For more than two millennia traditional Chinese historians have dogmatically asserted that China’s three founding dynasties—the Hsia, Shang, and Chou—completely dominated the minor states and relatively insignificant, uncouth tribes about them. Even twentieth-century topical analyses of Shang events tended to view any deviation from this idealized depiction as an aberration or chimera, the consequence of flawed interpretation. Thus, for example, the Kuei-fang’s presumptuous challenge of Shang authority, incontrovertibly recorded in the Yi Ching, has been understood as exceptional not because of the infrequency of such affronts, but because the Kuei-fang obdurately shunned Shang wisdom, culture, and sagacity. However, the innumerable archaeological artifacts and divinatory records recovered over the past century depict a remarkably different situation. Thus, most scholars now agree that the Shang’s political power and material achievements affected an extensive area in central China, allowing it to impose its rule and cultural norms to a significant degree, but not to the exclusion of stimulating the development of local cultures and indigenous styles.41

Although Shang clan states within the core domain were basically homogenous, in more remote regions localized focal cultures such as those ensconced in the future state of Ch’u, the astounding enclave at San-shing-tui, and the remote southeast continued to evolve their own identities, habits, and material characteristics. Moreover, cultural and technological stimuli did not just radiate outward from the Shang, but also inward from the diverse tribes and distinctive peoples about them, prodding Shang developments.42 For example, the Shang not only adopted images and practices from the Tung Yi, but also absorbed bronze decorative elements from the earlier Liang-chu culture (3200-2100 BCE).43 Conversely, many peripheral peoples found the Shang’s opulence, magnificent bronzes, intricate jade carvings, silks, wine, and profusion of foods difficult to resist, especially when ostentatiously displayed in the royal court and offered as potential recompense in tributary relationships.

However idealized, the Shang might be envisioned in terms of concentric realms marked by varying degrees of dominance and influence. The personal lands of the royal house, close clan members, and a few privileged “others” were located in the core; somewhat farther out were the more distant clan members and subjects who had been integrated into the Shang hierarchy. 44 However, the degree of control diminished as the distance increased, with the truly outer peoples or proto-states generally termed “fang”—a somewhat problematic appellation that may have been reserved for enemy states—vacillating between allegiance and relative independence, sometimes even aggressive opposition and outright rebellion.

Because Shang rulers certainly thought in these terms, the submissive were expected to furnish tribute (including the all-important divinatory media) and participate in military campaigns.45 The king controlled the disbursement of core lands46 and probably much of the terrain in the extended subjugated realm and also awarded a number of titles such as po (duke) and nan (earl) to the privileged, no doubt in recognition of actual power rather than as an attempt to create a systematically enfeoffed hierarchy such as would be implemented by the Chou, even though there seems to have been a basic distinction of nei-fu and waifu , submissive clan members and external peoples, respectively.47

Shang power and culture were at one time believed to have been confined to the middle and lower Yellow River. However, although they never reached the upper Yangtze, extensive Shang sites have been discovered in most of Shandong, the middle and southern parts of Hebei, all of Henan, eastern and southwestern Shanxi, middle and southern Shaanxi, most of Hubei, the northern part of Hunan, northwest Jiangxi, and western Anhui. Based on archaeological evidence, especially bronzes, weapons, and the exploitation of natural resources, it can be concluded that the Shang completely dominated in some areas, but indigenous local cultures remained vigorous in others. This immediately raises questions about the nature of the Shang presence: Was it a purely military occupation, a colonization carried out by a collateral member of the Shang ruling household, or merely the result of recognizing a powerful local chieftain who had nominally submitted and thus retained some independence even though accepting the main trappings of Shang culture, voluntarily or otherwise?

Traditional accounts state that 10,000 states all paid homage to King T’ang immediately after the conquest, obviously an exaggeration even if “ten thousand” is understood simply as “myriad” or some vague but large number, as in most military contexts. Nevertheless, this depiction well characterizes the evolving dynamics as contiguous groups realized the need to at least nominally acknowledge the suddenly ascendant Shang. However, over the centuries the degree to which clan members, allies, subjugated peoples, and external groups were actually subservient would fluctuate with the vibrancy of Shang central power. The number of clan leaders and peripheral lords paying homage at the court probably varied between much of the known, or at least readily accessible, realm to just Shang members resident in the core domain and a few close allies. 48 Even if, as claimed, relationships existed with some 500 peoples and states, only a fraction of them were at all noteworthy.

