Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Thirty

The Shifting Capitals of the Shang

In China, between 1753 and 1400 BC, the Shang kings move their capital city five different times and finally settle at Yin

TO THE EAST, the Shang dynasty was ruling, in conspicuous virtue, over the territory once held by the Xia.

Little detail survives from these early years of the Shang Dynasty. But the ruins of Shang cities reveal that in the first half of the dynasty’s rule—from its traditional beginnings in 1766 until around 1400—the Shang rulers had no single capital. Tradition tells us that the capital city moved five different times in these 350 years. The sites cannot be identified with complete certainty, but archaeologists believe that all of them fell within a circle drawn around the Yellow river, east of the Xia capital, in the land which was most likely Tang’s ancestral home.

These shifts reveal a dynasty which, although it managed to keep the crown in the family, did not yet rule with complete authority. During the reign of Tang’s heirs, the chaos that had marked the last years of the Xia Dynasty still rippled through the new regime.

TANG’S MOST POWERFUL OFFICIAL was Yi Yin, a man who rose to power either because he gained such a reputation for wisdom, while farming outside the capital Po, that Tang begged him to come and serve in the court; or because he served as Tang’s cook and produced extraordinary meals (the Grand Historian Sima Qian records both stories).1

Whatever his origins, Yi Yin was a capable administrator but a wild card in the Tang court. A later story suggests that he temporarily defected at one point, going over to the Xia enemy for some time before returning to his previous loyalty.2 More ominously, he was at the helm of the palace during a wholesale dying off of the Shang heirs.

When Tang died, after a respectably long rule of thirty years, Yi Yin was still serving as chief court official. Tang had appointed his oldest son to be his heir, but the young man “died before he was enthroned.” The second son (presumably younger and more malleable) took the throne instead, but died after two years; then the third and final son was coronated and, after four years, died as well. Barring hemophilia or suicidal tendencies, this pattern of deaths is more than a little odd.

Sima Qian, who relates these details, attaches no suspicion to Yi Yin; and indeed, Yi Yin made no direct attempt to seize the throne after the death of the final son. Instead, he presided over the accession of Tang’s grandson T’ai Jia, the child of the oldest son who had died six years before. But his actions suggest canniness, not loyalty. Yi Yin knew that the nobles of China would not accept the enthronement of an ex-cook (or ex-farmer); he was working his way towards a kingship in all but name. Thanks to the rapid decease of all of Tang’s sons, the throne was now held by a child, and that child was under Yi Yin’s guidance.

According to Sima Qian, Yi Yin spent the first year of T’ai Jia’s rule writing out precepts for the young king to follow. These precepts were apparently not followed: three years after T’ai Jia’s coronation, “he became dull and tyrannical; he did not follow Tang’s precepts and discredited Tang’s prestige.”3 As the boy was probably still very young, it’s difficult to see how tyrannical he could have been. More likely, he had yanked with impatience at the puppetmaster’s strings. In response, Yi Yin promptly declared that the virtue of the throne was in danger, and sent the young king off into detention at a palace twenty-five miles out of town. For the next three years, “Yi Yin was in charge of the administration on the emperor’s behalf, and in doing so received the feudal lords.”


30.1 The Shang Capitals

Sima Qian ends the story on a happy note. After three years in exile, the young emperor “repented his errors, accepted the blame himself, and returned to good behavior.” Presumably this means he was now ready to be guided by Yi Yin, who welcomed him back and turned the kingdom over to him. “Yi Yin,” Sima Qian concludes, “thought him to be excellent.”

A variant on this story, told in other sources, may be closer to the truth; T’ai Jia escaped from the palace where he was guarded, returned to his capital city, and assassinated the kingmaker.

NO DETAILED ACCOUNTS of the reigns of the next fourteen Shang kings have survived, but we know that under the tenth Shang king, Chung Ting, a certain unrest seized the dynasty. Chung Ting moved his capital to Hsiao. Excavations at the site thought to be Hsiao have revealed a city surrounded by a stamped earth wall ninety feet thick in places, and nearly thirty feet high. The wall took, perhaps, eighteen years for ten thousand laborers to complete.4 The Shang king may not have governed his realm with the authority of the Egyptian pharaoh, but he had enough power to compel labor from the multitudes.

Despite the immense Shang investment in this wall, less than two generations later, the twelfth Shang king moved the capital again, this time to Hsiang. His heir, the thirteenth Shang king Tsu Yi, packed up and went to a fourth capital, Keng. When Keng was destroyed by a flood, Tsu Yi transferred the Shang headquarters to the city of Yen, thus becoming the only Shang king to occupy three capital cities during his reign.

This constant migration of the Shang capital city is puzzling. Every other ancient kingdom (so far as we know) tried to maintain a particular city as a capital, only deserting it in the face of hostile invasion or natural disaster. Yellow river flooding may have had something to do with the wandering Shang capital. But Shang China was even more isolated than Egypt had been centuries before; it had no water trade with other nations, no land routes to the outside.

The hostility of nearby village patriarchs may have been the nearest equivalent to foreign invasion. Sima Qian says that these were years of rising and falling power. During the reigns of some Shang kings, the feudal lords “came to pay homage,” but other monarchs found that the feudal lords stayed away and refused to visit the capital with tribute.5 The power of the Shang king was anything but unquestioned. Possibly that huge stamped wall was built for protection against the Shang’s own countrymen.

Sometime around 1400, the nineteenth Shang king, P’an Keng, decided to move the capital city to the other side of the Yellow river. The courtiers objected, resisting to the point of revolt. But P’an Keng was adamant.

A story surviving from P’an Keng’s reign hints at the wily flexibility that preserved the Shang crown, even in the face of upheaval. Three different ancient texts record P’an Keng’s response to his courtiers when they balked at his announcement that it was time to desert the old capital city:

I have consulted the [oracle] and obtained the reply: “This is no place for us.” When the former kings had any important business, they gave reverent heed to the commands of Heaven. In a case like this especially they did not indulge the wish for constant repose; they did not abide ever in the same city. Up to this time the capital has been in five regions…. [We must] follow the example of these old times…following the meritorious course of the former kings.6

In this tale, P’an Keng takes the constant shifting of the capital from city to city—a history which surely demonstrates weakness—and offers it as a tradition hallowed by age and stamped with divine approval. His ancestors did not move their seat of government because they could not control the turmoil around them. Instead, they moved because they refused to wallow in “constant repose.” The difficulties of the past are recast as proof of strength.

The strategy worked, and Yin became the center of a newly strong court. “The Yin way of government again prospered,” Sima Qian writes, “and all the feudal lords came to court to pay homage, for [P’an Keng] followed Tang’s virtuous conduct.”7 P’an Keng himself, despite forcing his followers into an unwanted migration, became the object of his people’s love. After his reign, his younger brother took his place, at which point those same noblemen of China who had “borne resentment, not wanting to move,” instead “longed for P’an Keng.”

The Hittite kings tore their kingdom apart fighting over the seat of power. Instead of resisting, the Shang bent. Instead of taking up arms against opposition, they shifted and changed their ground, and held China’s throne for centuries.


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