Ancient Chinese Dynasties: Shang & Zhou

The Shang Dynasty

The Huang He Valley, which is often regarded as the origin of Chinese civilisation, has yielded thousands of archaeological artefacts that offer data about the Shang dynasty. This dynasty ruled China approximately from 1700 B.C. to 1027 B.C. It is thought that a rebel commander who was successful in overthrowing the final Xia emperor established the Shang dynasty, which eventually became known as the Yin dynasty in its latter phases. Agriculture was the foundation of their civilisation, which was complemented by hunting and animal husbandry. The use of bronze for metallurgy and the invention of writing were two significant developments that occurred during this time period. The former was shown by ancient Chinese writings discovered on tortoise shells and flat cow bones, which are sometimes referred to as oracle bones. The Shang era is attested to have produced a number of ceremonial bronze pots with inscriptions; the degree of craftsmanship shown on the bronzes is evidence of a high level of civilisation.

Shang warriors engaged in regular conflict with nearby towns as well as nomadic herders from the interior Asian steppes while under the control of a series of hereditary Shang rulers who ruled over a large portion of northern China. The capitals were the epicentres of the dazzling court life, and one of them used to be located on the location of the contemporary city of Anyang. The court had a highly developed system of ceremonies to appease evil spirits and pay respect to revered ancestors. In addition to his role within the secular realm, the monarch was also the leader of the ancestor and spirit-worshipping religion. There is evidence in the royal tombs that royal people were buried with valuable items, most likely for use in the afterlife. These valuable items were buried with them. It’s possible that this was done for the same reason that hundreds of commoners, some of whom were probably slaves, were buried alive beside the royal body.

The Zhou Dynasty

A commander of a frontier tribe called the Zhou, who had established in the Wei Valley in what is now Shaanxi Province, organised an uprising that resulted in the removal of the final Shang monarch, who was described in traditional Chinese sources as a dictator. The Zhou dynasty established their capital at Hao, which was located close to the modern-day city of Xi’an, which at the height of its power during the imperial era was known as Chang’an. Early Zhou kings, who shared the language and culture of the Shang people, eventually sinicized, or spread Shang civilization, across most of China Proper (see Glossary) north of the Chang Jiang River by means of invasion and colonisation. Shang culture is also known as “sinicization” (Yangtze River). Between the years 1027 and 221 before the common era, the Zhou dynasty reigned longer than any other. The concept that the monarch (the “son of heaven”) controlled by divine authority but that his dethronement would establish that he had lost the mandate was first articulated by thinkers during this time period. This concept is known as the “mandate of heaven” (tianming). The philosophy offered an explanation and justification for the fall of the two prior dynasties, while at the same time bolstering the legitimacy of both the ruling dynasties of the present and the future.

As a result of the Zhou era’s early decentralised control, which draws comparison with mediaeval rule in Europe, the time period known as “feudal” has been attributed to it rather often. However, the early Zhou system was at best proto-feudal. It was a more developed version of previous forms of tribal organisation, in which effective control rested more on family connections than on feudal legal relations. With the passage of time, whatever feudal features that may have been there became less prominent. The confederation of city-states that made up Zhou gradually grew more centralised and built institutions in the political and economic spheres that were less personable. These changes, which most likely took place during the later Zhou dynasty, expressed themselves as a stronger central authority over local administrations and a more routinized agricultural taxation system.

In 771 B.C. Invading barbarians who were linked with rebel lords were responsible for the destruction of the Zhou court and the assassination of its monarch. The capital was relocated to Luoyang, which is located in what is now the province of Henan. Historians separate the Zhou period into two parts: the Western Zhou, which occurred between the years 1027 and 771 B.C., and the Eastern Zhou (770-221 B.C.). As a result of the disruption of the royal line, the influence of the Zhou court progressively declined, which sped up the process of the kingdom’s disintegration. The Eastern Zhou era may be broken down into two subperiods. The first one, which lasted from 770 to 476 B.C. and was named after a well-known historical chronicle of the period, is known as the Spring and Autumn Period, while the second one is known as the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.).

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