Shang Dynasty: Economy & Agriculture

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  • 0:03 The Shang
  • 0:31 Trade and Currency
  • 1:19 Agriculture
  • 2:56 Specialized Jobs
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

The Chinese term used today for merchant is 'shang ren.' This also translates into 'Shang man.' So, how exactly did the Shang of centuries ago become the icon of businessmen? The following lesson will explore this and other aspects of the Shang economy.

The Shang

For centuries, ancient China was ruled by clans who were constantly at war with one another to retain and expand their power. Sometime around the 17th century BCE, a clan known as the Shang came to power in the valleys of the Huang He. From there, they spent the next 500 years ruling a society that thrived on an economy built on the backs of its skilled craftspeople and loyal farmers.

Trade and Currency

Money and trade are usually the first things that come to mind when people think about economies, so let's start there. The Shang were in the business of trading goods, and they had trade routes, a network of passages used for trading goods and services, that extended far and wide. We know this because artifacts found in the ruins of Shang cities and tombs include objects that did not originate in the Shang territories. For example, jade and tortoise shells found at these sites come from areas hundreds of miles away to the south, so we can easily assume they were acquired through trade.

Another example of foreign goods was the cowrie shell. Small, smooth, and beautiful, these sea shells served as a form of currency for the Shang. One reason they were so valuable was because they were brought all the way from the Indian Ocean.


Agriculture was the basis of the Shang economy, as was true in all ancient civilizations. Because the region was situated around the Huang He, or Yellow River, agriculture was able to prosper off the abundance of loess, a fertile sediment found on the river's banks.

The largest social group was the farmers, who were also considered peasants. Some farmers raised sheep, cattle, pigs, and other livestock. Most, however, worked tirelessly on land they did not own, to harvest crops they did not get to keep. The main crops were a variety of cereals - namely wheat, millet, rice, and barley. However, nuts, fruits, and vegetables were grown as well.

The fields were either owned by nobles or were under the control of the king. Farmers grew all the crops but were only able to take home whatever was left over after the king and nobles took their lion's share.

The nobles took not only food but also other goods and money from the farmers to give to the king. They could even direct them to work on different royal projects, such as building irrigation canals or serving in the king's military.

The farmers were stuck using simple tools made of stone and wood, even though the Shang were skilled at making things of bronze and iron. Because farming was for commoners, the Shang did not want to use their precious metals, especially bronze, to make tools for people of such low social status.

The Shang were also a slave society, a society where slave labor was used, and most were prisoners of war. While they were heavily involved in farming, slaves were also used to provide labor in the mines and on large building projects.

Specialized Jobs

The largest group of the Shang society was farmers, but there were other specialized jobs, too, such as the bronze workers. The Shang held a monopoly in the bronze industry by keeping a tight government's grip on all bronze-making facilities. The workers were highly skilled in shaping the bronze into weapons, ceremonial vessels, containers, and other instruments. The bronzeware was not just sturdy; it was beautiful, too.

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