Based on documented practices of subsequent ages, it has often been asserted that weapons were a royal monopoly in antiquity, being furnished to the combatants only when under attack or being mobilized for an external expedition. Many later dynasties even prohibited weapons possession among the populace because they furnished the sole means of challenging the ruling family. However, particularly with the shift to bronze, even though their fabrication was carried out under governmental auspices, there is no evidence that this sort of proscription was ever implemented in the Shang. Conversely, being a rather brutal era in which the king gradually evolved into an unchallenged despot and martial values had long been esteemed, it seems more likely that members of the regal clans at least possessed weapons, if they did not routinely carry them. Moreover, the enormous number of weapons interred with the deceased throughout the Shang implies sufficient availability for them to be wasted in this fashion. (The late Shang gradually shifted toward the use of replica weapons and bronze ritual items that employed a larger component of more easily formed lead and less copper, thereby conserving the latter while minimizing the labor involved in sharpening and finishing.)

The inscriptions provide vestigial glimpses of formalized training measures in these weapons that apparently carried over into the early Western Chou. Only by becoming familiar with the features of their weapons and practiced in their employment could combatants survive on the battlefield and be contributors rather than liabilities. In addition to acquiring experience in the coordinated employment of the shield and spear or shield and dagger-axe, every warrior had to develop the strength necessary to adroitly wield his piercing or crushing weapon and sustain the effort under combat conditions.41 The Shang also had martial dances that were performed with weapons that no doubt contributed to the overall development of martial spirit, but whether they had any training function (such as practicing coordinated movement) is unknown.42

The degree to which the privileged warrior class may also have been educated in writing, the techniques of command and control, or the rudimentary administrative skills increasingly needed to direct Shang farms or other enterprises remains unknown. Some historians claim that chariot driving, which would become one of the “six arts” or essential accomplishments of every gentleman in the Chou, had already begun to be important. Formal training would also distinguish warriors who had acquired additional capabilities, making them more qualified in some general sense for broader responsibilities.43

Because archery was highly esteemed and extensive practice is required to develop the skills necessary for firing quickly and accurately in the heat of battle, sons of the nobility certainly underwent formal training. In the middle Warring States period Sun Pin would comment that “those who excel at archery act as the left (of the chariot), those who excel at driving act as drivers, and those who lack both skills act as the right.”44 A good archer could easily fire several arrows per minute from his reflex bow, quickly expending the quiver of ten normally carried. A few inscriptions refer to archery schools, officials being entrusted with training people in archery, archery officers who exercised command functions in combat, and new archers being deployed on the battlefield. 45 Although there may have been archery contests under royal auspices such as convened in the early Chou or localized competitions that became the basis for the highly esteemed communal and ritual archery ceremonies that subsequently developed, evidence is lacking.

Nevertheless, oracular inscriptions fail to support claims which are based on late writings that Shang military training was already highly structured and carried out under government supervision. The use of common weapons such as the spear and dagger-axe was probably taught in the time-honored way, by older warriors and low-ranking officers skilled in their use, but again the inscriptions offer no further information. Conflict having been virtually a normal part of warrior life in the Shang, particularly under Wu Ting, a certain amount of “training” no doubt occurred in the family, from early age, to equip men with the necessary skills to fully participate in the society. On the battlefield itself, more skilled and experienced fighters invariably played the leading role, allowing novices to learn under life-threatening conditions and become effective warriors or soldiers, presuming they survived.

Furthermore, whether ensconced in a chariot or fighting on the ground, battlefield clashes required more than warriors simply wielding individual weapons. Early engagements may have rapidly disintegrated into hundreds or thousands of individual clashes and become nothing more than a chaotic melee, yet a tendency toward some sort of cohesive approach and the formulation of basic tactics that might be executed upon command is thus already visible in the Shang. But deploying and maneuvering to create tactical advantages required discipline and the creation of fundamental organizational units. Whether the clan forces, , and contingents of 3,000 consisted of numerous squads, platoons, or companies as in later eras and the soldiers trained together in small units for greatest effectiveness remains unknown. The only group training visible in the inscriptions remains the hunt, though there are indications of night exercises as well.46 Claims that complex battle formations (which would have required far more extensive training) were employed in the Shang lack all substantiation, as does their projection back into the legendary era of the Shang’s supposed progenitor, Fu Hsi.47

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