In bronze-tipped spears, and compound bows. Writing –

In this lesson, we will study the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. We will pay close attention to the founding, major accomplishments and characteristics, and decline of these dynasties.

Three Dynasties

The time: about 1600 BC. The place: China’s Yellow River valley. A warrior stands surveying the land around him.

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He has just won a great victory, and a new age has dawned for his people. As the head of his family, he will lead a new dynasty and rule over this land.The warrior’s name is Cheng Tang, and he is the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, which will control China from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC.

He has defeated the rulers of the Xia Dynasty, a mysterious dynasty that left no historical record. One day, his family will be overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, which will reign from about 1100 BC to 221 BC. For Cheng Tang, that is far in the future. Now, he must concentrate on building his kingdom.

The Shang Dynasty

In the approximately 500 years of the Shang Dynasty, which was centered in the Yellow River valley, 33 kings ruled over as many as 13.5 million people. The kings, called wangs, beginning with Cheng Tang, stood at the top of the social scale in this extremely hierarchical and patriarchal dynasty. They held supreme power but were supported by the royal family, the nobility, the warriors, the priests, and the government officials. These social classes typically lived in walled cities and enjoyed the finer things in life: silk clothing, good food, flower gardens, and splendid homes.Outside the cities, merchants and craftsmen plied their trades and went home to their mud huts.

They were better off, however, than the peasant farmers who lived in nearby villages and scraped out their meager living on land owned by nobles. They were often forced to work on construction projects for the king and their landlords in the agricultural off-season.This rigid social structure extended right down into the family. The oldest male held authority over the household, and everyone else followed his orders under the risk of severe punishment.

Shang Accomplishments and Characteristics

Cheng Tang certainly didn’t realize the accomplishments and characteristics that his Shang Dynasty would present to the world. These include:

  • Bronze work– The Shang Dynasty created exquisite bronze vessels and weapons as it reached the heights of China’s Bronze Age.

  • Military technology – Shang warriors fought with horse-drawn chariots, bronze-tipped spears, and compound bows.
  • Writing – Many of the symbols developed during the Shang Dynasty are still used in China today.
  • A calendar – The Shang calendar designated 12 months, each with 30 days, and recognized the cycles of both the sun and the moon.

  • Religion – The people of the Shang Dynasty worshiped a supreme god named Shang Di, but they also worshiped their ancestors, who served as go-betweens with the god and had to be kept happy for the people to prosper. Priests were also very interested in discovering the future, and they used cattle bones and tortoise shells as oracle bones. They punched holes in the bones and then studied the pattern of cracks that developed to answer their questions about the future. In the process, they recorded the dynasty’s history on the shells and bones.

Shang to Zhou

The last Shang king, Shang Zhou, was a nasty sort of fellow, far different from his predecessor Cheng Tang. He focused mostly on his lavish lifestyle and wasn’t even above killing his own son to preserve his dominance. Understandably, people rebelled, and the Zhou family, led by King Wen, overthrew the last Shang king and formed a new dynasty about 1100 BC.

They did so under what they called the Mandate of Heaven, by which, they claimed, the gods gave them the right to rule supreme so long as they ruled with justice and cared for the people. If they failed, the gods would replace them.

The Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou did not fail, at least not for a long time. The Zhou Dynasty lasted, in various forms, for nearly a thousand years. During the first era of Zhou reign, called the Xi, or Western Zhou Dynasty, the dynasty’s kings held almost complete power in a time of prosperity and peace.

Then came rebellion in 770 BC. The Zhou rulers managed to hold onto their throne, but in the new Dong or Eastern Zhou Dynasty, their power was limited and a set of seven states constantly vied for dominance. Eventually, one of them, the Qin, would rise to the top and overthrow the Zhou Dynasty in 221 BC.

Zhou Accomplishments and Characteristics

In the years of the Zhou Dynasty, China changed greatly. New technology flourished in the form of iron tools and weapons, crossbows, major irrigation projects, and even chopsticks. Zhou rulers encouraged the building of new canals, roads, and communications systems to increase trade, and for the first time, the Chinese began to ride horseback.

The writing method that had begun under Shang rule developed even more.The years of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty were a golden age for Chinese philosophy. Confucius lived during this era, teaching his ideals of duty to society, individual virtue, and tradition. Also in this period, a philosopher named Laozi founded Taoism, which emphasized passivity and social inaction to achieve individual peace. On the other hand, philosophers who advocated Legalism claimed that the state was much more important than the individual and that individuals had to conform completely to the decrees of their supreme rulers. Finally, Mohism was a philosophy that advocated equality for all people, as well as merit-based power and universal love. Philosophy was so prominent in this period that scholars often note that there were a Hundred Schools of Thought.

Lesson Summary

Cheng Tang founded the Shang Dynasty about 1600 BC when he overthrew the mysterious Xia Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty lasted about 500 years and was extremely hierarchical and patriarchal. It was ruled by kings, or wangs, at the top of the social scale, which extended all the way down to the peasant farmers who lived very difficult lives.The Shang Dynasty’s accomplishments and characteristics include bronze work, military technology, including horse-drawn chariots, writing, a calendar, and religion, which featured ancestor worship and oracle bones.The Shang Dynasty was overthrown by King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty about 1100 BC.

The Zhou rulers claimed the Mandate of Heaven, by which, the gods gave them the right to rule supreme so long as they ruled with justice and cared for the people. If they failed, the gods would replace them.Zhou rule lasted for nearly a thousand years under both the Xi, or Western Zhou Dynasty, with its peace and prosperity, until 770 BC, and the Dong, or Eastern Zhou Dynasty, during which several states vied for power with the weak Zhou kings. During the Zhou Dynasty, new technology and advances in communication and transportation changed China. The years of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty were a golden age for Chinese philosophy, with the rise of Confucius, Taoism, Legalism, and Mohism.Indeed, when Cheng Tang stood victorious looking over the Yellow River valley, he would never have imagined what the next 1,500 years would bring to his homeland.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson is finished you should be able to:

  • Describe the societal hierarchy during the Shang dynasty
  • List some of the great accomplishments of the Shang dynasty
  • Summarize the rise and fall of the Zhou dynasty
  • Identify the key advances made in technology, religion, and transportation during the Zhou dynasty
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