Recent archaeological overviews, coupled with hundreds of detailed reports, allow the vectors of Shang power to be sketchily plotted. Extensive evidence indicates that the Shang conquest of the Hsia quickly impacted not just the Yen-shih to Cheng-chou region, but also a widespread area where lower Erh-li-kang manifestations suddenly displaced or overlaid Erh-li’t’ou (Hsia) cultural artifacts.49 Several fortified towns constructed about the same time as or slightly later than Yen-shih and Cheng-chou illustrate the Shang’s ability to project power and establish defensive strongpoints against incursion, as well as the thoroughness of early efforts to subjugate the recently conquered populace until they became somewhat assimilated, coincidentally attesting to the fictional nature of claims that the Shang dominated through Virtue alone.

However, as predicted by the Tao Te Ching’s explication of extremes being unstable, apparently because of internal strife the Shang experienced a generalized contraction of its power and influence after a century or so. Once the capital was finally shifted to Anyang, Wu Ting managed to initiate a vibrant resurgence whose promise was subsequently subverted by the pleasure-oriented final rulers. Nevertheless, even under their reputedly debauched leadership, right through its waning days the Shang continued to vigorously pursue external campaigns into the east and southeast.

During the initial phase of their rule from Yen-shih and Cheng-chou the Shang aggressively expanded north to Chi-pei, south to P’anlung-ch’eng, along the eastern bank of the Han River, down into the lower Han River and T’ung-t’ing Lake areas, and even into parts of Shandong and Anhui.50In the west, Shang forces penetrated to the farthest parts of Kuan-chung and up to Ch’i-shan (Mt. Ch’i) and Chou-yüan, establishing a presence in the western part of Shanxi, Shaanxi’s northern plains, along the northern Wei River, and eventually Hanchung, though their influence rapidly diminished west of a demarcation line that runs down along the lower reaches of the Ching River in Yaohsien. 51 In addition to quickly occupying former Hsia fortresses and enclaves in the west, including Tung-hsia-feng, Shang forces established bastions such as Yüan-ch’ü and a number of smaller citadels to control the perimeter, resist incursions, and provide staging points for military expeditions. As in the east, members of powerful clans also seem to have been deputed to occupy the hinterlands in Shaanxi but were supplemented by local lords.52

Several sites within Kuan-chung where settlements rapidly multiplied in the quest to exploit mineral resources represent the westernmost extent of Shang culture. However, despite an initially strong presence that saw mining expanded and foundries established at the outset, this formerly Lungshan/Hsia (Erh-li-t’ou) cultural area retained many indigenous traits53 and managed to reassert its independence when the Shang contracted and turned eastward late in the middle period with the shift to Anyang.54 Among the more interesting representatives are Lao-niu-p’o and Chin-hsi, the former located in the fertile Kuan-chung plains area near Hsi-an (Xian). Typical Shang manifestations found at this highly militarized site capable of controlling access in several directions include the palace, graves, and a horse and chariot burial.55 The early Shang Chin-hsi site is located in the southern quarter of Chin-hsi, an area where the T’u-fang would become active. Being another military bastion erected in former Hsia territory, the tamped earth walls were constructed with techniques identical to those employed at Cheng-chou, and all the recovered artifacts are similar to those associated with the Shang capital.56

Sometimes suggested as having been a secondary capital, the bastion at Yüan-ch’ü was probably the most formidable fortified city constructed by the Shang out in the western region. Located roughly one hundred miles west of Cheng-chou along the course of the Yellow River in Shanxi, the fortifications fully exploited the terrain’s strategic advantages.57 Erected on a semiplateau that projects out from a western ridge of hills and towers some fifty to sixty meters above the surrounding countryside, it relied for its initial defense on steep cliffs that drop away on the north, south, and east. Although an assault might still be attempted from the west, it was protected from the north around to the south by encircling rivers. (The minor Po-ch’ing River crosses to the north as it descends to the southeast, until it merges with the Yellow River flowing eastward across the south.) In addition, the Yen River, located slightly to the northeast, flows from north to south, merging with the Yellow just to the east of the Po-ch’ing.

