APPROXIMATELY HALF OF the inscriptions recovered from Anyang date to King Wu Ting’s era, traditionally ascribed to 1324 to 1265 BCE or some fifty-nine years, but now basically consigned to 1251 to 1192 or the more likely 1239 to 1181, though some would limit it to just 1198 to 1181 BCE.1 In contrast with the vibrancy and variety of the queries undertaken during his extraordinarily energetic rulership, the divinatory materials identified with later reigns rapidly become more routine and circumscribed. Moreover, his years were punctuated by extensive martial efforts as he personally took the field and frequently summoned others to act as commanders of their own troops, sometimes even royal clan troops, either in coalition actions or separately, but those recorded for subsequent eras are relatively sparse. A comparatively detailed examination of Shang military activities during his rule thus proves more illuminating than extensive speculation about the nature of the relatively few military events discernible in the latter part of the dynasty.

Prior to his assumption of power, a series of reputedly weak and debauched rulers had allowed the Shang to be ignored, even insulted, by supposedly submissive proto-states that not only failed to display the proper ritual respect but also neglected to submit their tribute payments. Contrary to claims that the south had remained untroubled, nearby peoples mounted raids and made incursions from every quarter, seizing goods and people. Former Hsia clans who had been compelled to acknowledge Shang rule centuries earlier certainly numbered among those defying royal authority. Equally troubling, marauders repeatedly plundered many of the contiguous proto-states that still acknowledged Shang authority.

Reacting to this erosion of prestige, the charismatic Wu Ting strove to reimpose royal control over nearby clan groups, tribes, proto-states, and remnant Hsia entities and revive the Shang’s awesomeness throughout the realm.2 Intermittent but intense efforts were made to respond to a range of affronts, some more blatant and damaging than others, and reestablish Shang dominance over the landscape, even though many forward outposts had long been abandoned. Contiguous rulers were coerced into appropriately submissive behavior through a combination of theocratically based political measures augmented by occasional displays of imperial force intended to psychologically subdue the recalcitrant. However, the truly belligerent ensconced in more distant realms became the target of military forays as Wu Ting launched expeditionary campaigns against dozens of states, turning from one theater of operations to another as he vanquished both the powerful and the merely troublesome.

Extensive study of the so-called oracle bones pertaining to King Wu Ting’s reign with a view to classifying and dating their contents on the basis of sequenced events, relative date notations, names of ministers and commanders, and the mutual exclusiveness of diviners has suggested a three-part periodization as being the most fruitful.3 This segmentation no doubt artificially obscures the consistent character of Shang warfare to some degree, and its validity depends on whether the king’s reign was fifty-nine years, twenty-nine years, or just twenty years, from 1200 to 1181 BCE. (A shorter reign bespeaks a continuum with gradations, whereas a longer one is more amenable to distinct trends.) Nevertheless, even if merely a convenient means for grouping conflicts and responses, this periodization remains useful for discussion purposes.

Shang military activity in Wu Ting’s era may also be deduced from the presence of readily identified artifacts and burial characteristics, particularly in Hubei and portions of Hunan during his later years, where Shang vessels and implements are found intermingled with clearly defined indigenous products.4 Weapons, graves, and newly established, semipermanent strongpoints also provide evidence that Wu Ting’s extroverted reign frequently deployed troops to Shanxi and northern Shaanxi. For example, a walled town at Ch’ing-chien Li-chia-yai in Shaanxi where both late Shang- and northern-style weapons have been recovered deftly exploited the terrain’s features. Apart from being bounded by water on the south, west, and north, it also derived virtually insurmountable defensive advantages from hundred-meter cliffs bordering it on the north and south. To the east a defensive wall augmented these natural obstacles, completing the encirclement.


