Classical China The Shang and Zhou Dynasties

Fittings in the form of tigers, Baoji, Shaanxi province, Middle Western Zhou dynasty, c. 900 BC, bronze

The first known civilisations from earliest Chinese history were the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c.1650-771 BC). Learn about how they came to power.

The Shang and Zhou dynasties (c.1650-771 BC)

These are the first two dynasties from which written records survive. The Shang and Zhou are some of the earliest civilizations in East Asia from which values emerged that eventually the Chinese would share with the Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans. Confucius (551-479 BC) even said that his own teachings tried to ‘follow Zhou’ namely the recorded actions of the Zhou that emphasized courtesy and uprightness. Confucius drew on these sources to create his moral code for ‘all under heaven’.

Emperor Tang

Traditionally Tang the founder of Shang rule was said to have ended the tyranny of Jie, the Xia. The Emperor was said to be able to intercede with the chief gods especially in times of crisis. A drought however started a year after Tang’s rule and continued for seven years and, ‘a general conviction arose that a human sacrifice would have to be offered to Heaven. Without a second thought Tang expressed his willingness to die for the sake of the kingdom.’ Tang was lucky that just as he was about to offer himself to the gods in a ceremony during which he was charged to a mulberry grove by a team of white horses, the heavens opened to a heavy downpour of rain.

The Shang Dynasty

This fact saved the Shang dynasty and the rains were presumed to have been sent by Shang Di, the high god of heaven. Tang then demoted the god responsible for the drought after having obviously been blessed by heaven to do what he willed. Tang founded an efficient government and encouraged agriculture, both of which became the basis of the Chinese state’s success. Old surviving texts tell us that the peasantry were supervised and cared for over debt-slaves and war captives. They were labeled the ‘zhong’ or multitudes and farmed on the fields owned by the king and the nobility and took up the major part of the army.

Slaves and Human Sacrifice

The Shang slaves were predominantly from the northern and western frontiers of the kingdom and worked with the zhong in the fields and acted as servants in the noble households. It was a feature of this era that human sacrifices were common especially in laying the foundations of buildings, under which human beings and animals would be slaughtered and interred. At a site in Zhengzhou in the second capital of the Shang there lies about a hundred sawn-off human skulls under a palatial floor. Human sacrifice eventually declined under the humanist teachings of Confucius after 1027 B.C. The Shang used human sacrifice most in the grave pits of the royal tombs of Anyang.

The Zhou Dynasty

The city of Anyang fell to Zhou attackers and the last Shang king, Di Xin, died at this time. It was said that during the battle ‘those in the front ranks of the royal army turned their spears and fought those behind until they fled.’ They obviously were said to have believed that the Heavenly Mandate was no longer with Di Xin but rather with Wu the Zhou leader instead. Indeed, it is common for Chinese historians to represent a turnover of power to a new dynasty as wiping away the corruption of a former dynasty. It was a cycle during which a hero-sage would appear to overthrow a useless tyrant.

Although Wu won the fight the Zhou dynasty was not established until after his death. His brother Tan acted as regent during the minority of the second Zhou king. He was familiar with Shang laws as a young man who had acted in the Shang court. He used his experience to make a central bureaucracy, come up with new laws and bring the nobility together. He also founded schools across the realm and organized the continuation of ancestral sacrifices for the former fallen house. He made the significant rule of finding new work for Shang officials thus liberating scholar-bureaucrats from slavish devotion to one royal lineage.


  1. East Asia, Arthur Cotterell, Pimlico, London, 2002