Ancient Chinese History: Paleolithic Cultures and the Shang Dynasty

Ancient Chinese History: Paleolithic Cultures and the Shang Dynasty

This research paper explores Ancient Chinese History of Paleolithic Cultures.

Yellow River

Originated from the eastern slopes of Tibetan plateau
Then, it cuts through desert and steppe, and then the North China plains, and then the sea
Desert -> high silt content (40%); “yellow river” Silt = extremely fertile soil; loess soil
Great seasonal fluctuation in volume
Difficult to navigate and disastrous floods

Yangzi River

Also originated from the eastern slopes of the Tibetan plateau, but does not cut through desert and steppe
Much less silt; some due to deforestation
Easy to navigate; major waterways for transportation Many tributaries from north and south

Earliest Humans in Ancient China

• “Peking Man,” homo erectus, 700,000 years ago, discovered in 1920’s at Zhoukoudian, near Beijing
Homo sapiens, anatomically modern humans, date back to 140,000 years ago in China
• Both species might have originated in Africa
• Both “Peking Man” and homo sapiens in early China had paleolithic technology, i.e. chipped stone tools for hunting and scavenging “Neolithic Revolution”
• “Neolithic Revolution,” ca. 10,000 BCE

  • Advanced, polished stone tools
  • Invention of agriculture
  • Sharp and durable axes to cut down trees
  • Ability to clear fields for cultivation of seeds
  • Shift to domesticated livestocks and cultivation of seeds as main sources of food

“Neolithic Revolution,” or
the Beginning of “Civilization”

  • Population growth and settlement (vs. migratory)
  • Land and territory becomes a source of wealth
  • Record-keeping of agricultural products
  • Rise of government for organizational needs
  • Food surplus allow for leisure time (crafts, etc)
  • Increasing political, social, cultural complexity
  • Increasing political, social, cultural complexity
  • Beginning around 10,000 BCE, many Neolithic cultures began to emerge along the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers • Agriculture: Agriculture: Millet (North China) and Rice (South China)


The First Historical Period

  • First dynasties in traditional historical records • Xia dynasty, 2205-1766 BCE
  • Shang dynasty, 1766-1122 BCE
  • Western Zhou dynasty, 1122-771 BCE
  • Discovery of Oracle-bone inscriptions in 1899
  • Beginning of historical period pushed back
  • Shang dynasty became historically verifiable


Reading the Oracle-bone Inscriptions

  • Plastrons (underside of turtle shells); Scapulas (shoulder blades of cattle & water buffalo)
  • Records of divination of the Shang royal family
  • 1,300 – 1050 BCE; majority from the reign of Wu Ding, a king of the Shang dynasty, reigned 1,200-1,180 BCE Sources for Shang history
  • Around 180,000 pieces discovered; 50,000 published • Logographic script and classical Chinese grammar • Political, military, religious, personal affairs of the elite • Shang state religion and Shang warfare
  • Further excavation: Royal tombs throughout Anyang • Numerous bronze vessels and other precious objects • Shang as a Bronze Age dynasty, i.e. the polite elite is defined by its monopoly of bronze technology

Shang state religion

  • Capricious High God Di 
  • Shang ancestors, once deceased, enter the pantheon
  • Pyramid hierarchy
  • Bureaucratic religion
  • Shang royal family’s exclusive access to the pantheon

Tuesday, September 4, 12
Shang warfare
• Shang king as the commander
• 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers; 13,000 soldiers
• Spears, shields, bows and arrows
• Bronze chariots = two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicles
Shang rituals and sacrifices
• Wine (millet ale)
• Crops / Millets
• Cattle, Dogs, Sheep
• Humans (males, females, children; burials and other rituals)
• Dependent subjects of Shang royal families • Tributes from allies
• Prisoners of wars
• Over 30 non-Shang neighboring groups / states (none of which had any writings as far as we know) • Thousands of P.O.W.’s
(Late) Shang dynasty

  • Confederacy of lineages
  • Headed by the Shang king and his lineage
  • Rituals and wars
  • Bronze technology
  • Earliest instances of the Chinese script
  • Population unknown; border unknown
  • Many (illiterate) neighboring states
    Zhou conquest of the Shang
    Bronze inscriptions• “Metal Bound Box,” Book of Documents
    • Heaven as an active agent for the welfare of the people • Idea of a moral cosmos (may be)
  • “In the autumn when the grain was full and ripe but not yet harvested, Heaven sent down a wind accompanied by great thunder and lightning.” 
  • “Heaven sent down rain and a wind from the opposite, so that all the grain stood up straight again.” 
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