The presence of massive walls well integrated into a comprehensive defensive system defines Yüan-ch’ü as a bastion rather than simple administrative center. Further evidence for the site’s definitive military character may be seen in the disorganized nature of the burials, the presence of dismembered victims in more than 50 percent of the graves, and a few corpses that still have arrowheads embedded in their limbs.58 Located in the northeast corner of the plateau so as to more easily command the plains, the compound’s walls extend 338 meters on the north, 395 in the west, 336 down the east, and about 400 across the south, creating a slightly distorted rectangle that enclosed 130,000 square meters. None of the remnant walls exceed 2 meters in height even with their excavated bases included, but they range in width from 6 to 15 meters and probably once reached at least 7 or 8 meters in height.

Lacking the deterrence of cliffs in the west, a partial double-wall system—the first known construction of this type in China—was employed on the western and southern sides to thwart attacks emanating from the hills. The northern portion of the western wall diverged to comprise a screening rampart for an eight-meter-wide interior gate opening that was thus well insulated from direct assault. Although this outer wall was considerably thinner, it created a passageway some seven to ten meters wide that not only allowed for protected entrance and egress, but also provided a staging area for troops. Remnants of a double-wall system and vestiges of a similarly shielded gate show it was replicated on the south side as well. A smaller gate was located at the northeastern corner and another presumably on the eastern side, though the latter is no longer visible.

As a further reinforcement and thus clear evidence that threats were expected to emerge from the west, a formidable 446-meter-long ditch roughly 8 to 9 meters wide paralleled the entire length of the western wall about 6 to 8 meters from the footing. Although it extended right down to the plateau’s southern edge, the lack of water resources in this elevated area would have precluded its use as a moat, but the steep edges and impressive depth would have been sufficient to impede aggressors.

As might be expected from its location in the midst of a highly fertile, well-watered alluvial basin bordered by mountains on three sides and the Yellow River to the south, the site was continuously occupied from the Neolithic period. Cultural layers ranging from the Yangshao (when the town was protected with ditches) through Lungshan and Erh-li-t’ou are all visible beneath suddenly intrusive Erh-li-kang artifacts deposited when the walls were erected by utilizing earlier ditches to create the foundations and the town was turned into a fortress. The artifacts and various layers so far uncovered have stimulated the usual divergent conclusions on the site’s likely date and exact political nature, but without doubt it was constructed shortly after Cheng-chou itself. Moreover, the sharp transition from Erh-li-t’ou to Erh-li-kang culture conclusively shows that this was a deliberate Shang effort that coincided with its westward expansion into Chi-nan and Yü-hsi. Whether it was focused on controlling the former Hsia populace, securing local mineral deposits, warding off threats and incursions from more distant peoples, or some combination of these remains uncertain.59

Eastward, what may be interpreted as Shang colonization and pacification efforts that probably commenced in the Cheng-chou era during Chung Ting’s reign proceeded along the T’ai-hang mountain range out into Shandong and Hebei and the plains area. Hsing-t’ai, Han-tan, and Shih-chia-chuang are thus among the numerous Shang sites marked by heavy upper Erh-li-kang cultural manifestations. Artifacts recovered from Ta-hsin-chuang near Chi-nan City also indicate it was directly controlled by the Shang and probably had become a Shang city through the sudden displacement of Yüeh-shih (Tung Yi) cultural elements, though the latter retain prominence and were apparently well integrated.60

The well-known site of T’ai-hsi at Kao-ch’eng in Hebei also shows the sudden intrusion of Erh-li-kang culture into what had previously been intermixed Lungshan and early Shang strata with pronounced northern cultural (semipastoral) characteristics.61 Situated in the corridor between the T’ai-hang foothills and the Yellow River, the fortified town occupied a crucial location from which movement in all directions, including access down into the Anyang area, could be controlled, explaining its evolution into a powerful regional center by the early Anyang phase.62

