MILITARY POWER DERIVES FROM NUMEROUS FACTORS, including administrative organization, the ruler’s talent and charisma, the polity’s material prosperity, the culture’s martial spirit, and any propensity to control others and resolve disquieting situations with violence. Whether the monarch can act despotically in initiating aggressive activities, must gain the support of key clan members, persuade an extended circle of influential citizens, or even cajole the general populace into participating strongly influences a state’s military character and its bellicose tendencies.

Although the early Shang kings probably monopolized power through the usual methods of successful chieftains, by Wu Ting’s era the lines of succession seem to have been reasonably well established and hereditary authority fundamentally institutionalized despite the turbulence marking the middle period. Personal charisma, physical prowess, and martial skills no doubt remained vital to dissuading challengers and thwarting assassination. However, in the interstice between regicide and absolute obedience, major actions probably still required the acquiescence of clan members, as well as the immediate obedience of subjects and subordinates. Shang rulers ensured that these were forthcoming by monopolizing theocratic power and wielding authority over life and death.1

The right to communicate with the ancestors or spirits on high, entities who were believed capable of affecting every aspect of life ranging from personal illness through weather, plague, drought, and military incursions, was reserved to the king. (A few high-ranking clan members, including Fu Hao, the king’s consort, sometimes also conducted divinatory inquiries, but the privilege was clearly derivative.) Even though divination became more perfunctory in later periods, insofar as the Shang populace acknowledged the preeminence of his transcendent authority, the king was empowered and his actions sanctified, none daring to violate the supreme will of the spirits.

Shang kings arbitrarily decided the fate of individuals and groups, selecting people ranging from relatives to prisoners for sacrifice and ordering punishments that they sometimes directed, including castration and decapitation. They could compel clan members and subordinates to undertake projects such as land reclamation, external missions, and military affairs, and their power even extended to the submissive proto-states. Authority over external areas was maintained through a variety of means, including gifts, acknowledgments, emissaries, reports, inquiries, and military support for the endangered. Every successful activity, particularly military expeditions because they entailed the imposition of command and control measures, reinforced the king’s power.

Insofar as the Shang conquered the Hsia and then claimed dominion over the nearby realm primarily through alliance building and intimidation rather than the dispersion of clan members who established incipient states, unremitting political and military efforts were necessary to preserve and enhance its position. Marriage relations, primarily achieved by the king taking a female member of an important clan as one of his consorts, were among the means systematically employed to strengthen ties with contiguous states. (King Wu Ting was especially prolific in this regard, at least fifty-two of his consorts being known from the oracular inscriptions, whereas only twenty-two can be ascribed to Kings Wu Yi and Wen Wu Ting in the fourth period.)2 In addition to suffering a high degree of psychological intimidation, states were thereby entangled in marriage alliances and expected to furnish troops and logistical support upon demand.

The king undertook numerous peregrinations to assert his power and continuously interact with the disparate entities and peoples within the Shang’s perceived realm. His rambles were undoubtedly multipurpose; armed forces always accompanied him, whether to engage in hunting or simply to provide protection and companionship. No doubt a primary objective was manifesting the Shang’s “awesomeness,” an objective that was accomplished through military display and the conspicuous show of ritual bronzes and other trappings of prestige, wealth, and power. Through ostentation the susceptible were psychologically subjugated, the hierarchical order consolidated, and the Shang’s destructive potential impressed upon the world.3 In fact, the term “te fang” seen in the oracle bones—literally meaning “virtue/quarter”—apparently entails the idea of conducting an imperial procession or tour of inspection intended to put the fang (external states) in order.4 Gathering military intelligence and providing an opportunity for the king to assess subordinate states and semi-independent rulers in person were almost certainly collateral objectives.5

