi)--that stimulated the rise of early Bronze Age culture in the North China Plain and not in the east.

Religious beliefs and social organization

The inhabitants of Neolithic China were, by the 5th millennium if not earlier, remarkably assiduous in the attention they paid to the disposition and commemoration of their dead. There was a consistency of orientation and posture, with the dead of the northwest given a westerly orientation and those of the east an easterly one. The dead were segregated, frequently in what appear to be kinship groupings (e.g., at Yuan-chn-miao, Shensi). There were graveside ritual offerings of liquids, pig skulls, and pig jaws (e.g., Pan-p'o and Ta-wen-k'ou), and the demanding practice of collective secondary burial, in which the bones of up to 70 or 80 corpses were stripped of their flesh and reburied together, was extensively practiced as early as the first half of the 5th millennium (e.g., Yuan-chn-miao). Evidence of scapulimantic divination from the end of the 4th millennium (Fu-ho-kou-men, Liaoning) implies the existence of ritual specialists. There was a lavish expenditure of energy by the 3rd millennium on tomb ramps and coffin chambers (e.g., Liu-wan [in eastern Tsinghai] and Ta-wen-k'ou) and on the burial of redundant quantities of expensive grave goods (e.g., Ta-fan-chuang in Shantung, Fu-ch'an-shan in Shanghai, and Liu-wan), presumably for use by the dead in some afterlife.

Although there is no firm archaeological evidence of a shift from matriliny to patriliny, the goods buried in graves indicate during the course of the 4th and 3rd millennia an increase in general wealth, the gradual emergence of private or lineage property, increasing social differentiation and gender distinction of work roles, and a reduction in the relative wealth of women. The occasional practice of human sacrifice or accompanying-in-death from scattered 4th- and 3rd-millennium sites (e.g., Miao-ti-kou I, Chang-ling-shan in Kiangsu, Ch'in-wei-chia in Kansu, and Liu-wan) suggests that ties of dependency and obligation were conceived as continuing beyond death and that women were likely to be in the dependent position. Early forms of ancestor worship, together with all that they imply for social organization and obligation among the living, were deeply rooted and extensively developed by the Late Neolithic Period. Such religious belief and practice undoubtedly served to validate and encourage the decline of the more egalitarian societies of earlier periods.

The first historical dynasty: the Shang

The advent of bronze casting

The 3rd and 2nd millennia witnessed the appearance of increasing warfare, complex urban settlements, intense status differentiation, and administrative and religious hierarchies that legitimated and controlled the massive mobilization casting of bronze has left the most evident archaeological traces of these momentous changes, but its introduction must be seen as part of a far larger shift in the nature of society as a whole, representing an intensification of the social and religious practices of the Neolithic.

A Chalcolithic Age stretching back to the mid-5th millennium may be dimly perceived. A growing number of 3rd-millennium sites, primarily in the northwest but also in Honan and Shantung, have yielded primitive knives, awls, and drills made of copper and bronze. Stylistic evidence, such as the sharp angles, flat bottoms, and strap handles of certain Ch'i-chia clay pots (in Kansu; c. 2250-1900 BC), has led some scholars to posit an early sheet- or wrought-metal tradition possibly introduced from the west by migrating Indo-European peoples, but no wrought-metal objects have been found.

The construction and baking of the clay cores and sectional piece molds employed in Chinese bronze casting of the 2nd millennium indicate that early metalworking in China rapidly adapted to, if it did not develop indigenously from, the sophisticated, high-heat ceramic technology of the Late Neolithic potters, who were already using ceramic molds and cores to produce forms such as the hollow legs of the li caldron. Chinese bronze casting represents, as the continuity in vessel shapes suggests, an aesthetic and technological extension of that ceramic tradition rather than its replacement. The bronze casters' preference for vessels elevated on ring feet or legs further suggests aesthetic links to the east rather than the northwest.

The number, complexity, and size--the Ssu Mu Wu tetrapod weighed 1,925 pounds (875 kilograms)--of the Late Shang ritual vessels reveal high technological competence married to large-scale, labour-intensive metal production. Bronze casting of this scale and character--which placed large groups of ore miners, fuel gatherers, ceramists, and foundry workers under the prescriptive control of the model designers and labour coordinators--must be understood as a manifestation, both technological and social, of the high value that Shang culture placed upon hierarchy, social discipline, and central direction in all walks of life. The prestige of owning these metal objects must have derived in part from the political control over others that their production implied.

