ALTHOUGH DISAGREEMENTS ABOUND over the causes and extent, without doubt the middle Shang—which may be defined as post-Cheng-chou but pre-Anyang and therefore the reigns of Chung Ting to Hsiao Yi or perhaps P’an Keng—was a period of contraction. As indicated by the absence of Shang artifacts, resurgence of indigenous styles, and ascension of new groups such as the Chou, numerous settlements in Shanxi and the western fortresses of Tung-hsia-feng and Yüan-ch’ü were abandoned to local populations.1 In addition, a number of “foreign states” or fang-kuothat would prove troublesome during the latter part of Wu Ting’s reign, including Ch’ien, Sui, and Ching, were evolving in Shaanxi about this time.2

Yüan-ch’ü’s abandonment despite persistent threats from the western quarter suggests that exposed fortresses lacked the tactical power necessary to function as control points in relative isolation.3 The Shang may have withdrawn its forces as part of a revised strategic approach or simply decided that the bastion had become an indefensible logistical burden because of its inability to rely on locally produced foodstuffs. Nearby relatively mobile steppe peoples such as the Kung and T’u-fang may have already been exerting enormous pressure, but the bastion’s disuse could equally be evidence of imperial weakness or debauchery. However, even after vanquishing the local aggressors, King Wu Ting apparently chose not to reoccupy it or station a permanent garrison there, a decision that suggests the ad hoc nature of Shang military efforts, the difficulty of exerting control at a distance, an overall contraction of Shang military power, and perhaps a general disinclination to maintain standing border forces despite having erected numerous strongpoints on the perimeter.

Clan disorder and conflict over kingship have been proposed as the impetus for the Shang’s preoccupation with internal affairs as well as the decision to shift the capital, abandoning the well-developed, fortified city of Cheng-chou. Whatever the cause, the massive fiscal and manpower expenditures required to construct an entirely new city, including expansive palaces and substantial fortifications, must have diverted vital resources from power projection, if not military affairs in general. However, the development of highly productive mineral resources in the east and southeast probably diminished Tung-hsia-feng’s formerly vital role in controlling the nearby mountains.

The Shang also withdrew from P’an-lung-ch’eng, but Wu-ch’eng continued to flourish long after P’an-lung-ch’eng’s decline. Wu-ch’eng’s material culture continued to reflect early Anyang developments to some degree, but it clearly had shed central control and was no longer an integral part of the Shang realm. Many Shang enclaves in Hubei were also displaced by indigenous peoples, and the only outward-oriented activity, perhaps a collateral result of moving the capital eastward back toward the ancient heartland, was a weak expression of power into the nearby Shandong area that early on brought Lin-tzu within the shifting periphery and saw the establishment of a few eastern outposts.

It has traditionally been held that the Shang moved their ritual and administrative capital five times after King T’ang vanquished the Hsia and initially ruled from Po. Chung Ting reportedly shifted it to Ao, Ho Tan-chia from Ao to Hsiang, Tzu Yi from Hsiang to Hsing, Nan Keng from Hsing to Yen, and finally, in the most famous move of all, P’an Keng from Yen to the Anyang area.4 Although the exact locations continue to be much debated, they are generally confined to a broad corridor from Erh-li-t’ou to Anyang itself. Despite proposals of martial motivation, these shifts remain enigmatic and arguments have been simultaneously advanced that certain ones represent a movement away or a movement toward confronting such threats.

According to the generally accepted account, after Cheng-chou had flourished for about a century, in his first year of rule Chung Ting ordered the populace to embark for a new capital known as Ao.5 The usual justifications have been advanced for his precipitous decision, including internal disorder, flooding, and a desire to confront the Tung Yi more directly. However, the last two are somewhat improbable: Cheng-chou doesn’t show much evidence of flood damage, and it would have been foolhardy to endanger the state’s administrative and ritual assets by making them more accessible to enemy forces (despite subsequent thinking about “fatal” terrain) by moving to confront the enemy. Nevertheless, ongoing conflict with the Lan Yi, a subgroup of the Tung Yi, is suggested by a Bamboo Annals entry that states, “in the reign of Chung Ting, the Lan Yi made incursions, some revolting and some submitting,” and “when Chung Ting ascended the throne he conducted punitive expeditions against the Lan Yi.” More likely, as reported in the Shih Chi, either unrest among the nobility or conflict over the royal succession probably prompted Chung Ting’s policy of compulsory emigration. However, it seems to have initiated nine generations of turbulence that ultimately caused the Shang’s power to wither so dramatically that the feudal lords no longer felt compelled to pay homage at court.