As attested by numerous divinations inquiring about the auspiciousness of going forth to hunt in various areas, hunting was certainly a major preoccupation, so common that it was denounced by the Chou when it charged the Shang with perversity.6 More than two hundred place-names can be identified, many mentioned only once, though others recur dozens of times and are also listed as areas for pasturage.7 Conducted on a large scale by the equivalent of a regiment on maneuver over extended periods of up to thirty or forty days, hunting similarly had multiple functions. Personal enjoyment and the training of core military forces were certainly foremost, but secondary objectives probably included evaluating capabilities and performance, especially archery, which was the main form of attack apart from nets and pits;8 imbuing authority and accustoming men to a chain of command; developing coordination and cohesiveness; becoming familiar with the terrain prior to seizing territory;9 and eliminating dangerous animals. The hunt’s essential military nature is perhaps made most evident by instances of the king diverting the limited forces already in the field to attack a foreign proto-state.10

Hunting still constituted a viable method for rapidly acquiring significant amounts of protein because the population density was low and large forested and marshy tracts remained.11 The large numbers of animals slain and captured furnished an essential part of the requirements for the Shang’s frequent sacrifices and extensive feasting, even though domesticated herds had been developed. The victims included tigers, some sort of wild ox, at least two species of deer, and wild boar. For example, one report lists 1 tiger, 40 and 159 respectively of two different types of deer, and 164 pigs;12another 11 wild oxen and 15 boar;13 and a third 6 wild oxen, 16 boar, and 199 deer.14 Based on the numerous inscriptions from Wu Ting’s reign, it appears that rather than observing the sort of seasonal proscriptions described in late Warring States writings, hunting was conducted throughout the year.

The ruling elite confronted both internal and external challenges as the Shang evolved from a chiefdom into a state amid a generally hostile environment. More warriors than administrators, contrary to traditional depictions the Shang well understood the importance of battlefield achievement, valued physical prowess, and enthusiastically embraced military talent. Their strong martial orientation is reflected in elaborately decorated bronze and highly polished jade weapons, stylized metallic human and animal face masks, and other symbols of authority and achievement, including great axes.15 The weapons and massive bronze vessels found in Fu Hao’s tomb and those of other important military commanders throughout the Yin-hsü years show that they were not just employed by the living, but also interred with the dead to honor martial prowess and authority, a practice that continued to the end of the dynasty.16

The ruling clan also monopolized the acquisition and exploitation of the mineral resources necessary to fabricate metal weapons and the bronze vessels and other valuable objects that were employed to reward the faithful. Massive cauldrons adorned with intricate designs of religious significance, cast in alloys gleaming with a burnished golden color, contributed to an impression of overawing opulence. Weapons, whether of stone or metal, were apparently produced solely in government workshops and even handicrafts remained under central control, ensuring that only the compliant would have access to these products.

The Shang’s ascension was marked by even more extensive and aggressive martial efforts than the Hsia in the area of resource acquisition. The sudden expansion seen at P’an-lung-ch’eng reflects the generally increased output evident at the extensive copper deposits found in this general area, particularly Jiangxi Tuan-ch’ang T’ung-ling-kuang and Hubei Ta-yeh T’ung-lu-shan-k’uang.17 Further evidence of this quest is visible in the numerous small Shang enclaves that appeared near limited but rich deposits of copper and lead in western Henan on the upper reaches of the Luo River. Eighteen Erh-li-kang (Shang) settlements that suddenly replaced three Erh-li-t’ou sites could, although averaging only 40,000 square meters each, easily ship locally smelted metals via the region’s numerous waterways to Yen-shih.18 When Shang power contracted in the west, widespread but highly concentrated ore deposits in the southeast came to replace western sites.


Historians analyzing the Shang generally claim that the rudimentary staff positions then appearing were never differentiated into civil and martial and that all military functions were performed on an ad hoc basis by civil administrators.19 These assertions, written from a perspective prejudiced toward the “enlightened” nature of later ages when the civil reputedly dominated, inherently assume that the first positions to evolve were civil (and therefore more progressive) rather than martial.20 It is then disparagingly concluded that Shang civil officials were compelled to reluctantly accept military burdens. However, not only did specialized military positions clearly exist in the Shang, but it was an era pervaded by concerns with domination and defense, more conducive to a purely military hierarchy than any gestation of civil functionaries.

