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Shang Dynasty Cities

Walled Chinese Cities First Grew up Along the Yellow River in the Shang Dynasty


A bronze yue, late Shang era.

A bronze yue, late Shang era.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Chinese Dynasties > Shang Dynasty > Shang Dynasty Cities

Chinese cities are thought to have started during the first historic* era, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1766 - c. 1111 B.C.), as (loosely) imperial capitals that would have been the administrative, economic, and religious centers of government -- the palace-temple-cemetery complexes -- built within safety-providing fortifications. The Chou Dynasty (c. 1111-c. 221 B.C.) followed the Shang with major urban centers as capitals of feudal states. Later walled cities were county (hsien) and provincial capitals. Here is a look at two of the early, walled, urban capital cities of Shang China.

Early Chinese urban centers are thought to have been close to where the middle and lower courses of the Yellow River in northern China ran in those days. (The course of the Yellow River has changed, so a modern map doesn't show the exact Shang Dynasty locations.) There the already large Chinese populations over-cultivated the originally fertile land. At the time, some of the Shang were probably still pastoral nomads, but most were sedentary, small-village agriculturists, who practiced domestication of animals.

Because China developed the techniques of using rivers for irrigation of their fields later than in the heavily trade-networked Near East and Egypt, fortified cities started more than a millennium later there -- at least, that's the theory [Sen-Dou Chang]. Besides irrigation per se, sharing ideas via trade routes was important to the development of civilization. Indeed, trade with Indo-European tribes may have brought one of the components of urban culture, the wheeled chariot, to China [Empires of the Silk Road].

Urban Prerequisites

L. M. Young writes:

"So far as can be discerned at present, there emerged in North China during the first half of the 2d century B.C. a civilization with aspects of urbanism-not only the pottery and agriculture distinguishable in the Yang-shao and Lungshanoid Neolithic cultures, but the use of wheeled vehicles, a system of writing, and bronze working."

The Shang City of Ao or Bo
The Ancient Settlement at Cheng Chou

Sen-Dou Chang says the first clearly urban settlement of ancient China that wasn't really just a village was Ao. The archaeological site, discovered in 1950 [Wheatley], was located so near Chengchou, in Honan Province (or Zhengzhou, in Henan Province) that the current city has hampered investigations. According to Robert L. Thorp, some think this location is really Bo (or Po), an earlier Shang capital than Ao, founded by the founder of the Shang Dynasty. Assuming it really is Ao, it was the 10th Shang king, Chung Ting (Zhong Ding) (1562-49 B.C. [Wheatley]), who built it on the ruins of a Neolithic settlement from the Black pottery period.

Aspects of Urbanism

The Shang culture was Bronze Age, the era that followed the Neolithic. The Shang rulers were literate, which is one of the reasons for calling the dynasty historic instead of prehistoric. Like other early urban dwellers, the Shang employed a useful calendar, wheeled vehicles, and practiced metallurgy, including objects of cast bronze. They used bronze for such items as vessels for ritual offerings, wine, and weapons. Archaeologists have unearthed bronze artifacts, the foundation of what appears to be an altar and jade hairpins in the area [Wheatley].

Ao was a rectangularly walled city with fortifications like those that had surrounded villages. Such walls are described as ramparts of pounded earth. The city of Ao was 2 km from north to south and 1.7 from east to west, yielding an area of about 1.3 square miles, which was large for early China, but small for a Near Eastern city. Babylon, for instance, was roughly 3.2 square miles [Kingsley Davis]. Chang says it was roomy enough that there was probably much cultivated land within this walled area, although it probably did not house the peasants. Factories for bronze, bone, horn, and ceramics were located nearby. Foundries and what may have been a distillery [Wheatley] were also found. Some factories were probably even within the city walls.