The remnants of a large Shang fortified city at Hsiao-shuang-ch’iao have been proposed as the site of Chung Ting’s capital of Ao, though not without controversy.6 Located 20 kilometers northwest of Cheng-chou and twenty kilometers from the Yellow River against Mt. Mang (anciently known as Mt. Ao), it dates to the Pai-chia-chuang period but employed construction techniques remarkably similar to Cheng-chou. An expansive city of just under 1.5 square kilometers, it was protected by a 3.5-meter-wide, 1.75-meter-deep, essentially rectangular moat that runs 1,800 meters from north to south and 800 meters from east to west.

Whether it superseded Cheng-chou (Po) as the capital or was a simultaneously occupied secondary capital where the ruler may have chosen to reside to project power against threats from the northwest or escape internal turmoil remains unknown.7 Insofar as conflict with the Tung Yi seems to have constantly troubled the Shang during the middle period, the discovery of several three-sided stone spades in sacrificial pits at Hsiao-shuang-ch’iao that originated in the Yüeh-shih culture identified with the Lan Yi would seem to be evidence that Chung Ting conducted a successful campaign against them.8 A hundred heads from captives who were subsequently sacrificed have also been uncovered that show heavy cutting marks.9 However, the movement to Hsiaoshuang-ch’iao actually shifted the capital away from the friction zone just when Shang victories in these eastern clashes may have forced the Lan Yi to disperse into Shandong, initiating a substantial displacement of Tung Yi.10

After a mere twenty or thirty years King Tsu Yi reportedly moved the capital from Ao to Hsing. One likely location for Hsing is Ke-chia-chuang, a site that certainly was not occupied until P’an-lung-ch’eng and Yüan-ch’ü had been abandoned.11 This retrenchment in the northeast represents a thrust back toward the early Yü-pei/Chi-nan heartland, while Ke-chia-chuang’s location coheres well with traditional scholarly projections of Hsing having been positioned near Hsing-t’ai in Hebei. However, this shift would have brought the Shang core much closer to the Tung Yi, presumably spawning more frequent confrontations. However, the other proposed site, Tsu Yi’s capital of Hsing (or Ying)—Tung-hsien-hsien—is also located at Hsing-t’ai. Although only preliminary reports have appeared, Tung-hsien-hsien seems to have flourished between Cheng-chou’s decline and Anyang’s initial development and apparently continued as a regional center to the end of the dynasty. A few oracle bones have been recovered, and it evidences a cultural stage similar to Huan-pei, but surprisingly lacks walls.12

Next in the traditionally accepted sequence of Shang capitals is Yen, tentatively identified with a site out in Shandong amid the Tung Yi, near what would eventually became Ch’ü-fu in the state of Lu. It apparently served as the Shang center for some thirty-three years and may have been Nan Keng’s residence before he became ruler. Once enthroned, he presumably designated it as the official capital, thereby inescapably continuing the Shang’s confrontation with sometimes hostile Tung Yi cultural manifestations.13 Tsu Chia retained Yen before P’an Keng initiated the famous move to the Anyang area, somewhat away from the eastern threats that the Shang had been successfully repressing.

Acrimonious debate continues over the nature of P’an Keng’s motivation for again shifting the capital, the actual location, and the reliability of the cryptic historical writings chronicling it.14 Until recently it had been assumed that he was the first to occupy the area south of the Huan River known from Chou times onward as the “wastes of Yin,” even though the lack of any oracle bones predating Wu Ting’s reign has proven problematic.15 However, the discovery of a large, well-engineered bastion whose radiocarbon dates just precede the facilities at Anyang has led to the well-reasoned proposal that P’an Keng ensconced the Shang at Huan-pei.

Located 19 kilometers east of the T’ai-hang mountains on the northern bank of the Huan River just above Anyang, Huan-pei’s walls form a slightly distorted square that extends 2,200 meters from north to south and 2,150 meters from east to west and encompasses a massive 4.7 square kilometers. Though neither ditches nor moats reinforce the perimeter, the walls vary from 7 to 11 meters in width and were erected upon deep, carefully layered foundations that began with an interior side trench and were then expanded with a conjoined trench on the exterior.16

Huan-pei’s immense size naturally prompted archaeologists to deem it one of the Shang’s intermediate centers, possibly Hsiang, rather than simply a military bastion.17 However, it is more likely that P’an Keng, Hsiao Hsin, and Hsiao Yi ruled from Huan-pei before Wu Ting ordered the erection of a new administrative capital when he assumed power, perhaps because a conflagration had heavily damaged the ritual complex.18 (Whether the fire was accidental or the result of enemy action is unknown. However, if it were viewed as an expression of Heaven’s will or interpreted as a fatal omen, psycho-religious factors could have compelled the move.) This would explain the lack of pre- Wu Ting oracle bones at Yin-hsü but not the slight chronological discontinuity evident between it and Huan-pei.