Chinese legends of the 1st millennium BC describe the labours of Y, the Chinese "Noah" who drained away the floods to render China habitable and established the first Chinese dynasty, called Hsia. Seventeen Hsia kings are listed in the Shih-chi, a comprehensive history written during the 1st century BC, and much ingenuity has been devoted to identifying certain Late Neolithic fortified sites--such as Wang-ch'eng-kang ("the mound of the royal city") in north central Honan and Teng-hsia-feng in Hsia hsien (thus the site of Hsia-hs, "the ruins of Hsia"?) in southern Shansi--as early Hsia capitals. T'ao-ssu, also in southern Shansi, has been identified as Hsia for the "royal" nature of five large male burials found there lavishly provided with grave goods. Although they fall within the region traditionally assigned to the Hsia, particular archaeological sites will be hard to identify dynastically unless written records are found. The possibility that Hsia and Shang were partly contemporary, as cultures if not as dynasties, further complicates site identifications. A related approach has been to identify as Hsia an archaeological horizon that lies developmentally between Late Neolithic and Shang strata.

The Shang dynasty

The first dynasty to leave historical records is thought to have ruled from the mid-16th to mid-11th century BC. (Some scholars date the Shang dynasty from the mid-18th to the late 12th century BC.) One must, however, distinguish Shang as an archaeological term from Shang as a dynastic one. Erh-li-t'ou in north central Honan, for example, was initially classified archaeologically as Early Shang; its developmental sequence from c. 2400 to 1450 BC documents the vessel types and burial customs that link Early Shang culture to the Late Neolithic cultures of the east. In dynastic terms, however, Erh-li-t'ou periods I and II (c. 1900 BC?) are now thought by many to represent a pre-Shang (and thus, perhaps, Hsia) horizon. In this view, the two palace foundations, the elite burials, the ceremonial jade blades and sceptres, the bronze axes and dagger axes, and the simple ritual bronzes--said to be the earliest yet found in China--of Erh-li-t'ou III (c. 1700-1600 BC?) signal the advent of the dynastic Shang.

The archaeological classification of Middle Shang is represented by the remains found at Erh-li-kang (c. 1600 BC) near Cheng-chou, some 50 miles (80 kilometres) to the east of Erh-li-t'ou. The massive rammed-earth fortification, 118 feet (36 metres) wide at its base and enclosing an area of 1.2 square miles (3.2 square kilometres), would have taken 10,000 men more than 12 years to build. Also found were ritual bronzes, including four monumental tetrapods (the largest weighing 190 pounds; palace foundations; workshops for bronze casting, pot making, and bone working; burials; and two inscribed fragments of oracle bones. Another rammed-earth fortification, enclosing about 0.7 square mile and also dated to the Erh-li-kang period, has been found at Yen-shih, about three miles east of the Erh-li-t'ou III palace foundations. While these walls and palaces have been variously identified by modern scholars--the identification now favoured is of Cheng-chou as Po, the capital of the Shang dynasty during the reign of T'ang, the dynasty's founder--their dynastic affiliations are yet to be firmly established. The presence of two large, relatively close contemporary fortifications at Cheng-chou and Yen-shih, however, indicates the strategic importance of the area and impressive powers of labour mobilization.

P'an-lung-ch'eng in Hupeh, 280 miles south of Cheng-chou, is an example of Middle Shang expansion into the northwest, northeast, and south. A city wall, palace foundations, burials with human sacrifices, bronze workshops, and mortuary bronzes of the Erh-li-kang type form a complex that duplicates on a smaller scale Cheng-chou. A transitional period spanning the gap between the Upper Erh-li-kang phase of Middle Shang and the Yin-hs phase of Late Shang indicates a widespread network of Shang cultural sites that were linked by uniform bronze-casting styles and mortuary practices. A relatively homogeneous culture united the Bronze Age elite through much of China around the 14th century BC.

The Late Shang period is best represented by a cluster of sites focused on the village of Hsiao-t'un, west of An-yang in northern Honan. Known to history as Yin-hs, "the Ruins of Yin" (Yin was the name used by the succeeding Chou dynasty for the Shang), it was a seat of royal power for the last nine Shang kings, from Wu-ting to Ti-hsin. According to the "short chronology" used here, which is based upon modern studies of lunar eclipse records and reinterpretations of Chou annals, these kings would have reigned c. 1200-1045 BC. (One version of the traditional "long chronology," based primarily upon a 1st-century-BC source, would place the last 12 Shang kings, from P'an-keng onward, at Yin-hs from 1398 to 1112 BC.) Sophisticated bronze, ceramic, stone, and bone industries were housed in a network of ettlements surrounding the unwalled cult centre at Hsiao-t'un, which had rammed-earth temple-palace foundations. And Hsiao-t'un itself lay at the centre of a larger network of Late Shang sites--such as Hsing-t'ai to the north and Hsin-hsiang to the south--in southern Hopeh and northern Honan.