The discovery of various symbols of power, including great axes, shows that these were fundamentally Shang military regions under the control of a commander or ya. For example, a large bronze yüeh with an iron blade (!) and another bronze yüeh decorated with an animal motif have been recovered at T’ai-hsi.63 Inscribed yüeh recovered from Su-pu-t’un, a site that has been tentatively identified with the former state of P’u-ku made famous by the Shang conquest, indicate that a “commander Ch’ou” (Ya Ch’ou) governed as ruler of P’u-ku.64 Small bastions or strongpoints have also been found scattered around the southern and western periphery of Shang power, such as near Mt. Wang-chia in Yün-meng, T’ung-ku-shan in the Pa area in the upper Yangtze River, and Ching-nan-ssu, also in the ancient Pa area. Although marked by fewer decidedly Shang characteristics, they must have functioned as military emplacements that ensured the security of trade and transportation routes.65

Down in the Chiang-nan plains region, a complex area marked by strife between Lungshan and local cultures from the late Neolithic onward, 66 lies the heavily fortified town of P’an-lung-ch’eng. Evidently constructed about 1500 BCE in the heart of the territory that would subsequently be known as Ching, it seems to have been completely abandoned during the interval between Kings P’an Keng and Wu Ting coincident with the rise of Wu-ch’eng as a major power center, evidence of ongoing Shang retrenchment after the initial period at Cheng-chou.67 Situated some 350 miles south of the latter in the middle Yangtze river valley close to modern Wu-han at the highest point on the Han River, this bastion essentially replicated Cheng-chou both physically and culturally but on a considerably smaller scale. Although the greater site exceeds a million square meters, the actual walls total a mere 1,000 meters, in comparison with Cheng-chou’s 7,100, with the basic fortified enclosure being just 290 meters north to south and 260 meters east to west. Having been constrained by the terrain’s contour—the entire fortification lies on one of several contiguous fingers that project out into Lake P’an-lung—the walls outline a slightly distorted rectangle and encompass about 75,000 square meters.

The stamped earth techniques used for the foundation and walls are virtually identical to those employed at Cheng-chou, clear evidence not only of their erection slightly after the latter, but also that hang-t’u fortification methods had become highly systematized. The uniform layers average 8 to 10 centimeters in thickness, while the excavated walls retain a remnant height of 1 to 3 meters despite erosion having claimed at least a meter or two. However, their widths vary dramatically, ranging from 21 to 38 meters on the north and 18 to 45 on the west, the two sides with comparatively greater threat exposure, to between 21 and 28 meters on the south.

A 10- to 12-meter-wide exterior moat with a depth ranging between 3.9 and 4.6 meters that exploited a preexisting ditch and achieved its deepest point in the north further augmented the defenses. In addition, the lake effectively isolated and thus protected P’an-lung-ch’eng on three of its four sides, while the numerous rivers and lakes in the immediate region would have further impeded ill-prepared aggressors.

Without doubt P’an-lung-ch’eng was constructed in an inherently hostile area. The transition from Erh-li-t’ou to Erh-li-kang artifacts indicates the forcible imposition of externally based authority on a local community that had previously been engaged in acquiring and forwarding mineral resources to the Hsia capital.68 Located at a transportation crossroads that allowed access to virtually every corner of China, including via the Yangtze up into Sichuan and down to the sea, and at the gateway to the vital copper and other mineral resources located in the middle and lower Yangtze that were being increasingly consumed by burgeoning Shang ritual culture, P’an-lung-ch’eng constituted a standalone, fortified city in the southern hinterland.69

The richness of the grave goods indicates the city certainly served as the headquarters of a local ruler, perhaps someone awarded ducal status within the Shang complex of dependent and annexed states. Although it has been argued he was a strong local chieftain who enjoyed generous Shang recognition, he may well have been a Shang clan member and the enclave a highly militarized Shang community. 70 The unusually large percentage of weapons found among the excavated grave goods offers further confirmation of the settlement’s martial character. Apart from a unique, great symbolic axe of power, other weapons recovered from the ruler’s tomb include three axes, five halberds, two spearheads, seven knives, and eighteen arrowheads. Whatever the commander’s identity and status, P’an-lung-ch’eng proves that the Shang was capable of projecting power and consolidating control in a remote area, as well as levying the labor component necessary to construct a major fortified town.

