Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Thirty-Six

The First Historical King of China

Around 1200 BC, in China, Shang craftsmen cast bronzes, Shang priests carve bones for divination, and the Shang king rules from Yin

AFTER THE MOVE of the Shang capital to Yin under the wily and flexible P’an Keng, the Shang Dynasty bumped along in more or less silence for a century or so. The next ruler who emerges as a personality is the twenty-second Shang king, Wu Ting, who probably ruled sometime around 1200 BC.

Wu Ting, according to the ancient history Shu ching (written hundreds of years after the fact, but before the time of Sima Qian, who used it as one of his sources), spent his formative years among “lower people,” the poor and the farmers. He then began his rule in complete silence: “He did not speak for three years,” the history tells us. “Afterwards, he was still inclined not to speak, but when he did speak, his words were full of harmonious wisdom. He did not dare to indulge in useless ease, but admirably and tranquilly presided over the regions of Yin until throughout them all, small and great, there was not a single murmur.”1

Silence, followed by taciturnity: this is an unexpected kingly virtue, not unlike P’an Keng’s claim that a shifting capital showed strength rather than weakness. The power of the Shang king during this time clearly did not depend on the kind of might wielded by the Hittite, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian rulers, with their constant stream of threatening and cajoling letters, their self-puffery, their boasting, their envoys and messengers and diplomats. The Shang authority had some other source.

But like Wu Ting, history is almost silent about the years when the Shang ruled in Yin. Rather than letters and tablets, the Shang left bits and pieces of houses, bones, and bronzes. These tell us something about the Shang way of life. They do not, in the end, tell us a tremendous amount about who the Shang rulers were.

THE MOST FAMOUS Shang artifacts—vessels, weapons, beautifully turned farming tools, ornaments—are those made of cast bronze. They stand as a testament to the Shang ruler’s authority. Like pyramid-building, the casting of bronze needed a king who could force multitudes of men to a nasty and labor-intensive job; in this case, digging ore out of the mines that lay in the hilly country north of the Yellow river.


36.1. Shang Bronze. A Shang cooking vessel, made of bronze from Ningxian, China. Photo credit Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

The work of the miners and craftsmen produced, in the words of one scholar of ancient China, “one of humankind’s great artistic achievements.”2 No other ancient nation was able to cast bronze into such sophisticated forms.3 Bronze-hafted spears were set with turquoise and topped with blades of white jade; ornate bronze buckles fastened the bridles of horses; bronze masks gave their wearers snarling or comic faces. Vessels for food and wine, the most elaborate of the bronze designs, were shaped like dragons or oxen or other creatures, finished with elaborate patternings and handles. Some are engraved with names, others with signs to show the vessel’s use. Sometimes an inscription makes note of a year, or a festival.

This scattered information, brief though it is, testifies that the Shang people had progressed to using writing. In China, writing developed along the same pattern as in Mesopotamia and Crete: it began as marks of ownership as far back as 4000 BC and then became more complex. But Chinese script seems to have developed in complete independence from writing elsewhere in the ancient world. The earliest Yellow river signs were pictures, but the writing of China was the first to move beyond the pictorial by combining pictures: putting pictorial signs (called “ideograms”) together into “composite ideograms” which represented abstractions and ideas.4

By the time of the Shang court’s establishment at Yin, these “composite ideograms” were sophisticated enough to record divine answers to questions. In the ruins of the Shang capital, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of signs engraved on bones; these served the Shang court much as entrails later served Greek priests and priestesses. A man or woman who sought guidance went to the Shang court to pose a question to the priests there. The priests brought out the cleaned and dried shoulder bones of cows or sheep (or, occasionally, a turtle shell), carved with patterns or marked with an inscription, and then touched the bone or shell with a heated metal point. When the bone cracked, the path of the crack through the pattern or inscription was “read” by the priests and interpreted as a message, sent by ancestors who now passed their wisdom back to the living. The priest carved the results of the inquiry into the bone or shell, in signs cut by a knife and filled with paint.5

The oracle bones show that the questions, no matter who asked them, were always posed in the name of the king.

THE KING WU TING is praised, by the ancient historian of the Shu ching, for his hard work, for his refusal to sink into luxury, and for the contentment he brought to his people: in all of his reign, “there was not a single murmur.” At the same time, the ancient philosophical text I ching (Book of Changes) describes Wu Ting, approvingly, as going on a three-year campaign against rebellious tribes to the northwest; and seven hundred years later, the Shih ching (Book of Songs), credits him with rule over an improbably enormous land:

Even the inner domain was a thousand leagues….

He opened up new lands as far as the four seas.

Men from the four seas came in homage,

Came in homage, crowd on crowd.6

These two portraits—the humble and hardworking man concerned for his people’s contentment, and the conqueror demanding homage—are oddly in tension. The role of the king seems to be shifting, and the chroniclers are uncertain whether he is to be a spiritual leader, holding to the virtues of the past, or a general taking charge of the country’s future.

We can say, without question, that the Shang king had gained considerably in his power since the move to Yin. In the royal cemetery, a little north of the capital city, the kings were buried in graves that were the reverse of Egypt’s pyramids. Rather than rising into the sky, the graves are enormous pits, dug so deep into the ground that years must have gone into their construction. In these pits are human sacrifices; not the intact bodies of loyal subjects who have gone to their deaths in faith that their king would lead them across the horizon into another world, but decapitated bodies.93 One grave has seventy-three skulls lined along the four ramps that sink down into it, with a cluster of fifty-nine skeletons (minus heads) on the southernmost ramp.7 In Yin itself, archaeologists have uncovered the foundation of an altar where the sacrifices were most likely made.

This suggests a great deal of autocratic authority on the part of the king, particularly since he was able to compel death even after his own. Yet Sima Qian also makes constant mention of court officials and ruling noblemen with clout of their own. Probably the area over which the Shang king exercised his imperiousness was fairly small. On the edges of this, his nobles and officials governed in his name—but acted more or less as they pleased. Farther out lay plains and valleys of settlements where the people sent tribute to the king to avoid arousing his anger, or simply knew that he existed, or perhaps didn’t know that he existed at all until armed men clattered through their village, seizing their goods in the king’s name.

The two conflicting portraits of the king might boil down to a simple reality: the Shang king was the spiritual head of all his people, but his real and earthly power existed inside a much smaller domain. Wu Ting himself could not reign without help. According to Sima Qian, he spent his three-year silence searching for an official who could serve as his right hand. Finally he found the assistant he was looking for: a sage named Fu Yueh, who was working as a common laborer in a city to the east of Yin. Only then did Wu Ting break his silence and take up his role as ruler. The king, his spiritual virtues notwithstanding, had to rely on others to carry out the governing of his people: not just the sage assistant, but also the noblemen who were actually in control of those farther-flung provinces of the Shang kingdom.

But this is all speculation, since the story of Wu Ting is built around fragments of bone and bronze, and tales set down a thousand years after the fact.


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