The Shang was a warrior elite culture that required participants to embrace a vigorous lifestyle and the martial values of a large, evolving, but still clan-based chiefdom. Inscriptions on bronze vessels such as the Hsiao-ch’en Yü Ts’un show that the king granted generous rewards, including substantial plots of land, for military merit, and also rescinded “fiefs” for failure.21 Rather than the sort of glittering cultural manifestation subsequently portrayed, it was a brutal, bloodthirsty age of frequent, aggressive warfare in which people were slain, enslaved, and sacrificed without compunction. Furthermore, contrary to later depictions of a purely moral effort marked by an overriding civilian orientation, of virtue and civility having been interrupted by the unruly and baleful face of war, the Shang dynasty was founded through decades of combat and a brief period of sudden conquest. The Shang didn’t just displace the “one man,” their ostensible target, through a simple punitive attack, but systematically extirpated the Hsia throughout the realm.

Heritage has immense impact in shaping values and determining mindset. Martial spirit, once unleashed, doesn’t necessarily diminish, accounting for the Ssu-ma Fa’s emphasis on performing ceremonies designed to reintegrate combat weary soldiers into civilian life.22 The exhilaration of victory and admiration of military prowess clearly pervaded the Shang’s early years, deeply influencing the establishment and monopolization of positions of power. (It should not be forgotten that even the last, reputedly debauched emperor, Hsin, had a reputation for great strength and martial ability.) Survival ranked paramount, and “civil” functions, although necessary to ensure the state’s fiscal and material prosperity, were certainly derivative. Many individuals within this highly charged martial context no doubt deemed administrative tasks a distraction and an annoyance.

The absence of pre-Anyang writings makes it impossible to characterize the exact nature of early Shang rulership, but the dynamics seem to indicate a gradual transition from chieftain to monarch subsequent to the Hsia’s defeat. Despite internal problems and intrigue, Shang rulers acquired the despotic powers already described and served as the final arbiters of military affairs. Anyang oracular inscriptions already show the king performing all the duties generally apportioned between twenty-first-century commanders-in-chief and ministers of defense, as well as frequently serving as battlefield commanders.

Regents from Wu Ting onward decided whether military actions should be undertaken, which enemies should be struck, the campaign’s objectives, the number of men to be levied or deputed, the allies to be summoned, the commanders to be appointed, the manner or tactics of attack, resolution of the conflict, treatment of the vanquished, and the disposition of their land. Allies might also be ordered to undertake offensive or defensive actions alone, in coalition with others, or in conjunction with the Shang itself. Combat appointments were solely at the monarch’s discretion, all field authority being derivative.

With a few exceptions such as Fu Hao, the king initiated divination procedures to inquire about the appropriateness of these military actions and seek the sanction of the ancestors. Whether Shang warriors were as reluctant as the early Greeks to undertake military action without auspicious indications remains unknown, but in the context of Shang religious and ritual emphasis it seems likely.23 Prognostication being a powerful psychological tool, the king’s queries were probably intended to coerce or persuade others as much as to appeal to the spirits and perhaps reduce the responsibilities of decision making.

Although the king could have always led in person, in about half the recorded conflicts he opted to appoint others to command coalition forces and their segmented contingents. Royal clan members, important members of other esteemed clans,24 and close officials such as the tuo ch’en (“chief subordinate”) were often entrusted with this responsibility, with those who proved successful being repeatedly employed. Despite shouldering other responsibilities such as overseeing hunts and directing economic projects such as land reclamation, many evolved into de facto military specialists who could plan, organize, and lead campaigns. Rulers of allied and subservient states were also dispatched on expeditionary missions, normally at the head of their own military forces, with the successful tending to be reappointed if precampaign prognostications boded well.

