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Shang Dynasty in Ancient China

At the end of the Mythic Period of China's history, the Xia dynasty gave way to the Shang Dynasty… if the Xia really existed at all!  Sal gives an overview of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties—societies that lived between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers—and discusses their cultural practices, their bronzeworking, and the origins of a Chinese identity.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We are now going to go the east and explore Ancient China. And we're going to do that in the second millennium B.C.E., where we see some of the first great dynasties of Ancient China emerging. So if we go to roughly the 16th century, B.C.E., so that would be about 3600 years ago, we have the emergence of the Shang Dynasty, and what's significant about the Shang Dynasty is it's the first dynasty where we have significant archaeological evidence of its existence. We have a lot of evidence in this area where, do you see, highlighted in red, where the Shang Dynasty existed with its capital at Yin, near the modern-day city of Anyang. Now, we have accounts of a Dynasty before it, the Xia or the Chia Dynasty, although we do not have significant archaeological evidence of it. But the accounts say that the Xia Dynasty would have been around for roughly 500 years before we get to this 16th century B.C.E., with the emergence of the Shang Dynasty. Now just to get ourselves acquainted in time and space, and think about, well what else was happening around 1600 B.C.E., we could remind ourselves that that was during the new kingdom in Ancient Egypt, right around here, the height of Ancient Egypt's power was right around that time. We could think about the Hittite Empire that we study in other videos, we could think about Mycenaean Greece. Around 1600 B.C.E. is when you start having, or when you have the decline of the Indus Valley civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization, and you start to have the Vedic period, where you have these Indo-Aryan people start to migrate into Northern India. In Mesopotamia, you have the Assyrian Middle Kingdom right around here, so this is all happening in this mid- to late-second millennium B.C.E., which is roughly the time of the Shang Dynasty. Now the Shang Dynasty was known for many things, it was a Bronze Age culture, and you can see depicted here, many examples of that and this is pretty impressive work with bronze, this is a bronze battle axe right over here, you can imagine a handle for this axe, something like this, this is nothing that you would want to deal with in a battle, and you can see these other very significant, large, bronze crafts, handiwork, that the Shang Dynasty was able to produce. Now what the Shang Dynasty is also well-known for is their writing, it's the first evidence of a fairly advanced writing form, and it's related to modern Chinese. And a lot of that writing, the significant artifacts from that time are on what are called oracle bones. That's an oracle bone right over here, this is actually the scapula, the shoulder blade of an ox, and what they would do is they would write questions in this oracle bone script on top of that scapula of an ox and then they would heat it up in a flame or some type of source of heat until it cracks and then they would interpret the cracks to see what was the answer to their actual questions. And you can actually see how this oracle bone script is related to modern Chinese script. So this is Shang written in oracle bone script and you can see how it evolved over time to the modern-day Chinese script. Even though if you go straight from that to that, they look reasonably different, but when you look at the evolution, you can see that they have lot of commonality. You also see it in words, right over here, shows you evolution of the word tiger, and once again, this is the oracle bone script and you can see it looks right here like a picture of a tiger, but then it evolved over time to the modern form right over here. Now, this Shang civilization, it's no coincidence that first the Xia and then the Shang, that they develop over here in the yellow river and the Yangtze River valleys, we've talked about it, the Ancient Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, all of the Indus Valley civilization, they all started where agriculture first emerged, which tended to be in these river valley civilizations. Now the Shang in particular, not only were they known for their bronze work, they were known for their large cities, they were known for their complex social structures, they were known especially near the end of the Shang period, for having chariots, and some people think that because they had chariots, there might have been contacts with folks further west. Now the Shang Dynasty, I said how the Xia Dynasty lasted for over 500 years, and the Shang Dynasty also lasts for on the order of 500 years, which is a very very very very long time. But as we get to the middle of the 11th century B.C.E., it would reach its end. The last king of the Shang Dynasty is this gentleman right over here, this would be Dix Xin or Di Shin and the accounts have him initially in his rule as being a very capable ruler, but later in his rule, he seems to get more corrupt, becomes less competent of a ruler, his favorite consort Daji, right over here, she's a bit of a not-so-popular figure in Chinese history, a lot of people think that she helped, or they blame her for corrupting Di Xin, and so he eventually faces his end in the Battle of Muye, against King Wu of Zhou or Joe is actually the correct pronouncing, King Wu of Zhou, and King Wu of Zhou is able to defeat Di Xin at the Battle of Muye, and that is the end of Shang Dynasty and it begins the Zhou Dynasty, which will go on for another 800 years, that's pretty impressive, how continuous these dynasties actually are, and after that battle, Di Xin goes off and commits suicide, and this right over here is a depiction of King Wu of Zhou, who starts the Zhou Dynasty. But the big picture here is we're talking about huge swaths of time and we have a significant, I guess you could say, civilization, that started with the river valleys in China but it's amazing how continuous these civilizations were and it's almost amazing how modern their writing was relative to modern Chinese script and that's why historians believe that writing of this form was, because of how advanced it was, was probably in place for a long time before we see these oracle bones, so even though we don't have the strong archaeological evidence yet for the Xia Dynasty, there's a lot of evidence that by the time the Shang came about, the Chinese civilization was already quite well-developed around the Yellow River and the Yangtze.