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Between Myth and History:The Xia Dynasty and The Shang Kingdom

Updated on January 16, 2015

Map,Art,The Shang Dynasty

Shang Dynasty Map
Shang Dynasty Map
Shang bronze
Shang bronze

The Xia Dynasty

At the same time,archeologists in China looked for evidence that would restore the credibility of the traditional narratives,provide grounds for revision of those narratives,or even create a new and different account of the history of ancient China.As a result,the various culture heroes:the Yellow Emperor,Yao,Shun and Yu;were consigned to the world of myth.The Xia dynasty,however,remains uneasily between myth and history.

The capital of the Xia was said to have been on the Central Plains,somewhere near the modern city of Luoyang.Archeological work in that area was accordingly carried out with the explicit goal of finding evidence to prove the existence of the Xia state.At a site called Erlitou,they found the remains of a civilization at least some of whose dates seem to correspond with the dates of the Xia dynasty.

The remains found at Erlitou include a sizeable city surrounded by a rammed-earth wall,rammed-earth house houndations,storage pits,pottery,roads,the foundations of two palatial buildings,stone implements,bronzes,and the remains of a bronze foundry.Also found were burials,some of them with human sacrifices.These are clearly the remains of a significant civilization whose leaders were able to control the labour and the agricultural produce of large numbers of commoners.Are some or all of the four levels of the Erlitou site the remains of the capital of the Xia kingdom?Archeologists continue to debate,with many (including the vast majority of Chinese archeologists) accepting Erlitou as evidence of the existence of the Xia dynasty.

If the Erlitou site was,indeed,the Xia capital,what sort of a state was the Xia,and what were its relations with the neighboring peoples?The Xia kingdom is thought to have flourished roughly between 2070 and 1600 BCE.Archeologists and historians no longer,however,accept the linear narrative in which the Xia,the Shang,and the Zhou followed one another in succession.Instead,the evidence seems to point to the existence of tens or hundreds of small states in China during the time of the Xia (if it existed) and Shang periods (that is around 2070 to 1045 BCE).The strongest theory is that the Xia,the Shang,and the Zhou were three such states,with the Xia in the center,the Shang to the east,and the Zhow to the west.The three overlapped in time,with Shang eventually taking over the territory of Xia (around 1570 BCE),and Zhou doing the same to Shang later,in 1045 BCE.The idea that the three states succeeded one after the other in linear fashion,as represented on a simple timeline,is an invention of the Zhou people,who wanted a theory that justified Zhow control over a single feudel kingdom which had not,in fact,previously existed.


The Xia Dynasty
The Xia Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty

The Shang Kingdom

The state of Shang had its origins and early territory in an area corresponding to eastern Henan,western Anhui,and northern Shandong on a modern map.Their state was contemporaneous with Erlitou culture (associated with the Xia),which lay to the west in the area around modern Luoyang.Traditional accounts tell how a Shang king named Cheng Tang first annexed neighboring states,then attacked and defeated the Xia to form the larger kingdom that we know as the Shang.In "The Speech of Tang",a text that may reflect later Zhou dynasty ideology rather than Shang reality,King Tang argues that the King of Xia,an evil and repressive ruler,deserves to be overthrown:"(He) does nothing but exhaust the strength of his people,and exercise oppression in the cities of Xia."He concludes his call to action with a promise and a threat:

Assist,I pray you,me,the one man,to carry out the punishment appointed by Haeven.I will greatly reward you.On no account disbelieve me...If you do not obey the words which I have spoken to you,I will put your children with you to death-you will find no forgiveness.

We have no other evidence on which to judge the veracity of this and other accounts of the early Shang.The remains of King Tang`s capital (said to have been occupied by him and the next eight kings for a period of 183 years) have not been located,nor have the sites of several other capital cities of the Shang.There is,however,enough archeological evidence to draw some broad outlines of the historic trajectory of the Shang kingdom in its early and middle phases.This evidence includes many bronze vessels,tombs,and a major urban area,possibly a capital city,at a place called Erligang in the city of Zhengzhou.

Art Shang Dynasty

Anyang artifacts Shang dynasty
Anyang artifacts Shang dynasty
human face,Shang bronze
human face,Shang bronze
The earliest bronzes found in the Hunan region so far have come from several Shang Dynasty sites more 3500 years old:
The earliest bronzes found in the Hunan region so far have come from several Shang Dynasty sites more 3500 years old:

Archeological sites with Shang cultural characteristics similar to those at Erligang have been found over a large area,from central Shandong in the east to central Shaanxi in the west,from Beijing in the north to the middle Yangzi Valley in the South.As with the Xia,acheologists continue to debate the meaning of this "Erligang culture".Many argue that the Erligang culture coresponds to an early or middle period of the Shang,sometime between 1500 and 1300 BCE,and that the presence of Erligang sites over a broad area indicates that the Shang kingdom was already a rich,powerful urban state and that it engaged in a sudden,aggressive expansion,particularly toward the south.The strongest evidence for this expansion is the remains of a city at Panlongcheng on a tributary of the Yangzi River.

Panlongcheng was a walled city modeled after the walled city at Erligang,but much smaller.Like Erligang,Panlongcheng was the center of a wealthy urban elite whose bronzes,like their city,resembeled those in Erligang,300 miles(500 km) to the north.Panlongcheng pottery,on the other hand,was quite different from that found in the Yellow River area of the Shang,thus leading archeologists to conclude that the powerful ruling elite of Panlongcheng had come from the Yellow River area and had superimposed themselves over a weaker local people.

It is very unlikely that the Shang kings ever firmly incorporated such a broad area into a single,coherent state administered from Erligang.At any rate,the period of territoral expansion came to an end.By 1300 BCE,the Shang kingdom was in retreat,pulling back,most notably from the south:Panlongcheng was abandoned,and the center of gravity of the Shang state shifted from Erligang farther north,eventually to Anyang,which served as either the capital or the ritual center at least from the time of King Wu Ding (1198?-1189? BCE) until the end of the dynasty.

Shang Dynasty

Artifacts from the Shang Dynasty
Artifacts from the Shang Dynasty
Bronze Wine Vessel,Shang
Bronze Wine Vessel,Shang
Shang Dynasty Bronze Ritual Wine-Pouring Vessel
Shang Dynasty Bronze Ritual Wine-Pouring Vessel

Perhaps the Shang was a victim of its own success:the outward expansion of its powerand culture stimulated the rise of urban bronze-working states on its southern,south western,and northern peripheries.These peoples,while using bronze technology,adapted it to their own needs and artistic tastes.The huge bronze bells and drums of the middle Yangzi Valley,for example,are quite different from the bronzes of Panlongcheng and Erligang.Civilizations in Jiangxi and Sichuan had the beginnings of their own writing systems,unrelated to the writing system of the Shang.Sichuan was also the site of a civilization which is best known through artifacts unearthed at Sanxingdui near the city of Chengdu.The bronzes discovered at Sanxingdui are artistically distinct from Shang bronzes and include a figure of a man on a pedestal 8 feet (2.4 m) in height,bronze heads decorated with gold leaf,large masks,and other ceremonial objects.Bronze workers of the northern fringe from Xinjiang to Manchuria,too,made a variety of different bronze items,including daggers (a distinctive weapon not part of the hang bronzeworking tradition.

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The Shang Dynasty


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