As early as Wu Ting’s era the army (shih) was already an identifiable operational force. Although the title chiang, usually translated as “general” in accord with Western convention, does not appear in the Shang, the character shih is used in naming certain commanders. (The usual format is shihplus clan name such as Pan, so essentially “General Pan.”) In addition, shih chang or “leader of the shih,” which is mentioned in the Shang Shu but not the oracular inscriptions, may have been a functional title, particularly late in the dynasty in accord with the army’s increasing prominence and formalized organization.25

Shang oracle writings indicate formalized ritual procedures were observed whenever the king appointed someone to direct a campaign.26 Although dating a thousand years later, something like the ceremony described by the T’ai Kung in advising King Wu how to properly empower his field commander and transfer the necessary authority apparently occurred in the ancestral temple:27

When the state encounters danger, the ruler should vacate the Main Hall, summon the general, and charge him as follows. “The security or endangerment of the Altars of State all lies with the army’s commanding general. At present a certain state is not acting properly submissive. I would like you to lead the army forth in response.”

After the general has received his mandate, command the Grand Scribe to bore the sacred tortoise shell to divine an auspicious day. Thereafter, to prepare for the chosen day, observe a vegetarian regime for three days, and then go to the ancestral temple to hand over the fu and yüeh axes.

After you have entered the gate to the temple, stand facing west. The general enters the temple gate and stands facing north. You personally take the yüeh axe and holding it by the head, pass the handle to the general, saying “From this to Heaven above will be controlled by the General of the Army.” Then taking the fu axe by the handle you should give the blade to the general, saying “From this to the depths below will be controlled by the General of the Army. When you see a vacuity in the enemy you should advance; when you see substance you should halt. Do not assume that the Three Armies are large and treat the enemy lightly. Do not commit yourself to die just because you have received a heavy responsibility. Do not regard other men as lowly because you are honored. Do not rely upon yourself alone and contravene the masses. Do not take verbal facility to be a sign of certainty. When the officers have not yet been seated do not sit. When the officers have not yet eaten do not eat. You should share heat and cold with them. If you behave in this way the officers and masses will certainly exhaust their strength in fighting to the death.”

After the general has received his mandate, he should bow and respond to the ruler: “I have heard that a country cannot follow the commands of another state’s government, while an army [in the field] cannot follow central government control. Someone of two minds cannot properly serve his ruler, someone in doubt cannot respond to the enemy. I have already received my mandate, and taken sole control of the awesome power of the fu and yüeh axes. I do not dare return alive. I would like to request that you condescend to grant complete and sole command to me. If you do not permit it, I dare not accept the post of general.” You should then grant it and the general should formally take his leave and depart.

Composed in the late Warring State period, this excerpt reflects late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States thought first expressed in the Art of War about the commander’s necessary independence in the field. Nevertheless, generals were to be commissioned before the ancestors and properly sanctioned by appropriate prognostications, and their appointments were recorded on wooden tablets, just as oracular inscriptions indicate occurred in the Shang. Even King Wen of the Chou was reputedly appointed as the Western Po (duke) with the awarding of a bow, arrows, axe, and yüeh axe, all symbolic of conferring authority.

Although many military needs were fulfilled by clan members and others who temporarily but repeatedly assumed prominent combat responsibilities, officials also staffed a number of recurring, obviously martial positions.28 The incipient administrative structure discernible even in the earliest oracular inscriptions clearly evolved over the centuries at Anyang, becoming more formalized and specialized. Apart from being consistently entrusted with functionally differentiated tasks such as reclaiming lands on a repetitive basis, members of the Shang warrior elite primarily exercised military authority.29 Without their modifiers (such as tuo for many, generally indicating a higher or supervisory position and thus meriting the appellation “chief,” and mou for “directing,” later “planning”), these officials included the ma (horse), ya (commander), fu (which means “quiver” but whose role is unknown),30 she (archer), wei (protector), ch’üan (dog), and shu. Although their exact responsibilities remain nebulous, their titles imply that they had charge of well-defined battlefield aspects ranging from animals through weapons and, in addition to logistical responsibilities, probably directed training and led units as subcommanders on the field.

