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Ancient Bronze Age China, The Shang Dynasty (1570-1045 bc)

Shang civilization, animal sacrifices, political head, bronze vessels, clay models

Archaeological remains provide many details about Shang civilization. A king was the religious and political head of the society. He ruled through dynastic alliances; divination (his subjects believed that he alone could predict the future by interpreting cracks in animal bones); and royal journeys, hunts, and military campaigns that took him to outlying areas. The Shang were often at war with neighboring peoples and moved their capital several times. Shang kings could mobilize large armies for warfare and huge numbers of workers to construct defensive walls and elaborate tombs.

The Shang directly controlled only the central part of China proper, extending over much of modern Henan, Hubei, Shandong, Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces. However, Shang influence extended beyond the state’s borders, and Shang art motifs are often found in artifacts from more-distant regions.

The Shang king’s rule was based equally on religious and military power. He played a priestly role in the worship of his ancestors and the high god Di. The king made animal sacrifices and communicated with his ancestors by interpreting the cracks on heated cattle bones or tortoise shells that had been prepared by professional diviners. Royal ancestors were viewed as able to intervene with Di, send curses, produce dreams, and assist the king in battle. Kings were buried with ritual vessels, weapons, jades, and numerous servants and sacrificial victims, suggesting that the Shang believed in some form of afterlife.

The Shang used bronze more for purposes of ritual than war. Although some weapons were made of bronze, the great bulk of the surviving Shang bronze objects are cups, goblets, steamers, and cauldrons, presumably made for use in sacrificial rituals. They were beautifully formed in a great variety of shapes and sizes and decorated with images of wild animals. As many as 200 of these bronze vessels might be buried in a single royal grave. The bronze industry required centralized coordination of a large labor force to mine, refine, and transport copper, tin, and lead ores, as well as to produce and transport charcoal. It also required technically skilled artisans to make clay models, construct ceramic molds, and assemble and finish vessels, the largest which weighed as much as 800 kg (1,800 lb).

The writing system used by the Shang is the direct ancestor of the modern Chinese writing system, with symbols or characters for each word. This writing system would evolve over time, but it never became a purely phonetic system like the Roman alphabet, which uses symbols (letters) to represent specific sounds. Thus mastering the written language required learning to recognize and write several thousand characters, making literacy a highly specialized skill requiring many years to master fully.



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