Shang – The First Dynasty of China


Analysing the nature of the magic and sexual freedom of China’s first recognised dynasty.

The Shang Dynasty (1765-1123 BCE) is recognised as being the first period in which China had an organised, centralised state. It succeeded the Hsia Dynasty of 2205-1765 BCE which appears to be only semi-historical. The Hsia dynasty saw the beginning of the movement of peoples from being parts of a tribe to being part of a state ruled by kings (later emperors) who then stretch in an unbroken line (or at least an identified line) until 1911.

The Shang Dynasty is centred on the capital of Anyang, which is located on the River Huan in what is now Hunan Province. It is believed to be King Pankeng who settled on this site somewhere around 1400 BCE. The city was never conquered by enemies but it was eventually abandoned after extensive flooding. The centre of the state subsequently moved several times.

The Shang Dynasty is also associated with the formalisation of early Chinese writing and this was used to leave records which provide a reasonable amount of information about the period. Books and scrolls may have been described in the intervening years but oracle bones remain and these are very illuminating. The oracle bones were fortune-telling accessories which were employed probably by shaman or animist priests to help foretell good or bad fortune. Human sacrifice was employed as part of the deepening belief in religion in Chinese society. The concept of the dual soul was also developed during this time: the po is the animal part of the soul which remains with the body after death (and which is what ghosts are), while the hun is the spiritual part of the soul which disappears into the afterlife. When Buddhist beliefs later developed, it was the hun which was believed to pass through the endless wheel of death, suffering and rebirth known as the samsara. Ancestor cults also became popular during the Shang Dynasty and the universe was divided into the male (Yin) and the female (Yang) principles and the relationship of these two determined nature. Yin and Yang must be kept in balance by humanity through the use of magic, which appears to have involved naked maidens being chased through the trees, among other things.

The Shang Dynasty has been described as an age of magic in which sexual freedom for the common people was a defining (and subsequently all too rare) characteristic. The ruling elite may have had formalised marriages but still enjoyed the search for sensual and spiritual fulfillment – as demonstrated by poetry from the period. This freedom was to change as a result of the Confucian revolution.