As might be expected, apart from one or two distant thrusts, Shang consolidation efforts during the initial period of resurgence generally proceeded from the nearby to the distant. Inscriptions recovered to date indicate that King Wu Ting contemplated attacking thirty or more enemies during this first period, though not all these campaigns were necessarily initiated. Prominent enemies from the outset included the Chih, Lung, T’u,5 Ching, Li, Yin, Hsüan, Ch’ien, Chih, Ch’üeh, Kuei, T’ung, Hsien, Yüeh, Wang, Ch’iang, Kung, Hu, Kung, and at least twenty others. Military activity consisted primarily of short expeditions mounted to quell clearly defined threats and reassert authority over the recalcitrant. In most cases a single army, either royal forces led by the ruler himself or, more commonly, a commander supervising his own locally raised troops, went forth and successfully vanquished the enemy.

Generally these frequent but limited expeditions were not repeated, suggesting that most enemies were easily quashed or found early surrender enticing because the vanquished, in becoming prisoners of war, might be enslaved or sacrificed. However, in a few cases forces had to be levied again or otherwise dispatched, extending the campaign a month or two. Occasionally two armies were simultaneously mobilized, sometimes in conjunction with royal contingents, but directed against different objectives rather than operating as a single coalition army targeting the original enemy. However, not all the Shang’s enemies succumbed so easily. Despite significant victories that occasionally elicited pledges of fealty, tribal peoples such as the Ch’iang were simply too powerful, remote, and mobile to suppress. For others such as the Hsüan and T’u-fang lengthy campaigns of six months or more and the participation of several generals in coalition-type forces would be required before they were conquered or compelled to disperse, often not until late in Wu Ting’s reign.

Many of the conquered states were simply reintegrated into the Shang world of relationships, often becoming the site for Shang hunts or areas where the Shang developed agricultural fields6 or built fortified towns to settle the people and stimulate economic expansion. Others such as Ch’üeh, Chih, and Yüeh evolved into loyal tributary states that furnished troops and commanders for future campaigns against other rebellious enclaves, causing them to become the subject of prognosticatory inquiry about their status and harvest. States that quickly capitulated, whether forcefully or not, were sometimes entangled through marriage alliances, and many of Wu Ting’s consorts, including Fu Ching who came from the Ching, originated among them.

The prompt conversion of several early enemies into highly subservient (albeit perhaps unwilling) allies who could be employed to enforce Shang mandates significantly explains the Shang’s ability to aggressively reestablish its authority and sustain field efforts against multiple enemies with little adverse effect. Even though Shang core forces sometimes participated in conjoined actions with these newly created allies, the Shang generally managed to avoid incurring casualties, exhausting their warriors, or depleting their treasury because the satellites furnished their own troops and provisions. As the portion of the world forced to acknowledge Shang suzerainty continually increased, these submissive but potentially dangerous, nearby entities had to expend their forces and resources. No doubt they accrued some benefits other than escaping destructive Shang vengeance, whether tangible material rewards or intangible recognition and integration into the Shang hierarchy, as compensation for their debilitation. Two or three local rulers became so esteemed that they were awarded command of royal clan troops or, such as Hsüan, were appointed to serve as one of the king’s diviners.

The Chien-fang and the Chung were numbered among the persistent troublemakers in Wu Ting’s early era. The former were defeated only through the concerted efforts of commanders from Yüeh and at least one other state, while the latter, located southwest of the Shang, were formidable enough for the king to personally lead 5,000 troops against them. Four other rebellious states that had to be vanquished or at least threatened with military force were Ch’üeh, Chih, Yüeh, and Wang. Reputedly located in Yü-hsi,7 the Ch’üeh (also termed the Ch’iao) seem to have been the first to suffer Shang chastisement and quickly acknowledged Shang authority before their ruler became King Wu Ting’s most active and successful first period commander.

