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Shang Dynasty: Leaders, Political Structure & Laws

Instructor: Jeffery Keller

Jeff has taught US and World History at the high school and college levels for nearly ten years and has a master's degree in history.

In this lesson, you will learn about the origins of the Shang Dynasty. You will also learn about notable political leaders and about how the Shang organized their political system.

Mysterious Bones

As he lay suffering from malaria, Chancellor Wang Yirong (1845-1900) sent his aid to retrieve the only known cure for his affliction: dragon bones. Healers across China were known for selling ancient bones, thought to be the remains of dragons, which were then ground up and given to suffering patients. When the aid returned, though, the bones were not ground up. As Wang Yirong inspected the bones, he noticed something important: the bones were covered in writing. The Chancellor and his aid turned the bones over to be further examined, but it wasn't until eight years later in 1908 that scholar Luo Zhenyu managed to trace the origins back to Anyang, a city long thought to be home of the mythical Shang Dynasty. There, Luo and other scholars found the first real proof of the ancient Shang Dynasty.

Oracle Bones
Oracle Bones

Origins

According to legend, the Shang Dynasty was founded when King Cheng Tang overthrew the Xia Dynasty's tyrannical king. Although legend alludes to a previous dynasty, no archaeological or written evidence supports the existence of the Xia at this time. Most historians, therefore, choose to begin the story of Chinese history with the Shang Dynasty, which developed along the Huang He River's fertile banks.

Politics and People

Shang society believed in many gods, but focused on one supreme, Shang-di. When people died, their souls would go on to join Shang-di in heaven. It was believed that it was possible to communicate with the spirits of one's ancestors in various ways. One way was by writing messages on bones, known as oracle bones, heating the bones until they cracked, and interpreting the cracks as messages from the gods. However, the most important means for communicating with ancestors was through the king. The Shang believed that the king served as an intermediary connecting Heaven with Earth. The king's main responsibility in this role was to plead with the ancestors to ask Shang-di to provide a productive agricultural season, and to protect the Shang people from natural disasters, most notably earthquakes and floods from the mighty Huang He River. This belief that kings had divine connections provided the rationale for the authoritarian style of rule that was common in China for much of its history.

Map of the Shang Civilization
Map of the Shang Civilization

Political Order

Over the course of nearly 600 years of the Shang Dynasty, Shang kings relied on the loyalty of their most important aristocratic families, and they spent much of their time traveling to the courts of these supporters to ensure their continued support. Most of the aristocrats in Shang times were strong warriors whose conquests provided revenue to support their courts. Conquests also provided slaves, taken as prisoners of war and put to work in the various provinces throughout China.

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