Surprisingly, after being abandoned the vast complex of highly functional structures at Huan-pei was never reoccupied during the Shang’s last centuries, despite being perfectly positioned to block attacks from the north. Even if the rather unrealistic conjecture that P’an Keng moved the capital twice19—first to Huan-pei then back to the Cheng-chou area or even to Hsiao-shuang-ch’iao—were to be substantiated, Huan-pei’s abandonment as a military bastion would remain tactically and strategically puzzling.


The first ancient Shang site to be systematically explored, Anyang has yielded many of the artifacts and most of the oracle materials that underlie current depictions of Shang history and culture.20 A period of renewed fluorescence clearly began shortly after P’an Keng or one of his immediate successors moved the capital to Anyang, an area that had once been occupied by predynastic Shang culture.21 The forcible emigration of the populace seems to have prompted vehement opposition, compelling the king to issue proclamations acknowledging the burdens and inconvenience, yet mandating acquiescence on pain of death because of the situation’s exigency. Unfortunately, despite its vividness and detail, “P’an Keng,” the famous text purportedly preserving his pronouncement, is clearly a late fabrication and therefore useless except perhaps as a vestigial memory of their discontent.

P’an Keng’s reasons for initiating this incomprehensibly massive effort remain unknown but likely stemmed from a combination of internal strife and external military pressure, because the immediately preceding era seems to have been marked by weakness, contraction, threats, incursions, and rebellion. However, other factors have been proposed, including exhaustion of the land, pollution of the environment, irrecoverable fire or flood damage, and widespread debauchery that could only be rectified by the imposition of draconian Virtue.22 P’an Keng thus seems to have been trying to reassert royal authority in a pristine environment, unencumbered by political and personal entanglements, while Anyang was well situated to exploit numerous natural resources, including water, wood, and minerals.23

The lack of engineered fortifications at Anyang other than a lengthy moat has provoked questions about its character as a capital. As already noted, according to traditional texts and subsequent historical thought, capitals are defined by the presence of the ruling clan’s ancestral temple, fortified palace, and administrative complexes within a district demarked by protective barriers and substantial exterior walls, whether freestanding or systematically conjoined with internal and external moats.24 However, Anyang’s opulence and undeniable role as the Shang’s administrative and ritual center over the last part of the dynasty have prompted historians to seek an explanation for the incomprehensible absence of substantial fortifications, especially in the light of lessons that should have been learned from Erh-li-t’ou’s vulnerability.

Even though the Shang had a lengthy tradition of ensuring site security before initiating other projects, Anyang’s early kings may have lacked the necessary power to coerce the populace into undertaking the onerous burden of wall building, particularly if they were still recovering from a disaster that had consumed significant resources. Conversely, the ability to order the excavation of the extensive moat that connected the river on the north and the south and partially defined and protected the imperial quarters, whether under his immediate predecessors or at the start of his reign, indicates that Wu Ting’s authority was more than sufficient to mandate the erection of walls or order the assignment of prisoners to the task.25 However, insofar as his aggressive reassertion of Shang power ensured decades of relative tranquility, perhaps his successors had the luxury of simply immersing themselves in the pleasures of empire that ultimately enervated the state, causing the domain’s contraction.

In addition to claiming that Anyang’s rulers were simply oblivious to external threats or the city was protected by as yet undiscovered fortifications, the lack of perimeter defenses has been rationalized as justified by superior Shang strength,26 an aggressive policy of projecting power and preemptively striking enemies at a distance, and confidence in the natural strategic advantages provided by the terrain. Early in the Warring States period the great general Wu Ch’i reprised the area’s dominant characteristics while rebuking his ruler for believing a state could rely on natural strategic advantages to survive:27

Marquis Wu voyaged by boat down the West River. In midstream he looked back and exclaimed to Wu Ch’i, “Isn’t it magnificent! The substantiality of these mountains and rivers, this is the jewel of Wei.”

Wu Ch’i replied: “The real jewel lies in Virtue, not in precipitous defiles. Formerly the Three Miao had lakes Tung-t’ing on the left and P’eng-li on the right but they didn’t cultivate Virtue and righteousness and Yü obliterated them.

The place where Chieh of the Hsia Dynasty resided had the Yellow and Chi Rivers on the left, Mt. T’ai and Mt. Hua on the right, the cliffs of Yi-ch’üeh in the south, and the slopes of Yang-ch’ang to the north. But in his practice of government he didn’t cultivate benevolence and T’ang displaced him.

