Lecture Two

The First Dynasties

Scope: Neolithic village cultures began to consolidate into larger geographic and political units over the period from about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. By 4,000 years ago (2000 B.C.E.), the first of the Bronze Age cultures that can be seen as directly ancestral to historical Chinese civilization had taken shape along the Yellow River in what are now Henan, Hebei, and Shanxi provinces. Later Chinese refer back to the first “dynasty” as the Xia, which was succeeded about 1500 B.C.E. by the Shang or Yin dynasty. The Xia provides the first indication of a highly strat ified society with a ruling elite dominating a population of farming villages. A bronze industry was developed, which the Shang raised to much greater heights of technical and aesthetic achievement. This bronze industry, along with military forces and the royal ritual cult, became the defining features of early Chinese society.


I. The Neolithic Transition brought China to a new stage of development.

A. The starting point for this was the emergence of agricultural societies.

1. In China, this took place about 12,000 years ago.

2. Evidence of the first domestication of rice has been found in Jiangxi province in central China.

B. By 4.000 years ago, a new phase of historical development began.

1. The archaeological record begins to be supplemented with textual traditions.

2. The emergence of a bronze industry reflects the more complex organization of society.

C. The Xia used elaborate sets of bronze ritual objects in what appears to have been ancestral worship by a “royal” family.

1. One clan seems to have established primacy over all others.

2. The shamanistic worship of the clan’s totem seems to have been transformed into a more general worship of the royal ancestors.

II. The Shang dynasty succeeded the Xia around 1500 B.C.E.

A. The Shang left an extensive historical record in the form of “oracle bones” and bronze inscriptions.

I. Oracle bones were the shoulder blades of cattle or the plastrons of turtles.

2. These were inscribed with divination questions to be asked of the ancestors on behalf of the kings.

3. Official “diviners” who could read and write the early forms of Chinese characters interpreted cracks in the bones or shells to reveal the answers of the ancestors.

4. Archives of oracle bones were maintained, recording the questions, answers and outcomes of divinations, which have been excavated in the 20lh century, yielding a vast amount of information about the Shang period.

B. The Shang political order was centered on a line of kings, hence the use of the term dynasty.

1. Because life expectancy was so short, barely 30 years, the kingship passed not from father to son, but from older to younger brother within a generation, then to the oldest son in the next generation.

2. The kings ruled from a capital city, but the capital was moved nine times in the course of the dynasty’s perhaps six centuries of rule.

3. The kings used military force to maintain their power and dominated surrounding peoples who were not related to them but were incorporated in a kind of federal system.

4. They also used a public cult of ancestor worship to bolster their legitimacy.

5. The use of bronze ritual objects in offering sacrifices to the ancestors was central to this cult.

6. The operation of the sophisticated metallurgical industry that produced these elaborately cast bronzes was sustained by the taxation of agriculture, thus creating the first state bureaucracy in China.

C. Tensions in the Shang realm led to unrest by the 11th century B.C.E.

1. Subordinate peoples resented the extraction of agricultural surplus by the Shang kings.

2. Peoples not subordinate to the Shang raided on the margins of Shang territory.

3. Ambitious leaders sought to enhance their own power and overthrow the Shang, as we will see in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds., The Cambridge History of Ancient China, 74-291.

Supplemental Reading:

David N. Keightley, The Ancestral Landscape.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why was ancestor worship so important to the Shang rulers?

2. Why did the Shang keep written records of the divinations they performed?

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