The Religion of the Shang, China’s Earliest Historical Dynasty

The Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BCE), once centered in the North China Plain, is the first recorded Chinese dynasty for which documentary and archaeological evidence exists. Of interest to historians of religion, this dynasty contains ancient religious beliefs of Chinese history.  

The Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty was a slave-owning aristocracy with a rural peasantry and agricultural way of life. Domestication of animals was present and hunting became a popular hobby for many nobles. The clans of the aristocratic families were unified by an elaborate system of rights, privileges, and obedience to the will of a tribal ancestor. Significant effort was made to preserve tribal sacrosanct relationships.

The Shang’s capital moved several times within Henan Province, located in north-central China. This chronology of these movements has been segmented by Sinologists: Erlitou in Yanshi County is considered a pre-Shang capital and Zhengzhou as the middle Shang capital (dating c. 15th century BCE). The final capital was Yin (modern Anyang) which survived for over 200 years until it was overthrown by the Zhou dynasty (ruled c. 1050–256 BCE).

The Shang boasted architectural sophistication. Excavations at Yin uncovered foundations of rectangular buildings with impressions of pillars. Beyond the city, large cruciform tombs containing human and animal sacrifices were found. The deceased were buried with servants, horses, chariots, pottery, bronzes, and pieces of divinatory tortoiseshell.

Bronze working is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Shang period. Bronze wine and food vessels were made for rituals. Bronze foundries manufactured spoons, cups, bells, swords, knives, spearheads, axeheads, and chariot parts. A thriving industry required a large labor force for mining, refining, and transportation purposes.

Ceremonial ivory goblet inlaid with turquoise, c. 12th-century BCE, Archaeology Institute, Beijing

Sculpting was a cultural pursuit as many carvings from marble and limestone depict both real animals and mythical creatures. Music was popular given the variety of ancient instruments such as clay ocarinas, tuned chimes of stone, bells, and drums of bronze. 

The dynasty’s final rulers became hedonistic. They constructed for themselves luxurious palaces and internal fighting among noble families gradually developed. Eventually, small and formerly loyal states asserted their independence and the Shang dynasty finally succumbed to the Zhou.

The Religion of the Shang

Archaeology reveals much about the cultural and religious life of the Shang people. The Shang believed in a Great Ancestor, lesser ancestor spirits, and nature spirits. They had a sacrificial system, an elaborate set of mortuary rituals, and practiced divination.

The Great Ancestor and Ancestor Spirits 

The worship of Shangdi (Chinese: “Lord-on-High”) and the spirits of deceased kings living in heaven was the central tenet of the Shang religion. This worship was entangled with political activity as the ancestral hall, dedicated to the veneration and worship of deceased ancestors, was at the heart of governmental pursuits and became the symbol of the state itself.

Based on oracle bone inscriptions, Shangdi, the Great Ancestor or Supreme Spirit, who is the most powerful spirit and perhaps considered too distant by and for the people (prayers were seldom directed at him and there is a noticeable lack of mythic accounts of his origins and connection to culture heroes or sage-emperors), controlled various natural and human phenomena such as the harvests, weather, the fate of the dynasty’s capital, and the frequent warfare between the Shang and other tribes. The people did not approach Shangdi directly but through the lesser spirits who informed them of Shangdi’s will.

Spirits were worshiped at an ancestral shrine within the home but the spirits of the land received their worship at earth altars beneath the open sky. The Shang believed that natural phenomena like wind, rain, mountains, rivers, trees, and grain possessed a spiritual potency and exerted a spiritual influence on the individual’s life and destiny. 

“To these early ancestors of the Chinese the world seemed full of powers, manifesting themselves in animals and vegetation, in the heavens above and in the waters below, in the mysterious processes of growth and decay, and in the events of disease and death. The community consisted not only of the living but of the dead ancestors, who were custodians of the source of life and vitality, sustenance and growth. They were still active and showed their approval by giving abundant fertility in plants and animals, and success in hunting and war. The place where they were worshipped became a ‘holy place’ from which flowed the prosperity and well-being of the whole group” (1).

Upon death, each king ascended to heaven where they became associated with the Supreme Spirit. The people still living in the land over which the king had ruled while alive were required to seek his advice and guidance, and also offer him regular sacrifices. If the ancestor was satiated appropriately, there would be a continued provision of protective influence over the land and the people. 

Shamans 

Shamans were members of the community valued by the common people and nobility. Shang kings and nobles turned to shamans for guidance regarding spiritual matters, which produced interconnectedness between governance and religion. 

Shamans were sought after because of their powers of communicating with spirits and recording the spirits’ commands and wishes for guidance. Communicating with the spirits through a shaman was crucial before setting out on a journey, hunting, marching into combat, or in relation to sickness, the weather, or the harvest.

Oracle Bones

The Shang people used oracle bones, most of which date between 1300 and 1200 BCE, for divination. 

Inscribed tortoise carapace (“oracle bone”), Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Because questions and answers are inscribed on the bones of cattle, water buffalo, and the shells of tortoises, they have offered valuable insight into the concerns of the Shang. For instance, apparently at this time in Chinese history, ethical concepts were elementary given their absence from the oracle bone inscriptions. Rulers had little moral responsibility toward the ancestor spirits of old they venerated or the people they ruled in their lands. Sinologists assert that ethical thinking during this period was limited majorly to matters of prosperity and calamity (war, crop failure, weather, etc.).

The oracle bones, nonetheless, functioned as a channel from the shaman to the spirits of royal ancestors, nature deities, and other powerful spirits. Shamans inquired from the spirits about the reasons behind contemporaneous events and/or what the future had in store for the people and king. The king’s duty was to ask the spirits about natural events, illnesses, dreams, and forecasts for hunting and military endeavors.

The process of oracle bone divination was that bones or shells were cut into rows of grooves and pits into which a heated rod was inserted. This produced cracks on the opposite side of the bone or shell. The shaman, having made his request to the spirit, interpreted the direction of the cracks as the spirit’s answer, which he communicated to the king. A scribe then chiseled the king’s question into the surface of the bone or shell relative to the cracks for record purposes.

Life After Death

The Shang people thought about life after death. Elaborate tombs for the royals and nobles were constructed and believed necessary for post-mortem existence. 

These tombs contained various deposits such as utensils, sacrificial vessels, and weapons, and when the king was buried, a large number of horses and people were buried alive with him. Jade objects, possibly symbolizing immortality, were deposited in the tombs because they were thought to contain preservative properties offsetting corruption and decay. The servants, concubines, and wives were immolated upon the death of the king, possibly indicating the belief that the dead required continued nourishment and sustenance.

A bronze vessel used by the Shang for serving win

Animals in Shang Religious Belief

The “ogre mask”, a compound of more than one animal, is a bronze sacrificial artifact illustrating the importance animal representations had in the Shang religion.

Interpretations of the mask differ but it was possibly intended to frighten evil spirits away from graves and their feasting on the sacrifices offered to ancestors. The mask also possibly depicts an all-powerful storm god and/or provides evidence for a dualistic view based on belief in light and darkness and birth and death.

The Shang also had a fascination with the tortoise. They believed that it possessed mysterious powers which is why the shell was used in divination. The dragon, moreover, a recurrent and famous feature of Chinese motifs throughout history, was associated with the storm, clouds, rain, fertility, rivers, and marshes. The dragon motif appears on many oracle bones and in early Chinese art in the form of a snake-like creature with forelegs and horns.

References

1. Smith, Howard. 1961. “Chinese Religion in the Shang Dynasty”. Numen 8(2):142-150. p. 143. 

 

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