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A bulging bronze pitcher - Shang Dynasty China

Shang Dynasty China: Late Shang bronze pitcher from Henan, about 1100 BC, with inscription (Musee Guimet, Paris)

China enters the Bronze Age

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.

More about Chinese writing
What is bronze?
Stone Age China
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Like Sumerian and Egyptian writing of this time, Chinese writing is based on pictures that stand for ideas or sounds. Priests used oracle bones – bones with writing on them – to tell fortunes.

What are oracle bones?
Early Chinese numbers

People also wrote on bones and tortoise shells to keep records about who paid what to who, much like Linear B tablets in Greece at the same time.

Shang Dynasty art
Shang architecture

Indo-European trade with China

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 talking to the same people who brought writing to Greece about the same time – the Indo-Europeans (the Yamnaya).

More about the Indo-Europeans
Bronze Age timeline

bare dirt with patterns carved into it - Shang Dynasty

Shang Dynasty altar

Horse-drawn chariots

During the Shang Dynasty, people also began to use horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels. Central Asian people invented chariots about 2500 BC. Probably those same migrating Indo-Europeans rode their chariots to China and to West Asia soon afterwards.

More about horses and chariots
History of money

People in China used jade (a green stone) for jewelry and decoration, and probably as a kind of money.

The Shang emperors unite China

By about 1800 BC (the traditional date is 1766 BC), the Shang 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. Under the Shang, China’s influence reached south into Vietnam, where people also started to grow rice, make pottery and use bronze tools and weapons.

History of Vietnam
History of slavery

drawing of a long low building with columns around the outside: Shang Dynasty China

Reconstruction of the Shang palace or temple at Panlongcheng

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. Many men were in the king’s armies.

The end of the Shang Dynasty

The Shang Dynasty ruled China for about 700 years. But finally the Zhou conquered them, about 1100 BC.

The Zhou Dynasty

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 teens. 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)
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