Shang Dynasty China – The first Chinese dynasty

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A bulging bronze pitcher

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

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, Chinese writing is based on pictures that stand for ideas or sounds. Priests used oracle bones – bones with writing on them – to tell fortunes. 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.

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 (the Yamnaya).

bare dirt with patterns carved into it

Shang Dynasty altar

During the Shang Dynasty, people also began to use horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels. Central Asian people invented chariots about 2500 BC, and probably those same migrating Indo-Europeans rode their chariots to China and to West Asia soon afterwards. People in China 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. Under the Shang dynasty, China’s influence reached south into Vietnam, where people also started to grow rice, make pottery and use bronze tools and weapons.

drawing of a long low building with columns around the outside

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 Dynasty. Many men were in the king’s armies.

The Shang Dynasty ruled China for about 700 years. But finally the Zhou conquered them, 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 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)
More about Ancient China
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By | 2017-10-17T14:35:32+00:00 June 6th, 2017|China, History|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Shang Dynasty China – The first Chinese dynasty. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 6, 2017. Web. December 13, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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