Royal burials

The royal cemetery lay less than two miles northwest of Hsiao-t'un, at Hsi-pei-kang. The hierarchy of burials at this and other cemeteries in the area reflected the social organization of the living. Large pit tombs, some nearly 42 feet deep, were furnished with four ramps and massive grave chambers for the kings. Retainers who accompanied their lords in death lay in or near the larger tombs; members of the lesser elite and commoners were buried in pits that ranged from medium size to shallow; those of still lower status were thrown into refuse pits and disused wells; and human and animal victims of the royal mortuary cult were placed in sacrificial pits. Only a few undisturbed elite burials have been unearthed, the most notable being that of Fu Hao, a consort of Wu-ting. That her relatively small grave contained 468 bronze objects, 775 jades, and more than 6,880 cowries suggests how great the wealth placed in the far larger royal tombs must have been.

The chariot

The light chariot, with 18 to 26 spokes per wheel, first appeared, according to the archaeological and inscriptional record, around 1200 BC. Glistening with bronze, it was initially a prestigious command car used primarily in hunting. The 16 chariot burials found at Hsiao-t'un raise the possibility of some form of Indo-European contact with China, and there is little doubt that the chariot, which probably originated in the Caucasus, entered China via Central Asia and the northern steppe. Animal-headed knives, always associated with chariot burials, are further evidence of a northern connection.


Late Shang culture is also defined by the size, elaborate shapes, and evolved decor of the ritual bronzes, many of which were used in wine offerings to the ancestors and some of which were inscribed with ancestral dedications such as "Made for Father Ting." Their surfaces were ornamented with zoomorphic and theriomorphic elements set against intricate backgrounds of geometric meanders, spirals, and quills. Some of the animal forms--which include tigers, birds, snakes, dragons, cicadas, and water buffalo--have been thought to represent shamanistic familiars or emblems that ward away evil. The exact meaning of the iconography, however, may never be known. That the predominant t'ao-t'ieh monster mask--with bulging eyes, fangs, horns, and claws--may have been anticipated by designs carved on jade ts'ung tubes and axes from Liang-chu culture sites in the Yangtze Delta and from the Late Neolithic in Shantung suggests that its origins were ancient. But the degree to which pure form or intrinsic meaning took priority, in either Neolithic or Shang times, is hard to assess.

Late Shang divinationreligion

Although certain complex symbols painted on Late Neolithic pots from Shantung suggest that primitive writing was emerging in the east in the 3rd millennium, the Shang divination inscriptions that appear at Hsiao-t'un form the earliest body of Chinese writing yet known. In Late Shang divination as practiced during the reign of Wu-ting (c. 1200-1180 BC), cattle scapulae or turtle plastrons, in a refinement of Neolithic practice, were first planed and bored with hollow depressions to which an intense heat source was then applied. The resulting T-shaped stress cracks were interpreted as lucky or unlucky. After the prognostication had been made, the day, the name of the presiding diviner (some 120 are known), the subject of the charge, the prognostication, and the result might be carved into the surface of the bone. Among the topics divined were sacrifices, campaigns, hunts, the good fortune of the 10-day week or of the night or day, weather, harvests, sickness, childbearing, dreams, settlement building, the issuing of orders, tribute, divine assistance, and prayers to various spirits. Some evolution in divinatory practice and theology evidently occurred. By the reigns of the last two Shang kings, Ti-i and Ti-hsin (c. 1100 to 1045 BC), the scope and form of Shang divination had become considerably simplified: prognostications were uniformly optimistic, and divination topics were limited mainly to the sacrificial schedule, the coming 10 days, the coming night, and hunting.

State and society

The ritual schedule records 29 royal ancestors over a span of 17 generations who, from at least Wu-ting to Ti-hsin, were each known as wang (king). Presiding over a stable politico-religious hierarchy of ritual specialists, officers, artisans, retainers, and servile peasants, they ruled with varying degrees of intensity over the North China Plain and parts of Shantung, Shansi, and Shensi, mobilizing armies of at least several thousand men as the occasion arose.