The state of King Chou of the Yin Dynasty had Mt. Meng-men on the left, the T’ai-hang mountains on the right, Mt. Ch’ang to the north, and the great Yellow River flowing to the south, but in his practice of government he didn’t cultivate Virtue and King Wu killed him.

From this perspective (the state’s jewel) is Virtue, not the precipitousness of its defiles. If you do not cultivate Virtue all the men in the boat will comprise an enemy state.

Another version of this event, recorded in the Chan-kuo Ts’e (Intrigues of the Warring States), which is even more explicit in asserting the inadequacy of terrestrial strategic advantages under corrupt governments and accurately describes the geographic features about Anyang, observes that Anyang had “Mount Meng-men to the left, the Chang and Fu rivers to the right,” and that “the Yellow River belted it to the front while it was backed by mountains to the rear.”28 Wu Ch’i then asserts that “it was marked by this precipitousness, yet because Yin didn’t exert himself in the practice of government, King Wu attacked him,” and boldly concludes that “the precipitousness and expansiveness of the rivers and mountains are not sufficient for security.”

No doubt a fabrication, the conversation of course reflects Warring States military science rather than Shang dynasty sentiment. Moreover, despite the enormous protective value of fortified walls (as attested by Sun-tzu’s admonition to avoid injudiciously assaulting them), Wu Ch’i pointed out that their own state of Wei had already vanquished several fortified cities. Nevertheless, Anyang was somewhat protected by the T’ai-hang mountains to the west and northwest; the Huan and Chang rivers respectively to the north, with the former flowing downward into the southeast where it joins the Yellow River; and the Yellow River itself running along the south.

In view of these purportedly strong defensive advantages, several analysts have recently cited additional Warring States military theory to argue for the city’s essential invulnerability. Traditional Chinese military thought early on emphasized discerning and exploiting inimical and advantageous features of terrain, eventually codifying them into the proto-science of what might best be termed “strategic configurations of terrain.” The Art of War, traditionally attributed to Sun-tzu and the acknowledged progenitor of Chinese military thought, devotes two of its chapters to classifying terrain based on discernible features and correlated operational possibilities. Thereafter, Wu Ch’i analyzed the plight of field forces on difficult and constricted ground, and the Liu-t’ao (Six Secret Teachings) enumerated the tactics appropriate to employing component forces on various types of broadly categorized terrain.

Sections in the Kuan-tzu, also compiled in the Warring States period, preserve some general principles for locating cities in general. However, long before the advantages and disadvantages of locations were explicitly assessed, early settlement builders had already been exploiting natural water barriers by simply choosing to inhabit river- and lakeside areas for their access to water. Just as the Art of War would discuss, armies that attempt amphibious assaults find themselves not only hampered and discomfited, but also easy prey in midstream for archers arrayed on the shore.

Shang strategists probably pondered the question of topographical advantages in somewhat simpler terms, and Chou forces had little difficulty fording the Yellow River (albeit unopposed) some distance from Anyang when they launched the expeditionary assault that ended the dynasty. However, in antiquity it was axiomatic that one should “value high terrain and disdain low ground.”29 The T’ai Kung said: “Occupying high ground is the means by which to be alert and assume a defensive posture” and Sun-tzu admonished commanders, “Do not approach high mountains, do not confront those who have hills behind them.30 If the enemy holds the heights, do not climb up to engage them in battle.”31 The eclectic Huai-nan Tzu added, “heights constitute life, depths constitute death. Mounds and hillocks are male, gorges and valleys female.”32 All these statements reflect the decidedly disadvantageous nature of mounting tiring uphill assaults that must ward off falling missiles and require soldiers to strike upward against enemies in a superior position. Even more foolhardy would be crossing a deep valley and then attempting to storm city walls with exhausted troops and reduced numbers, which would make it difficult to achieve the historically attested minimum of about five or seven to one required for an assault to prevail.

Cities that encompassed any form of higher terrain, such as moderate-sized mounds, were therefore considered strong, not easily approached or overwhelmed. Even if the walls could be penetrated, the heights would provide natural vantage points for the compressed defenders, particularly if large buildings remained that could serve as strongpoints for a concerted defense. However, Anyang was neither situated on high ground nor closely backed by formidable mountains, and no mounds or interior defensive structures have yet been discovered, only the foundations for palatial structures.

