WHEN ATTEMPTING TO reconstruct the history of the Shang one question looms large: how to evaluate and employ the traditional accounts and seemingly precise geographical statements scattered throughout various Spring and Autumn and Warring States texts, which, if actually based on now-lost records, may preserve vital information about the Shang. Many modern scholars simply reject all nonarchaeological material, but centuries of incisive reading have produced a detailed portrait of the Shang well worth pondering, a starting point to be proven or disproven by the many artifacts and numerous bamboo strips that continue to be recovered. This traditional account has not only influenced numerous generations of Chinese, but also continues to furnish core material for discussions in contemporary PRC media and China’s ongoing search for uniqueness. Whatever its reliability, cultural inertia will probably ensure that this account persists for several more decades, making the original materials worth pondering in themselves.

Despite unbroken reverence for the Hsia and the recent discovery of probable Hsia sites, most scholars continue to recognize the Shang as the first Chinese dynastic state because it remains the earliest to be documented by archaeologically recovered textual materials, many of which attest to the veracity of fundamental elements in Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s Shih Chi account. Slightly more than a century ago the now-famous “dragon” (oracle) bones were discovered; Anyang, site of the Shang’s last capital, was first explored just prior to World War II; and several major Shang enclaves, not to mention numerous smaller sites among the many hundreds already identified, have been partially excavated over the past five decades.

Apart from excavation reports that have been torturously slow in being published due to PRC academic and political complexities, oracle bones provide the chief resource for reconstructing the life and nature of the Shang. Constantly increasing but currently numbering about 200,000, a quarter of them have been deemed reasonably informative. Unfortunately, they only cover the last nine kings from Wu Ting to Hsin (best known as the tyrant Chou), who ruled from Anyang during the dynasty’s final two centuries.1 Cryptic notes on inquiries made to Heaven and invocations to the ancestors on a wide variety of state and royal matters ranging from military campaigns to prospects for the harvest, these prognostications inevitably express the ruler’s perspective, are naturally selective, and were probably never intended to be preserved. Nevertheless, the extensive work, ranging from the necessarily tedious to the brilliantly insightful, completed since their discovery has now provided sufficient material to construct a tentative picture of the Shang.2 In addition, the weapons, cauldrons, ritual jades, ceramics, and other items that have been recovered from tombs, hoards, and storage pits vivify cultural and psychological dimensions merely hinted at in the oracle bones as well as concretely documenting the process of technological evolution.

Although the exact nature of the Shang, even their very name,3 remains a matter for debate, characterizations range from a large chiefdom of heterogeneous composition, through an increasingly bureaucratic territorial state, to a despotic monarchy.4 Within China it has traditionally been regarded as a dynasty because the rulers succeeded each other and the clan maintained its authority, but it apparently began as a strong tribal chiefdom or self-contained clan state in a circumscribed location. Moreover, as the oracle bones reveal, it remained one entity among many throughout its rule, never able to completely dominate the ancient world in the fashion traditionally depicted. However, the Shang early on evolved a still imperfectly glimpsed, ad hoc administrative structure staffed by royal clan members and close subordinates of the king, who were entrusted with particular tasks for specific times that proved capable of dealing with such focal issues as accepting tribute, opening up lands, organizing the hunt, and directing military campaigns.

The Shang reputedly moved their capital five times after conquering the Hsia. Aided by radiocarbon and other dating techniques, scholars have assiduously sought to identify archaeologically excavated sites with the Shang capitals discussed in such late written materials as the Bamboo Annals and Shih Chi, coincidentally attesting to the antiquity and continuity of Chinese civilization. After numerous articles and hundreds of pages of detailed and often highly prejudiced argumentation, a probable sequence can perhaps be hazarded for the various capitals that shows the evolving geostrategic situation as the Shang expanded and contracted, flourished and declined.

The earliest bastion was Yen-shih, just six kilometers from Erh-li-t’ou, the final capital the sprawling ritual and administrative complex at Anyang, with the most important intermediate site being Cheng-chou. These massive, expensive, and no doubt organizationally difficult shifts were probably undertaken to impose stronger political control or escape military pressure, but may also have stemmed from material causes, including the diminishing productivity of nearby fields, depletion of conveniently located copper veins, or religious reasons.5 However, the Shang maintained its identity throughout the period and interacted with the proto-states and tribal peoples about it in a variety of ways as the dynasty continued to evolve, subjugating some, forming alliances with others, and treating the rest indifferently or antagonistically.