The worship of royal ancestors was central to the maintenance of the dynasty. The ancestors were designated by 10 "stem" names (chia, i, ping, ting, etc.) that were often prefixed by kin titles, such as "father" and "grandfather," or by status appellations, such as "great" or "small." The same stems were used to name the 10 days (or suns) of the week, and ancestors received cult on their name days according to a fixed schedule, particularly after the reforms of Tsu-chia. For example, Ta-i ("Great I," the sacrificial name of T'ang, the dynasty founder) was worshiped on i days, Wu-ting on ting days. The Shang dynastic group, whose lineage name was Tsu (according to later sources), appears to have been divided into 10 units corresponding to the 10 stems. Succession to the kingship alternated on a generational basis between two major groupings of chia and i kings on the one hand and ting kings on the other. The attention paid in the sacrificial system to the consorts of "great lineage" kings--who were themselves both sons (possibly nephews) and fathers (possibly uncles) of kings--indicates that women may have played a key role in the marriage alliances that ensured such circulation of power.

The goodwill of the ancestors, and of certain river and mountain powers, was sought through prayer and offerings of grain, millet wine, and animal and human sacrifice. The highest power of all, with whom the ancestors mediated for the living king, was the relatively remote deity Ti, or Shang Ti, "the Lord on High." Ti controlled victory in battle, harvest, the fate of the capital, and the weather, but, on the evidence of the oracle bone inscriptions, he received no cult. This suggests that Ti's command was too inscrutable to be divined or influenced; he was, in all likelihood, an impartial figure of last theological resort, needed to account for inexplicable events.

Although Marxist historians have categorized the Shang as a slave society, it would be more accurate to describe it as a dependent society. The king ruled a patrimonial state in which royal authority, treated as an extension of patriarchal control, was embedded in kinship and kinship-like ties. Despite the existence of such formal titles as "the many horse" or "the many archers," administration was apparently based primarily on kinship alliances, generational status, and personal charisma. The intensity with which ancestors were worshiped suggests the strength of the kinship system among the living; the ritualized ties of filiation and dependency that bound a son to his father, both before and after death, are likely to have had profound political implications for society as a whole. This was not a world in which concepts such as freedom and slavery would have been readily comprehensible. Everybody, from king to peasant, was bound by ties of obligation--to former kings, to ancestors, to superiors, and to dependents. The routine sacrificial offering of human beings, usually prisoners from the Ch'iang tribe, as if they were sacrificial animals, and the rarer practice of accompanying-in-death, in which 40 or more retainers, often of high status, were buried with a dead king, suggest the degree to which ties of affection, obligation, or servitude were thought to be stronger than life itself. If slavery existed, it was psychological and ideological, not legal. The political ability to create and exploit ties of dependency originally based on kinship was one of the characteristic strengths of early Chinese civilization.

Such ties were fundamentally personal in nature. The king referred to himself as y i jen, "I, the one man," and he was, like many early monarchs, peripatetic. Only by traveling through his domains could he ensure political and economic support. These considerations, coupled with the probability that the position of king circulated between social or ritual units, suggest that, lacking a national bureaucracy or effective means of control over distance, the dynasty was relatively weak. The Tzu should, above all, be regarded as a politically dominant lineage that may have displaced the Ssu lineage of the Hsia and that was in turn to be displaced by the Chi lineage of the Chou. But the choices that the Shang made--involving ancestor worship, the politico-religious nature of the state, patrimonial administration, the mantic role of the ruler, and a pervasive sense of social obligation--were not displaced. These choices endured and were to define, restrict, and enhance the institutions and political culture of the full-fledged dynasties yet to come.

The following pages are references to the continuous methodical record of the Chinese civilization dating from the third millennium B.C. Governed during most of its history by emperors of numerous dynasties of which the most noteable are:

Chou and Ch'in dynasties (1111-255 BC)

Han dynasties (202 BC - AD 220)

Wu dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 222-280)

Tung Chin dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 317-420)

Liu-Sung dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 420-479 )

Ch'i dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 479-502)

Nan Liang dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 502-557)

Nan Ch'en dynasty The Six Dynasties (AD 557-589)

Sui dynasty ( AD 581-618 )

T'ang dynasty (AD 618-626 )

Wu-tai Dynasties Five Dynasties (AD 907-960)

Hou Liang dynasty Five Dynasties (AD 907-923)

Hou T'ang Dynasty Five Dynasties (AD 923-936)

Hou Chin Dynasty Five Dynasties (AD 936-947)

Hou Han Dynasty Five Dynasties (AD 947-951)

Hou Chou Dynasty Five Dynasties (AD 951-960)

Pei(Northern)Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1127 )

Yan dynasty (AD 1206-1368)

Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644)

Ch'ing dynasty (AD 1644 - 1911 )

Late Ch'ing (AD 1839-1911)

Republican period (AD 1912-20 )

Sino-Japanese War (AD 1937-45)

Republic China (AD 1949-1966 )

Cultural Revolution (AD 1966-76)

China after Mao (AD 1976-)

back to top page >>