Shang Dynasty China - The first Chinese dynasty
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Shang Dynasty China

Shang bronze
A bronze pitcher (Shang Dynasty)

Around 2000 BC, people in China learned how to make bronze out of tin and copper, so we call this the Bronze Age. About the same time, people in China also developed writing. Like Sumerian and Egyptian writing of this time, their writing is based on pictures that stand for ideas or sounds. We know of this writing from oracle bones, which are bones with writing carved into them. They were used to tell fortunes. People also used bones and tortoise shells to keep records about who paid what to who, much like Linear B tablets in Greece at the same time.

It's likely - though nobody is sure yet - that the reason people in China began using bronze and writing about 2000 BC is that they were interacting with the same people who brought writing to Greece about the same time - the Indo-Europeans.

During the Shang Dynasty, people also began to use horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels. These were invented in Central Asia about 2500 BC, and spread to China and to West Asia about the same time, probably with those same migrating Indo-Europeans. People also used jade (a green stone) for jewelry and decoration.

By about 1800 BC (the traditional date is 1766 BC), the Shang dynasty had become the first to unite a big part of China under one king. Probably they used their great new military weapon, the chariot, to conquer China.

The king had his capital in Anyang, in northern China. People had already begun to divide up into the rich and the poor. We know that some people were slaves under the Shang Dynasty. Many men were in the king's armies.

The Shang Dynasty lasted for about 700 years. But finally they were conquered by the Zhou, about 1100 BC.

Learn by Doing - horse-drawn chariot project
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Bibliography and further reading about the Shang dynasty in China:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

China (History of Nations), by Greenhaven Press (2002). For middle schoolers. The negative review on Amazon is actually for a different book - don't be alarmed!

The Cambridge History of Ancient China : From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (1999). A more challenging read, and much more expensive, but it has all the good solid reliable information you could want.

Shang Dynasty art
Shang Dynasty Architecture
Zhou Dynasty (1122-771 BC)
More about Ancient China home

Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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