Throughout the Shang’s existence the king was a powerful, essentially theocratic chief whose personal charisma and authority underlay and sustained the ruling structure.6 He apparently devoted great effort to performing divination and conducting sacrificial rituals to the ancestors and Ti, a still imperfectly understood deity on high, accounting for the tremendous number of ritual bronzes employed in court and religious life and the astonishing number of human victims—prisoners of war as well as subordinate groups—slain in their performance.7 In fact, contrary to the idealized depictions concocted by later Confucian literati emphasizing that the Shang cultivated Virtue and implemented humanitarian policies among the populace, whatever their quasi-religious justifications, the royal elite were extremely brutal in asserting and maintaining power. Their sites are littered with the tortured, often decapitated bodies of victims, sometimes singly, others in large groups, apparently intended to guarantee the auspiciousness of a building, solidity of a wall, performance of some rite, or protection of a tomb. Martial aspects often dominated in the latter, with at least some of the figures being expected to eternally stand guard even though family members, retainers, servants, and other unfortunates also accompanied the deceased in the afterlife.8


The Shang has traditionally been depicted as compelled to vanquish the Hsia because the last ruler’s perversity adversely impacted the people, the only acceptable justification for overthrowing an acknowledged ruler. In contrast to the peaceful transitions exemplified by Yao yielding to Shun and Shun to Yü, the succession was achieved through military conquest. However, apart from any questions about material culture, two imponderables persist: How could an unknown clan or tribal group develop the military prowess and organizational structure necessary to gain victory over a presumably well-entrenched entity, however circumscribed its power, and what were the military dimensions of the process? Two focal issues in turn significantly impact any understanding of the conquest: the location of the Shang administrative center when they commenced whittling away the Hsia’s domain and the degree to which the eight early capitals might have provided residual support after having been abandoned.

Despite a myriad of vestiges in literary and archaeological records, perhaps because of a dearth of reliable material and the sometimes prevalent perception that they are of little consequence, the Shang’s incipient beginnings remain obscure and its early history nebulous. Moreover, in comparison with the Chou conquest of the Shang, an event that spawned centuries of intense speculation and continues to stimulate academic debate, the Hsia’s overthrow has aroused but minor interest despite important questions having been raised about the Shang’s origins; their relationship with the Hsia, Yi, and Chou cultures; the evolution of their metalworking techniques; and the administrative structure and methods that permitted them to dominate a considerable area.9

In the absence of adequate archaeological materials, the main events in the Shang’s ascension have long been gleaned from historical writings of varying antiquity, ranging from the Shang Shu (Shang Documents) and Shih Ching (Classic of Odes) through the Yi Chou-shu (Lost Chou Documents).10 Extrapolated, they yield a sequence of indeterminate reliability that has historically been accepted in China and therefore retains inestimable value for understanding Chinese self-perception as well as subsequent military thought. Moreover, despite contemporary skepticism and a thoroughgoing emphasis on archaeological materials, creative analysts continue to derive imaginative theories of origin solely from these traditional written materials and by demythologizing various ancestral legends.11

The Shih Chi’s “Yin Pen-chi” (“Basic Annals of Yin”), which was unquestionably accepted as providing a true account of the dynasty for nearly two millennia, indicates that the clan’s progenitor Ch’i assisted Yü in successfully taming the unruly rivers. For his efforts Emperor Shun appointed him Minister of Works and enfeoffed him at Shang, from where the clan presumably derived its name. The final shift of the ritual and administrative center to Anyang where Yin-hsü—the “wastes” or remnants of Yin—is located gave rise to the Shang being referred to as “Yin” from the Chou onward. However, as attested by oracle bones and contemporary inscriptions, members of the Shang never referred to themselves by this name.12

Speculation about the Shang’s namesake has long centered on a location in northern Henan near the Shandong border now known as Shang-ch’iu, the “mound” or “hillock” of Shang.13 As confirmation, however dubious, it is often noted that this area was once the site of the ancient state of Sung, where the vanquished Shang populace were allowed to maintain a vestigial state.14 Although the reverse—that Shangch’iu may have derived its name from the proto-Shang people having moved there—seems equally possible, it also claimed that they retained Shang-ch’iu as their capital even after King T’ang’s conquest, wherever their administrative and military centers were. However, apart from being nebulous and unsubstantiated, given Yen-shih and Cheng-chou’s siting, advanced development, and opulence, it seems extremely unlikely that it would have somehow retained a role as either the functional or ritual capital during the state’s initial period of fluorescence.

It is variously theorized that the Shang, as manifest as the Erh-li-kang phase, developed out of Henan or Shandong Lungshan culture through various intermediates; originated among the Eastern Yi or Northern Jung; arose in the west or even south; or evolved out of the same cultural background as the Hsia, just as claims that they were descended from Yao basically assert.15 However, the most frequently espoused view asserts that the Shang were primarily an eastern people whose name derived from an early location, whether simply a place-name or some sort of recognized fief.16Formulated by Wang Kuo-wei, Tung Tso-pin, Kuo Mo-jo, and other giants of ancient studies in the past century on the basis of traditional literary sources, this widely accepted theory still lacks archaeological substantiation. Moreover, none may be forthcoming, because any artifacts remaining from the most commonly proposed site, Shang-ch’iu in eastern Henan, are buried under twenty feet of Yellow River silt and thus essentially irrecoverable despite ongoing efforts.17

According to variants of this theory, whether through the dramatic shifts of the capital summarized in the literary records or simply through gradual emigration, the early Shang embarked on a sort of northwestern progression from an initial site in Shandong into middle Hebei, proceeded as far as Yi-shui, then moved to the western part of Hebei and finally back to the western part of Shandong.18 Their final assault on the Hsia would therefore have originated in the east just as literary accounts that refer to them attacking a capital in the west demand, but required King T’ang to first send troops around to the south and ultimately strike from the west in order to actualize Chieh’s prophetic dream.