Among Ch’üeh’s first missions on behalf of the Shang was subjugating the proto-state of Chih, said to have been located in the Ling-shou area in the upper northwest corner of modern Henan.8 Oracular inscriptions show that Ch’üeh and another commander named Fu were dispatched and that some three months were required.9 Although the extent and ferocity of their conflict are unknown, Chih not only submitted but also subsequently became closely integrated into the Shang hierarchy of subservient states and sent in tribute. Chih’s rulers also furnished two prominent commanders who were frequently called upon to direct punitive expeditions against the Shang’s most powerful enemies in the middle and late periods, Chih Kuo and Chih Chia.

Two other groups targeted by Ch’üeh’s campaigns in the early period, Yüeh and Wang, were reputedly located in the southeast rather than the west or northwest, the most frequent source of Shang aggressors. Situated on the upper reaches of the Huai River, Yüeh was attacked by Ch’üeh as part of an effort against them and the nearby state of Wang in the northwest corner of Anhui.10 Both were eventually defeated—inscriptions query whether Yüeh wouldn’t be seriously damaged in a coming attack11—then integrated into the Shang realm of obedient, contiguous states. The state of Wang would subsequently be noted for Wang Ch’eng, a highly effective commander in Wu Ting’s middle period whose longevity was exceeded only by Yüeh, who served throughout the remainder of the king’s reign.


In contrast to the violence reported on the northern, eastern, and western perimeters, it has long been held that the Shang had been largely untroubled by the proto-states located to the south prior to Wu Ting’s reign. However, although written materials may be lacking and forceful attacks may have been avoided, artifacts provide decisive evidence that the Shang suffered a major contraction in the south immediately following the period of fluorescence at Cheng-chou, with P’an-lung-ch’eng and Wu-ch’eng returning to local control. Given the crucial mineral resources located in the south and the Shang’s escalating appetite for luxury and ritual items fabricated from bronze, it is unlikely to have been an entirely voluntary retrenchment despite Shang resources being allocated to other priorities, including relocating the capital. As the economy expanded and the army mounted increasingly ambitious forays under King Wu Ting’s aegis, attention was naturally turned to the vital south, an area that was routinely included in queries about prospects for the harvest and productivity in the four quarters. 12

“Yin Wu” (“Martial Yin”), a Western Chou ode included in the Shih Ching, waxes rhapsodic upon a southern expedition attributed to Wu Ting’s era that probably unfolded near the end of the first period:

Explosive the Yin’s martial power,

Fervently attacking the Ching and Ch’u.

Deeply penetrating their narrows,

Rolling up the regiments of Ching,

Imposing order on their territory,

Continuing T’ang’s heritage.

Several oracular inscriptions confirm that Wu Ting initiated an extensive southern campaign that required more than six months, was multipronged, co-opted the assistance of subordinate states, and proceeded through three routes of approach, including the now famous state of Tseng in the border region.13 Nevertheless, rather than responding to actual incursions, the king seems to have been troubled by the threat potentially posed by proto-states in the “southern lands” (nan t’u) and their efforts to form alliances.14 Ostensibly intended to reassert Shang authority over recalcitrant states and subjugate active enemies, the expedition almost certainly sought to regain direct access to crucial mineral resources in the middle and lower Yangtze and perhaps even marginally penetrate the upper Yangtze.

Several clan forces were mobilized and armies from the minor states of Tseng and Chü (located in Hubei, en route) enlisted for the effort. Subordinate command was entrusted to two increasingly experienced leaders, Ch’üeh and Kung, but the king himself personally exercised overall authority from a forward position, reflecting the campaign’s importance. 15 Whether because of the difficulty of the terrain or to minimize awareness of their approach, the forces were divided into three contingents. The king and royal clan forces are identified as being located on the right in accord with Shang esteem for the right, while the contingents from Chü and Tseng were assigned to accompany Shang components in the middle and left, respectively.16

The campaign’s initial target was the proto-state of Yü, located somewhere in the Chü river valley in Hubei in what subsequently became Ch’u territory. Although largely unmentioned in traditional sources, Yü’s forces must have constituted a formidable enemy because the king’s prognosticatory inquiries evince real concern over their ability to inflict serious harm upon Shang forces and imply little reticence on their part to mount aggressive attacks.17 Nevertheless, Wu Ting subsequently sacrificed some one hundred Yi in a single ceremony, which suggests far more prisoners were taken. Apparently conquered in just two months, the Yü simply disappeared thereafter.