The position of ya or “commander,” seen alone and as tuo-ya and ya-mou, without doubt was a purely military position with encompassing martial responsibilities and authority. It not only appears numerous times in the oracular inscriptions, but also on late Shang bronze vessels and great symbolic axes of power that have been recovered from military enclaves on the Shang periphery.31 Individuals with the title ya were deputed to border locations, where they performed defense-related functions and could appoint subordinate officials and assign command responsibilities to local nobles, evidence of their considerable authority; undertook command of field armies entrusted with attacking and damaging enemies such as the Ch’üan; and shouldered responsibility for the king’s protection.

The discovery of not just individual chariots but also multiple vehicles buried as marks of martial prestige with high-ranking nobles as well as in burial mounds solely of horses and chariots clearly proves that they existed in sufficient numbers to be of more than occasional use for prestige transport. However, they were expensive, fragile, complicated to manufacture, and probably functioned mainly as dispersed platforms for archery and exercising command over units of closely integrated infantry. There are few references in the oracle inscriptions to employing them on the battlefield, and the maximum number ever specified is only 300. (In the latter case they may have comprised discrete chariot units that could have acted as penetration or flanking forces if used en masse, or simply highly mobile archery platforms.)

Because horses provided crucial motive power, the ma or horse officer seems to have been entrusted with proportionately greater authority. (The term ma is interchangeably used to indicate the physical presence of “horses” and the warriors or officers who employed them, whether charioteers or perhaps even cavalry riders.) Highly knowledgeable and presumably experienced in equine-centered military affairs, in normal times the ma was entrusted with raising, training, and evaluating the state’s horses, including those sent in as tribute.

Tuo ma, literally “many horse” but clearly a functional equivalent of “horse commander” or “chief ma,” also appears. To the extent that chariots formed a core component of the army, the tuo ma appears to have controlled contingents of the standing army; assumed a command role on the battlefield, being deputed on campaigns to attack enemy states; been entrusted with defensive responsibilities that extended to the ruler; and also directed the hunt on occasion. Sometimes even tuo ma ya, or “supervisor or commander of the tuo ma,” is recorded in the inscriptions. However, the esteemed title ssu-ma—“supervisor of horse,” but later, in the Chou feudal hierarchy, functionally the “minister of war”—though probably equivalent to “tuo ma ya,” had not yet evolved.32

The “canine officers” (ch’üan) probably had their origin as kennel masters for the king’s dogs, but their number multiplied and their authority expanded as the role of dogs increased in protection, the hunt, and perhaps the battlefield,33 and they apparently performed intelligencegathering functions.34 The “chief canine officer” (tuo-ch’üan) also appears in the inscriptions, but most of the entries refer to the ch’üan supervising the hunt and assembling the “new” archers, commanding attacks on enemy states, and offering Ch’iang prisoners in sacrifice to the early Shang ancestor T’ai Chia, a remarkably rare privilege. The term ch’üanmou also appears in a few instances, apparently designating either a canine officer named Mou or one entrusted with planning responsibilities.

Archery was highly esteemed in the Shang, and two official titles appear, she and tuo-she.35 Just as the term ma (horse) has an extended meaning as the horse commander or official in charge of horses, the character for she has been generally interpreted as a title that clearly derives from the archer’s basic role. Apart from whatever responsibilities they must have had for archery contingents in combat, the tuo she undertook broader responsibilities for the realm’s protection, often in conjunction with the wei or protector.36 However, their role seems to have been more circumscribed than other military officials.