In contrast, theories of northern origin stress that several of the numerous groups that emerged over the ages among the peoples identified with the north and the northern complex developed sufficient power to aggressively challenge sedentary China’s rulers.19 Whether the Shang are seen as originating in the Po-hai area, around Yu-yen, or in Tungpei, possibly out of Hungshan or Lungshan cultures, this thesis ultimately assumes a downward movement along the eastern side of the T’ai-hang Mountains to the site from which they mounted their final assault. If accurate, it is an explanation that entails considerable impact because the environmental stimuli and their allies in Hebei, a strategically advantageous area, would have differed considerably. Moreover, in envisioning the Shang’s final preconquest capital being in the east, the northern origin theory can equally accommodate any reconstructed conquest sequence that entails first neutralizing the smaller coalition states arrayed in an arc running from east to south.

The third view revitalizes an ancient theory by asserting that the Shang arose in the west, one expression even claiming that T’ang’s final, prestrike capital of Po is the recently discovered fortress at Yüan-ch’ü in Shanxi.20 Although intriguing, this theory suffers from two glaring defects: the radiocarbon dates do not cohere with the probable conquest period, and several of the minor states that were systematically conquered prior to assaulting the Hsia itself would have to be relocated in a western-to-southern arc around the Hsia capital. However, this deficiency is rectified if, as proposed, the Shang emigrated eastward into the Shandong area before ultimately descending along the eastern side of the T’ai-hang Mountains.

A variant of the theory that assumes the proto-Shang peoples primarily populated a natural corridor delimited by the T’ai-hang’s foothills to the west and the old course of the Yellow River to the east, both of which would have constituted significant impediments for aggressors, suggests that global cooling precipitated their movement southward.21 Originally a comparatively wet area populated by numerous ponds, lakes, marshes, and streams that had formed over the previous two millennia, the terrain in this 120-kilometer-wide swath apparently suffered considerable drying, loss of small wildlife, and changes in forest composition commencing about 2000 BCE after the temperature had dropped about 3 degrees C and rainfall amounts had substantially declined over the previous 500 years.22

Areas farther to the north were more drastically affected, the reduction in rainfall making agriculture infeasible outside of the line along which the Great Wall would eventually be constructed. Confronted by gradually deteriorating conditions, migrating to more viable terrain must have been an obvious option. Even though the Shang were thus motivated by enhanced prospects for survival rather than any grandiose design for conquest, frequent clashes with well-entrenched indigenous groups must have been inescapable. Ironically, postconquest, a slight warming trend prevailed virtually throughout the Shang era.

Although eastern China was an area much in flux as clans with various cultural affiliations expanded, contracted, intermixed, and moved about, and the eastern thesis currently predominates, the issue not only remains unresolved but is essentially bereft of the requisite evidence for realistic assessment. The military implications of the Shang’s origin therefore continue to be unframed and unexplained, as does whether these reputed capital movements were simply seminomadic shifts of focal locale; expressions of a will to power; compelled by environmental degradation or internal strife; or undertaken to expand their basic domain, consolidate control, and project power. Numerous articles have attributed them to every possible cause, including a strategic determination to move the population center away from looming threats and, contradictorily, deliberately positioning the capital closer to contiguous enemies to blunt and contain them. If the Shang were stimulated by population pressures, each displacement may have cumulatively expanded their territory, the excess populace allowing them to extend their control over additional, rather than alternative, areas.

Some historians have argued that all the predynastic shifts were made en masse, no residual forces being left behind, but others assert that a significant portion of the population remained to retain control over the area, implying that it continued to be secured. However, archaeological evidence indicates that several of the later capitals were actually abandoned despite being in threat-free areas. Moreover, despite numerous archaeological reports and extensive speculation on Erh-li-t’ou, Yen-shih, Cheng-chou, Huan-pei, Hsiao-shuang-ch’iao, and Anyang, the rationale for the commonly recognized postconquest movements of the combined administrative and ritual capital also remains equally unknown, together with which locations correspond to the traditionally enumerated names.

Due to lacking the clarity of the Kanmu Emperor’s movement of the capital from Nara to Kyoto to avoid Buddhist monastic power in 794 CE or Peter the Great’s decision to construct a new political and cultural center in the marshes of St. Petersburg, in the context of the Shang’s rising power these shifts probably reflect a transition from loosely organized settlements to cohesive states. Accordingly, even though primarily intended to reorient or increase the Shang’s domain of influence, they must have also played a role in elevating the leader’s status and solidifying the power of the ruling clan.

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