The Shang Dynasty dated from approximately 1600 to 1050 B.C.E. Its last capital was Anyang, which is located in what is today the northern panhandle of the Henan province in China. Because it came just after the end of the Bronze Age and prehistory, more information is being uncovered about the Shang Dynasty annually.
For the most part, the information that scholars have today about the dynasty is gleaned from archaeological finds.
Approximately 150,000 inscribed "oracle bones" have been found. After heavy rainfalls or during plowing season, Chinese farmers would come upon the mysterious “dragon bones” and other remains in the soil. The use and inscriptions of these finds were unknown until 1899, when a Chinese scholar recognized the script as an older form of the text found on Zhou ritual bronzes. [Note: The Zhou Dynasty immediately follows the Shang Dynasty in succession.] In actuality, the bones were a part of the Shang Dynasty archives.
The artifacts were made from either the shoulder blade of an ox, or the bottom part of a tortoise shell, called the plastron. Rows of oval notches are etched on one side of the bone, while T-shaped marks are cracked into the other side. To get a bone to crack on one side only, two holes were drilled in the back side of the bone. Heat would be pumped through the thin part of the shell, resulting in tiny cracks on the other side. If done correctly, the shell should crack in two places: vertically and horizontally, forming a 'T’ shape. The shape and position of the cracks was used for divination, thus the moniker “oracle bones.” The bones most likely were used to predict the outcomes of everything from wars to childbirth. Not surprisingly, the modern Chinese character for “divination” looks similar to a T.
Also characteristic to the Shang Dynasty was its magnificent bronze work, namely that of ritual bronze vessels.
The Shang Dynasty was one concerned with shamanism and was fiercely devoted to ancestor worship. Shaman literally means, “He who knows.” A medicine man, the shaman would dress in ritual costumes and masks. He purportedly could capture the power of an animal and act as an intermediary between the human and the spirit world. According to Chinese belief, one’s ancestors resided with the high gods; if you sacrificed to your ancestors and they were appeased, sometimes the ancestors would help their descendants.
Instrumental in these rituals were bronze “ritual vessels.” They were created using a piece-mold casting technique, similar to the lost-wax method of casting developed in Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.E. Piece-mold casting technique involved first making a model like the desired object. Clay was then packed around model to form a mold, which was cut symmetrically into pieces and disassembled. Bronze spacers kept the distance between the molds. Melted bronze made of an alloy of lead, tin, and copper was poured into the mold. Where the two pieces of the mold imperfectly joined, melted bronze flowed out through the seam and after the piece was cast, often the “imperfections” were filed away. Some bronze casters let the bronze that flowed from the seam set in the mold, forming decorative protrusions called flanges. Also, often these bronzes contained within their designs a whorl pattern called a founder pattern, resembling the modern Chinese character for “founder.”
Because of the often-symmetrical cut of the molds when making the bronze, the bronzes often had strong symmetrical organization. However, they were often elaborately decorated, most often with zoological motifs. The most common animals shown are elephants, birds, cicadas, dragons, tigers, and taotie. Taotie is believed to mean “monstrous face;” The name was given to the image by a 10th century ancient text from the third century Zhou language. A taotie is a face with prominent staring eyes, with either no or multiple bodies, horns, and flaring nostrils. This frightening image’s goal was to strike awe and fear in those who couldn’t utilize its power. Supposedly the taotie protected the Shang kings, and as a result, the kings and aristocracy of Shang society monopolized bronze vessels adorned with the taotie image. Later, as oxidation set into the bronze to form a patina, the values of these ritual bronzes increased, as well as were considered more aesthetically appealing.
In the Shang culture, there was clear job specialization and centralized government; the hierarchy of Shang culture revolved around the needs of the elite.
For this reason, bronze foundries, stone workshops, and the like were located around the ceremonial center of Anyang. In addition to the bronze vessels utilized in ancestor worship, there was a distinct classification of bronze vessels made by Shang craftsmen. A li is a tripod, and the most common bronze vessel is a ding, or a cooking vessel with three hollow legs. A yan is a steamer; a gui is a food vessel; and a jia, a wine vessel to warm wine. As bronze-casting technology became more advanced, casters even made jia in the shape of animals, with zoological motifs adorning the animals themselves. The names of the vessels are derived from 10th century antiquarian Chinese names for similar apparatuses; however, some of the vessels bear inscriptions of the piece’s name on the pieces themselves.
Critically important to the Shang way of life was the comfort of their king, in this life and the one that, they believed, followed.
Archaeologists have uncovered temple complexes and ruins of Shang communities. Apparently the king’s palace was constructed of wood, built on a raised platform of pounded earth. The building itself was a post and lintel- type structure, where the posts are merely poles to hold up the walls and lintels are beams supporting the roof, which was thatched. All the windows and doors face south.
One mile north of the palace site is located the royal tomb site of the Shang kings. This site is the location of a major cult center where the late Shang worshipped their ancestors and buried their last nine kings in cruciform pit burials, often referred to as the royal cemetery at Xibeigang.
The arrangement of the pit consists of ledges, with the burial chamber of the king sunk into the ground on a lower level than the other remains. On ledges around the king’s pit were buried other skeletons. As many as twenty-six female skeletons and many male skeletons were found in one area of a pit. Also, skeletons were found on the ledges with their disembodied skulls sunk into the ground in another part of the burial site, causing speculation that the bodies belonged to slaves
, or captives
beheaded as human sacrifices
. However, some of the bodies found show no indication of violence. Also, Shang ancestor worship involved sizable amounts of blood, which would have been placed in the aforementioned bronze ritual vessels. At one point, it is estimated that the tombs were luxuriously furnished, but that grave robbers
pillaged them long before archaeological excavations
begun in the area. Some kings were buried with their chariots
, and horses
. One Shang king was even buried with his pets, including an elephant in a separate pit beside the king’s tomb.
de Bary, Wm. Theodore, and Irene Bloom, ed. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Wu, Xiaolong. "Shang Funerary Arts." Hanover College. Lynn Center for Fine Arts, Hanover. 10 September 2004.