The Shang Dynasty

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Ancient China

The core of what later became the unified nation of China developed in the river valleys and deltas, mainly around the Huang He (Yellow) River. Archaeological findings, especially of early bronze artifacts, show evidence of numerous ancient settlements scattered along the Huang He and along the Yangtze to the south. The northern settlements existed in a rather cold and arid climate; the southern climate was much more humid, better suited to farming rice and millet.

Two important geographical factors characterize the early Chinese settlements. First, they were inland rather than coastal. The coastline of the Yellow Sea was farther west in ancient times than it is today, but the early Chinese settlements and cities did not develop along the seacoast. The Chinese settled along the rivers, which they used as highways for transport and communication. Second, China was isolated from the Fertile Crescent and other early civilizations not only by distance, but by topographical features such as deserts and mountain ranges. There is no evidence that the ancient Chinese and the ancient Near East had any knowledge of one another.

The Shang Dynasty

Modern Western history is usually broken up into small units called “reigns,” in which we speak of the events that take place under an individual monarch. Because ancient history tended to proceed at a much slower pace, with major changes happening at much longer intervals, we speak of centuries rather than reigns. Traditionally, Chinese history is taught in terms of dynasties rather than individual reigns. The first Chinese civilization for which we have reliable writ- ten records is the Shang dynasty, which took power around 1700 BC. The area over which the Shang kings maintained control was a bit smaller than present- day England and included a large number of city-states and settlements. The Shang dynasty lasted more than five hundred years.


Tang was the first king of the Shang dynasty. He and his supporters and family used their military powers to dominate the region; Tang maintained power because of his personal qualities. Written records of the Shang dynasty credit him with wisdom and justice; these characteristics earned him the loyalty of his people.

The Shang civilization resembled the feudal system that arose centuries later in Western Europe. A number of small city-states existed along the Huang He and Yangtze rivers. The clan ruler of each city-state owed his loyalty to the emperor; he paid financial tribute and also provided military support when called on. In exchange, the emperor gave the clan ruler absolute power over his own city-state. Within the city-state, the clan ruler protected his people from attack by outsiders in return for their service.

The loyalty of the clan rulers—in time, many were members of the extended royal family—meant that the Shang king could speedily raise a very large army when necessary. Peasants were required to serve in the military whenever called; the Shang dynasty also commanded an officer corps of young men from the upper social ranks. Peasants served as the infantry, or foot soldiers; the noblemen served as the cavalry, riding horse-drawn chariots and armed with powerful bows. The chariot was the Shang clan’s main military advantage over the other tribes.

The superior Shang military led Tang’s successor Wu Ding and his queen Fu Hao to victory in a number of military campaigns against various other tribes in the region, notably the Gui and Wei people. Fu Hao actually led troops into combat herself; her tomb is almost the only one of its era that was not looted in antiquity, so all records of her achievements have not been lost.

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