Unexpectedly, the position of “shih,” functionally “historian” or “astrologer” in later ages (especially with the honorific “t’ai” or “grand” preceding it as an official title), in this early form meaning “emissary,” also seems to have been responsible solely for military activities in the Shang.37Inscriptions indicate that shih were being dispatched to the various quarters, especially west and south, and to designated locations for both offensive and defensive purposes. In some cases they commanded expeditionary campaigns such as against the Kung-fang during Wu Ting’s reign; in others they were entrusted with mounting some sort of standing defense against external threats, particularly from the steppe, thereby becoming the first known border commanders.

Queries about whether a particular shih would return from a longstanding assignment on a certain day or be successful in capturing prisoners indicate their importance in the king’s consciousness. Granting of martial authority to them similarly was formalized with ceremonies that had to be held on auspicious days, no doubt much as described above. Regional designations also seem to have appeared, such as “nan shih” or the “southern shih” and at least two ranks, ta (great) and hsiao (“little,” “minor,” or perhaps “ junior”) shih. For one southern campaign they were further differentiated as center, left, and right, clearly in accord with Wu Ting’s initiation of tripart field forces, implying that the south had become a troublesome area.

Although it has been suggested that the term shu—which means something like “guarding” or “protecting”—designated a border contingent, in many usages it clearly refers to an officer entrusted with command of units responsible for defending the periphery. The character itself is seen as being composed by a man and a dagger-axe (ko), the same elements as fa, “to attack.” However, in the latter the man is holding the ko, whereas in shu he is standing underneath the ko.38 In various inscriptions the shu are ordered to exercise command functions in the field, sometimes in association with other normally subordinate officers such as the ma or she; dispatched to attack and damage enemy states; and assigned responsibility for ordering and commanding the chung, especially the king’s chung (for whom they may have been the only commanders). 39 Shu-mou and wu-tsu-shu are also seen, with the latter probably referring to the commander of a group of units from the five major clans that had been deputed to shoulder perimeter responsibilities. Whether referring to actual contingents, as in Wu Ting’s era, or an official title, the common tripart designation of left, right, and center also appears.40

Finally, depending on how titles such as tuo ma are interpreted, some analysts claim to be able to discern the existence of a fairly structured military hierarchy even in the Shang, though certainly not the one depicted in systematic Warring States idealizations. Although not necessarily unexpected because minimal lines of battlefield authority would have been required for the army to perform effectively, the more important question would seem to be how rigidly defined they may have been. Although the term tuo can simply refer to the many officials of a certain type, it usually indicates a superior position or commander for such officials, with even the ma hsiao-ch’en (junior official for horses), for example, serving under the tuo ma. The appellative ya should then designate an even higher-ranking position within a hierarchy of defined functions. Presumably everyone on the field of battle would have been subservient to the overall army commander, whether the king, minor ruler, or specialist such as the shu (when out at the border), but subordinate authority may have been more fragmented, with less clarity in the relationships prevailing among the commander of the dog officers, archery commanders, and others.

The intermixture of the and hang, regiments and companies respectively, increased the complexity. Insofar as the clan units seem to have existed as independent units for another half millennium, their commanders—especially those commanding the king’s tsu—may have escaped the nominal hierarchy or, relying on their personal charisma and power, simply refused to accede to delegated authority. Although such chaos should not have been tolerated, unless their forces were somehow integrated into the that were then emerging as an operational contingent, it is likely to have persisted, considerably muddying the overall, somewhat ill-defined authority structure.

Another title known to exist in the Shang was yin, as in the famous Yi Yin.41 Though generally assumed to be a civil position such as chancellor, minister, or even the world’s first national security advisor, it also appears in conjunction with military contingents, such as yu tsu yin or the yin for “the clan force on the right”42 and tuo shih (arrow) yin.43 Based on the Shang Shu, the various subunits from 100 up through the hang and also had chang, leaders or subofficers. In contrast to the Chou, who esteemed the left in government offices and divination, the Shang emphasized the right.44 Thus the famous Yi Yin was reputedly the yu hsiang or “minister on the right,” and the three armies were generally enumerated as right, middle, and left.45 However, the king still commanded from the center.

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