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READ: Shang Dynasty China

Traditionally, the Shang Dynasty is viewed as the second dynasty of Ancient China. But it’s the first dynasty for which we have archaeological records. Its characteristics make it unique and the basis for Chinese society for thousands of years.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How and why did early agrarian societies form in this region?
  2. What does evidence from the Shang Dynasty China tell you about how production and distribution worked in this society?
  3. What does evidence from this reading tell you about how people in this society formed and maintained communities (religious, state, and otherwise)?
  4. What does the evidence in this reading tell you about how the societies in this region participated in networks that moved ideas, people, and things?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Compare and contrast this society to other societies in readings from the same set. What seem to be some commonalities of early agrarian societies, when viewed through the three frames of production and distribution, communities, and networks?
  2. What is the principal evidence cited in this article? How do you think the availability of different kinds of evidence affects what we know about these societies?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Ancient Agrarian Societies: Shang Dynasty China

Photo of a piece of artwork: a face is carved into a bronze axe.
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Traditionally, the Shang Dynasty is viewed as the second dynasty of Ancient China. But it's the first dynasty for which we have archaeological records. Its characteristics make it unique and the basis for Chinese society for thousands of years.


Chinese society has a long history stretching back over 4000 years. Both Paleolithic and Neolithic groups lived here for centuries before the domestication of animals and the invention of farming.
Early farming communities almost always grew up along river valleys. Here people could access fresh water for drinking, bathing, irrigating crops, transportation, and for fertile soil. The earliest farming communities in China were founded along the Huang He (Yellow River) in the north. Chinese dynasties (rulers that passed their right to rule down through their family line) controlled much of this area. Pastoralists, whom the Chinese agrarian communities referred to as "barbarians", lived in large areas to the north and west.

Shang dynasty

The first dynasty mentioned in Chinese historical sources is the Xia. They are said to have ruled c. 2070 to 1600 BCE. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support the existence of this dynasty. So, most historians refer to the Shang as China's first dynasty. The Shang ruled from 1600 to 1046 BCE. There is archaeological and historical evidence for this period. This includes Chinese histories written from the fifth to first century BCE and artifacts found within walled cities and tombs dating to the Shang Dynasty.1
Map shows the location of the Shang Dynasty.
Outline map of the Shang Dynasty’s boundaries. By Lamassu Design Gurdjieff, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The farming society that began and flourished under the Shang Dynasty grew a variety of grains and crops. They also bred domestic animals and hunted. They grew some rice in this area during the Shang, but not like the full-scale growing of rice in the south. Shang society, like most early farming areas, was divided into different classes of people. Rulers (kings) and the wealthy had the most status, followed by the military and bureaucrats. Next came artisans and skilled workers such as craftspeople and finally the peasants, who were usually farmers. There is evidence that some peasants, such as servants, might have been treated as slaves. Some servants were buried alongside the wealthy. Archaeologists and historians theorize that these must have been slaves that were tied to or owned by the wealthy and powerful.

Writing and spiritual beliefs

The Shang kings were also considered to have the right to rule from the gods of Ancient China. Kings made laws and commanded the military. They even performed sacred rituals such as communicating with spirits. Some of the Shang kings' first wives and consorts also had power. There is evidence that at least one mistress, Lady Fu Hao, led her own army into battle and conducted sacrifices to the gods and ancestors.
Most of the evidence for these sacrifices and communications with the spiritual world come from thousands of oracle bones found by archaeologists. The Chinese believed in a mixture of animism (the belief that objects, places and creatures have spirits) and other spiritual practices including honoring ancestors. When a family member died, they became a part of the spirit world. The living often called upon their ancestors for help and guidance. One way people communicated with their ancestors was through the use of oracle bones. Questions were written or scratched onto a bone or shell by a shaman or diviner, someone who could communicate with the gods. These bones and shells were then heated until they cracked. The diviner would read the cracks and provide the person with an answer to their question. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, the king became the main shaman, which further strengthened his dual role as a state and spiritual leader.
These bones and shells hold an amazing amount of information about early Chinese cultural and spiritual practices. The questions, the people who asked the questions, and the answers are all engraved on these bones. They also provide us with a record of early Chinese writing. Chinese script may have been developed during the Shang Dynasty. This script, composed of pictograms (symbols), closely resembles that of modern Chinese writing. Some of the questions asked about the gender of a royal child or about military battles and strategy.
Written observations of the stars and sky from this time included records of eclipses and solstices. This information was used to construct a solar calendar of 365 days, as opposed to the 354-day lunar calendar. This helped farmers determine when to plant and harvest crops. They also wrote records for farming (harvests and surpluses), trade (balances and debts), and for taxation.