Attacks were subsequently launched against two other proto-states located in ancient Ch’u territory, Kuei18 and T’ung (also transcribed as Yung). The first thrust, directed against Kuei, was initiated in the eighth month and the second, targeting T’ung, in the tenth. The king regarded the conflict with the Kuei seriously enough to offer sacrifice for victory, and his prayers seem to have been answered because the Shang were once again able to redirect their efforts in just two months.19 However, the T’ung were not so easily subdued, and Shang expeditionary efforts continued into the second month of the following year, when a powerful strike under the king’s personal direction was planned that probably achieved victory, because the inscriptions begin speaking about “pummeling” them and Shang attention was soon turned to the Hu-fang.20

Although the T’ung required just four months to subdue, in contrast to many first period conflicts that saw one or another allied commander simply deployed, the overall southern effort exceeded a half year and entailed a major commitment of energy and forces, as well as the king’s personal participation. Throughout Chinese history the south’s numerous rivers, lakes, and marshes; dense entangling vegetation; and virtually impenetrable mountain ranges would always challenge and could easily immobilize armies experienced only in plains warfare. Moreover, as nomadic invaders from the cold, arid steppe would discover during the Sung, the heat, humidity, and rampant diseases always present but even more intensely in the summer and in semitropical areas rapidly debilitated men and horses unaccustomed to such conditions. As well attested by one of their seasoned commanders succumbing to these miasmic conditions, Shang troops must have experienced significant misery during the campaign.21

The warriors inhabiting these and other peripheral southern states were not just aggressive fighters who skillfully exploited the many features of their often inhospitable terrain, but also excelled in archery. (Members of the Yü/Yi were integrated into Shang campaign units after being vanquished because of their archery skills.)22 Conversely, the heat and humidity pervading the south could rapidly render bows fabricated from northern materials essentially useless and often compelled armies to discard their missile weapons and rely on close combat. Nevertheless, the Shang managed to so severely vanquish their opponents that they never reappear in Shang consciousness.

Another southern state, the Tiger Quarter (Hu-fang), was probably centered somewhere between Tung-t’ing and P’o-yang lakes, though their culture, particularly as manifest in ritual bronze vessels with stylized tiger motifs, extended over a wider area, encompassing the well-known sites of Wu-ch’eng and Hsin-kan.23 Situated in an area anciently noted for its numerous copper mines, the Hu early on developed a largely indigenous metal tradition marked by localized designs, unique weapon types such as a hooked chi and highly lethal arrowhead, and a far lower alloy content than that of the Shang. Even after the Shang method of employing ceramic molds for ritual pieces was adopted, the Hu-fang continued to use stone molds for utensils and weapons. Following the post Cheng-chou retrenchment, Shang decorative motifs were increasingly modified.

Because they were ethnically and culturally distinct, advanced enough to have their own basic writing system (composed from symbols apparently inherited from both the Hsia and Shang), and situated in an area of crucial mineral resources, the Hu were undoubtedly seen as a threat. However, the extent and course of their conflict remain unknown because only one set of inscriptions actually speaks about attacking them. An entry for an eleventh month states that the king will order Wang Ch’eng and (the ruler of) Chü, a peripheral state in northeast Hubei on the river Chü who previously participated in the more massive southern campaign mounted under Wu Ting’s personal direction, to strike them,24 but three others record the king as reporting to the ancestors (no doubt in a quest for their blessing) his deputation of Chü alone.25 Whether Wang was victorious and the Hu submitted or the Shang beaten off and deterred from further action, as suggested, is uncertain.26

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