The Chiang-nan plains region also saw the establishment of Wuch’eng in Jiangxi, another fortified city heavily imbued with Shang characteristics. 71 Far from the center of Shang civilization, Wu-ch’eng is located well south of the Yangtze at approximately the same latitude as Ch’ang-sha in the west and Wen-chou in the east. Situated on a low ridge, it rises above the Hsiao River, which flows from west to east just above it. Additional streams and bodies of water are found among the hillocks to the north and another stream runs along the south, all no doubt potentially effective in retarding enemy incursions, particularly because the Hsiao’s sixty-meter-wide sand bed indicates it had a much greater flow in antiquity. Numerous Shang sites are scattered about the surrounding terrain, no doubt because of the area’s fertility.

The walls enclose a relatively spacious 610,000 square meters, sufficient for a population of about 20,000. Three cultural layers roughly contemporaneous with Cheng-chou, early Anyang, and late Anyang or early Western Chou phases overlie the late Neolithic foundations. A few of the more than 500 items excavated bear primitive characters, some judged to be earlier forms of Shang oracle bone script, others deemed highly localized. Bronze artifacts include a few weapons such as a short knife with a protruding handle from the first period, a halberd and an axe from the second, and arrowheads from the third.

The stone and ceramic items are dominated by tools employed in handicraft industries and daily life, cooking utensils, and wine vessels, some of which were also cast in bronze. A number of stone molds designed to produce items in the style of artifacts from P’an-lung-ch’eng and the early Anyang phase have also been recovered. Many were created to produce arrowheads and similar small weapons, others allowed the casting of larger pieces such as axes, and a few even have inscribed characters. A small foundry has been discovered, but it would not have been capable of producing the full range of recovered items by itself.

Critical questions have arisen about the city’s significance and interpretation because the ceramics and bronzes display a markedly indigenous character despite their basic similarity to Shang styles dating to Cheng-chou and thereafter. Some analysts have suggested Wu-ch’eng is a derivative culture from P’an-lung-ch’eng rather than a direct Shang enclave, but none have ventured any bolder evaluation than that the culture “was the product of an indigenous Geometric environment” that early on developed extensive metallurgical industries.72 However, it is located at a strategic point that could have repelled threats from the south, west, and east and controlled the trade passing through from highly disparate regions. Even Wu Ch’i referred to this area when attempting to enlighten his ruler about the error of relying on advantageous locations when he said, “Formerly the Three Miao had Tungt’ing Lake on the left and P’eng-li Lake on the right, but they didn’t cultivate Virtue and righteousness and Yü obliterated them.”73

The sudden appearance of Shang-style ceramics and artifacts (despite strong local characteristics) in an area of strategic significance suggests that the city or its associated proto-state had been abruptly integrated into the Shang hierarchy. The ruler might have been a submissive local lord, but given the site’s pronounced military character, localized weapons production, presence of stone weapons in some graves, and the repeated appearance of the character for dagger-axe, it seems more likely that a Shang clan force must have temporarily occupied the area. In addition to immediately erecting fortifications, just as at P’an-lungch’eng they would have brought ceramic and bronze designs, accounting for their similarity to Cheng-chou even though necessarily overlaying indigenous styles.

The changes visible at Tung-hsia-feng in the west and P’an-lungch’eng down in the Chiang-han plains provide clear evidence of the Shang’s formidable power and their determination to secure peripheral areas previously controlled by the Hsia, including by utilizing Hsia fortresses that dominated access to crucial mineral resources. At Tung-hsia-feng the Shang incorporated the Hsia defensive ditches within a much larger, irregular, but presumably rectangular-shaped, early Shang-fortified town that was protected by 8-meter-wide walls. Constructed from tamped earth layers some 10 centimeters thick, the 1.8-meter-high walls are said to have been comparable to P’an-lung-ch’eng and no doubt served the dedicated purpose of projecting power and controlling essential routes from the Shang heartland out to vital mineral deposits.74

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