Cities, trade, and culture

The Shang kings founded many cities throughout the region. Some of these were walled in order to protect the citizens from outside invasions. Buildings found within the city walls were erected on large areas of "stamped Earth" where the soil was compacted into a foundation to support wooden structures. This type of construction would be similar to today's building technique of laying down a concrete slab upon which to build a home. The walled city of Erligang (modern-day Zhengzhou), which was excavated in the 1950s CE, had walls that were about 10m (32ft) high and 20m (65ft) thick. These walls protected an area that was over 3km2 (1.2 miles2).
The Shang period is also known for bronze casting and the creation of bronze tools, weapons, and crafts. Bronze foundries and thousands of bronze artifacts have been found in tombs and dig sites across the Shang region. While bronze was used to increase harvests and make weapons, implements made from stone, bone, and jade were also widely used. Most craftwork would have been done in the home. But as cities grew, early workshops were founded, and some people moved to urban areas to work. Musical instruments, such as flutes and drums, have also been found. These instruments indicate that the Shang Dynasty enjoyed cultural activities.
A pice of oracle bone covered in Chinese symbols.
Oracle bone (ox scapula) from the reign of King Wu Ding (late Shang), c. 1200 BCE, National Museum of China. By BabelStone, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Many items were found in tombs of the wealthy and powerful. This indicates that the Shang strongly believed in the afterlife. Tools, weapons, instruments, and beauty accessories were placed within the tomb to aid those who crossed over to the spiritual realm. Some of these tombs also contained things like cowry shells, which indicates that trade took place between the Shang and members of coastal regions. The Shang community also used bronze- wheeled chariots. This indicates that the Shang interacted with the steppe people to the west, who were skilled in using horses and chariots. The Shang were very accomplished in bronze making and early silk textile production. These goods would have been sought after by other communities in the region. East Asian networks of exchange, therefore, extended beyond the walled cities and areas controlled by the Shang to encompass nearby farming and pastoralist areas.
Items dated to the Shang Dynasty have been found in a number of locations. This provides us with a lot of information about the period. In 1976, archaeologists found a tomb in the Shang city of Yinxu (modern-day Anyang) that had not been looted. The tomb of Lady Fu Hao was completely intact. It revealed a lot of information about life for upper class women during the Shang Dynasty. Lady Fu Hao (c. 1250 BCE) was a consort (one of many wives) of King Wu Ding. Oracle bones found from this period tell us a lot about her life. She was mentioned on close to 200 Shang-era oracle bones. Her tomb housed her body and the bodies of 16 servants and six dogs. In addition, there were almost 500 bronze pieces, including 130 weapons. Her tomb also held over 700 jade items, stone objects, five ivory pieces, over 500 bone ornaments, and 6,900 cowry shells. Inscriptions on the oracle bones reveal that she was a military general, who led her own troops into battle. This is also supported by the large number of bronze weapons found in her tomb. She was also seen as a spiritual guide who could perform sacred sacrifices and ask ancestors for aid. This type of privilege and prestige was unusual for women during this time. But it seems that because of her skills and her relationship with the king, she was viewed as a powerful figure.
Photograph of a statue of Fu Hao in front of a temple. Standing tall, Fu Hao is depicted wearing ornate clothing and holding a large axe in his right hand.
Statue of Fu Hao at Yinxu, By Chris Gyford. CC BY 2.5.

From the Shang to the Zhou dynasty

The Shang Dynasty ruled a large section of East Asia for over 500 years. Eventually they were challenged by the Zhou, another powerful group located in the plains of Eastern China. The Zhou overthrew the last Shang king at the Battle of Muye in 1046 BCE. King Wu of the Zhou claimed that the Shang king's corrupt ways and his focus on pleasure at the expense of his people meant that he was no longer worthy to govern. Wu claimed that the Shang king had lost the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming). This meant that the ruler had lost his virtue or morality and as a result, he no longer had the right to rule. This claim allowed Zhou to justify overthrowing the Shang dynasty that no longer provided for the people. The Zhou firmly established its base in the eastern portion of the Yellow River Valley. Over time they consolidated more territory to the west. In fact, the Zhou became the longest reigning dynasty in Chinese history, controlling a large area of modern-day China for almost 800 years.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. She is also a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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