Shang Dynasty: Social Structure & Family Life

Instructor: Brittney Clere

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

For centuries, many considered the Shang dynasty to be a mere myth. However, in the 20th century, archaeological finds gave evidence to their existence. In this lesson, we will look at what the evidence shows about their social structure.

The Shang Dynasty

Ancient China was controlled by clans, or extended families, that often fought each other to protect their power over the different regions. When a clan became strong enough to control all others, it was considered a dynasty. The Shang from the region of the Yellow River is an example of a clan that grew powerful enough to become a dynasty. They are believed to have reigned from 1600 to 1046 B.C.E.

The Ruling Class

The social class system of the Shang Dynasty begins with the ruling family. At the head of a dynasty's ruling class was a king. In the Shang dynasty, the kings lived in grand palaces built high on a platform in the royal cities. Strong armies were key to protecting a clan's power, as kings spent most of their time at war with other clans.

A king's younger brothers and nephews were also important to a dynasty's rule. The king would allow them to control smaller kingdoms within China for him. These men were also in line to inherit the throne if anything were to happen to the king.

The Nobles

The next highest ranking social class were the nobles. The nobles were very important to the king because they were the ones who provided the weapons and foot-soldiers for the military. Often, the nobles would fight in the king's army, as well. Many served as chariot warriors and were renowned for their great warfare skills. In return for their important service to the king, they were able to control their land as they wished.

The noble life was one of luxury. Their days were spent directing the lives of the lower classes from grand palaces. One of the favorite past times of nobles was to go on fox and badger hunts. Sometimes, they were even invited to go along with the king himself.

Artisans & Traders

The artisans, or craftspeople, fell below the nobles in social rank. This class included the skilled workers of bronze, jade, ceramics, stone, and silk. They were responsible for making beautiful decorations, jewelry, and clothing for the upper classes. The bronze workers were especially esteemed for their crafting of the weapons used in the king's military.

A bronze axe from the Shang dynasty.
Bronze axe

A shard of pottery made by Shang artisan.
Pottery shard

Sharing equal middle-class status with the artisans were the traders and merchants. It is believed the Shang traders traded their goods far and wide. This idea is supported by archaeological finds of cowrie seashells and turtle shells, both of which came from tropical regions thousands of miles from the Shang kingdom. Cowrie shells were so valuable, partly because of the distance traveled to acquire them, that they were used as a system of currency in the dynasty.

Cowrie shells were used as Shang money.
Cowrie shell

Farmers

Below the craftspeople and traders were the farmers, or peasants. This was the largest of social classes. The farmers did not own their land but instead worked land that was owned by nobles. The majority of the crops would go to the landowner, who would then give a portion of it to the king. The few crops that were left were kept by the farmers to feed their families.

The life of a farmer was hard. Even though the Shang were skilled in making iron and bronze weapons, the peasant class had tools of simple stone and wood. They used the tools to grow millet, wheat, rice, barley, vegetables, and fruit. Shang farmers also raised cattle, pigs, chickens, and even silkworms.

Nobles could also assign the peasants to work on other projects besides farming. These might include building a dam or digging a channel. The nobles could also order the peasants into military service.

Slaves

The slaves made up the very bottom of the Shang class structure. They were often prisoners of war who had to spend their days building tombs and palaces for the upper classes.

Often, slaves were even sacrificed to serve their masters after death. The Shang believed in an afterlife, and a person's social status also dictated the traditions of burial. Kings and nobles were buried in tombs filled with their precious processions, including slaves, servants, and animals to serve them in the afterlife.

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