The Great City Shang
The Ancient Settlement at Hsiao T'un

The best studied Shang Dynasty city is the 14th century B.C. city of Shang, which was built, according to tradition, by the Shang ruler Pan Keng, in 1384. Known as the Great City Shang (Da Yi Shang), the 30-40 sq km city may have been located about 100 mi north of Ao and near Anyang north of the village of Hsiao T'un (or it may have been near Shanqiu, according to Searching for Shang's Beginnings, by Murowchick and Cohen). An alluvial plain created from Yellow River loess deposits surrounded it. Irrigated water from the Yellow River provided relatively reliable harvests in an otherwise semiarid area. The Yellow River created a physical barrier on the north and east and part of the west. On the west was also a mountain range providing protection and, Chang says, probably hunting grounds and timber. Just because there were natural boundaries doesn't mean Shang was without a wall. Glenn T. Trewartha says no wall has been discovered, but it would have had one. Within the walled-in area were palaces, temples, cemeteries, archive, and houses made with walls of pounded earth with light poles for roofs covered with rush matting and all plastered with mud. There were no grander structures than wattle and daub, although K.C. Chang says there might have been two-story buildings. (Incidentally, K.C. Chang also thinks the dynasty before the Shang may have created the earliest cities, as legends claim, but archaeologists haven't found traces of these.)

The Great City Shang was the capital -- at least for ancestor worship/ritual purposes -- for 12 kings of the frequently moving Shang Dynasty, which is said to have changed its capital many times. During the period of the 14 predynastic Shang lords, it is said to have changed eight times, and in the period of the 30 kings, seven times, according to Young. The Shang (at least in the later period) practiced sacrifice and ancestor worship, with mortuary rituals, according to Smith. Keightley refers to the king as a "theocrat" because his power came from the people's belief that he could communicate with the high god Ti via his ancestors.

* See: Defining Ancient History: Pre-history vs. History.

Shang City References

Below are most of the references I used for this short article. I also consulted online archaeological dictionaries. There is inconsistent spelling used to represent Chinese sounds; for instance, Po and Bo are voiced and unvoiced ways to spell the name of the same ancient locale; Honan refers to the same place as Henan, but Hunan is different. If the topic interests you, I hope these articles help you on your quest to learn more about early Chinese urban centers. They are listed in chronological order.

  1. "Chinese Cities: Origins and Functions," by Glenn T. Trewartha; Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 42, No. 1 (Mar., 1952), pp. 69-93.

  2. "The Origin and Growth of Urbanization in the World," by Kingsley Davis; The American Journal of Sociology Vol. 60, No. 5, World Urbanism (Mar., 1955), pp. 429-437.

  3. "Chinese Religion in the Shang Dynasty," by D. Howard Smith; Numen Vol. 8, Fasc. 2 (Jul., 1961), pp. 142-150.

  4. "The Historical Trend of Chinese Urbanization," by Sen-Dou Chang; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Jun., 1963), pp.109-143.

  5. "Archaeology and the Chinese City," by Paul Wheatley; World Archaeology, Vol. 2, No. 2, Urban Archaeology (Oct., 1970), pp. 159-185

  6. Metallurgy in Shang China," by Chêng Tê-K'un; T'oung Pao Second Series, Vol. 60, Livr. 4/5 (1974), pp. 209-229.

  7. "Urbanism and the King in Ancient China," by K. C. Chang; World Archaeology Vol. 6, No. 1, Political Systems (Jun., 1974), pp. 1-14

  8. "The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture," by David N. Keightley; History of Religions Vol. 17, No. 3/4, (Feb. - May, 1978), pp. 211-225.

  9. "The Shang of Ancient China," by L. M. Young; Current Anthropology Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jun., 1982), pp. 311-314.

  10. "The Growth of Early Shang Civilization: New Data From Ritual Vessels," by Robert L. Thorp; Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jun., 1985), pp. 5-75.

  11. "Relocation of Civilization Centers in Ancient China: Environmental Factors," by Duan Chang-Qun, Gan Xue-Chun, Jeanny Wang and Paul K. Chien; Ambio Vol. 27, No. 7 (Nov., 1998), pp. 572-575.

  12. "Searching for Shang's Beginnings: Great City Shang, City Song, and Collaborative Archaeology in Shangqiu, Henan," by R.E. Murowchick and D.J. Cohen; The Review of Archaeology Vol. 22 No. 2 (Fall 2001).

  13. "Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm," by Sarah Allan; The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 66, No. 2 (May, 2007), pp. 461-496.

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