According to Sun Pin’s characterization of male and female cities, “female” or strategically weaker ones can, and by implication should, be attacked, but the stronger or male ones should be avoided rather than assaulted or besieged. However, Anyang’s features do not cohere with Sun Pin’s characterization of male cities, and the T’ai-hang mountain range is too far away to be of any defensive use even though it obstructed steppe raiders descending from the north and northwest, especially if the few passes were well blocked by fortified barriers. (Shang oracular inscriptions show the passes were repeatedly penetrated, virtual conduits for passage.) Conversely, Anyang most closely conforms to Sun Pin’s description of a female city, essentially confirming its susceptibility to attack.33

Furthermore, despite Wu Ch’i’s disquisition, none of the defensive advantages propounded under the rubric of “strategic configurations of terrain” are actually present at Anyang. Having been abandoned, even the formidable bastion of Huan-pei just north of the river afforded no protection. Instead, the site was exposed in almost every direction, bereft of protection apart from the minor rivers and a single artificial moat. Moreover, rather than difficult ground, the level plains about it constituted “accessible” and “tenable” terrain according to the Art of War’s classification: land highly suitable for military operations, devoid of natural features that might impede aggressors or obstacles that might be exploited as primary defenses. Even the expansive Yellow River that flows some distance from Yin-hsü itself, just beyond the intervening plains, was fordable at more than one location. Although well situated to project power and control the trade and transport routes into Shandong and the passes through the T’ai-hang mountains, Anyang’s geostrategic advantages were thus clearly insufficient, particularly for a weakened state that had mounted a precipitous move.

A more likely explanation is that despite their internal problems, Shang leadership may have felt confident in the ability of peripheral fortified towns such as T’ai-hsi to blunt incursions in conjunction with external barriers and frontier posts of unknown size and strength. The forces deployed at dispersed bastions and concentrated in the secondary capitals that flourished at the end of the dynasty, especially Chao-ko, were presumably deemed sufficient to intercept enemy invaders and minimize the damage they might inflict, if not vanquish them. Since the Shang never suffered deep penetrations or damage of any consequence until the Chou invasion and effectively carried the battle to their enemies throughout the dynastic period, their confidence was not misplaced.

Multiple capitals would frequently be erected throughout subsequent Chinese history. Sometimes they were occupied sequentially, at others simultaneously, in which case one often functioned as the ritual center, the others as secondary administrative foci or seasonal residences.34 Generally referred to as regional, intermediate, or secondary centers by modern writers, they were often highly militarized or offered rulers, especially more pleasure-oriented individuals, an escape from the capital’s constraints. However, although never mentioned, another possible reason for administering the realm from a secondary capital would be the ruler’s ability to force the nobles to cater to his whims, to travel there from their more comfortable, older quarters, thereby psychologically solidifying his power while destabilizing them and depleting their fiscal resources, though no doubt at the cost of serious antagonism.35

Late Shang ancillary capitals included Han-tan to the north, an area previously occupied by predynastic Shang culture and subsequently the capital of the state of Chao as well as a crucial geostrategic location;36 Chao-ko to the south; and Shang-ch’iu, often said to have retained its importance throughout the dynasty as the original ritual center and the location of the oldest and thus most important ancestral temple. No doubt they were all envisioned as buttressing Anyang’s natural strategic advantages rather than acting as alternatives to Anyang. Although archaeological confirmation is lacking, minor residual forces may well have been retained at Yen-shih, Cheng-chou, and perhaps Yüan-ch’ü, though P’an-lung-ch’eng and the bastion of Huan-pei just north of the Huan River had by then been abandoned.

Traditional historical accounts suggest that Chao-ko was located south of Yin-hsü, somewhere between the theocratic capital of Anyang and the extended boundary at Mu-yeh. Several sites have been proposed, with one in the district of Ch’i slightly to the southwest but still north of the Yellow River being the most likely. Local tales claim that Chao-ko was protected by three encircling walls that described a rectangle of about 1,000 by 600 meters, but no definitive remains have as yet been recovered.37

Chao-ko was probably conceived and functioned as a military bastion long before Emperor Hsin transformed it into an opulent pleasure center, thereby dissipating its essentially Spartan character despite the certain presence of significant military forces and his personal bodyguard. A single passage in the Bamboo Annals about his enlargement of the capital records his penchant for architectural grandeur: “During his reign King Chou considerably enlarged his city so that it reached Chao-ko to the south, occupied Han-tan in the north, and extended to Shang-ch’iu, erecting detached palaces and secondary structures throughout.” Chou dynasty accusations of debauchery and perversity generally identify him with Chao-ko, which remained a somewhat distant, freestanding city despite the Annals’ exaggeration, and some accounts claim he futilely sought refuge there after being vanquished at Mu-yeh.

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