The “Three Dynasties”: The Ancient Kingdoms
The first Chinese historian, Sima Qian, wrote a history of China around about 100BC and he starts with Five Emperors who’re pretty much considered these days to be mythical (although the book says there are attempts to tie them to particular Neolithic groups). After these Emperors he writes of three early Dynasties who ruled “all China” – the Xia, the Shang and the Zhou. These were also originally dismissed by Western Europeans as legends, but the Shang and the Zhou have left incontrovertible archaeological evidence for their existence – they had writing and so are historical. The Xia are less solidly identified but there is thought to be some truth to the account of them. These dynasties didn’t rule over as wide a territory as later China, and the Xia and the Shang probably didn’t directly rule over much territory outside their capitals.
The general model for the history of this whole period from the archaeology is that the Xia, Shang and Zhou all co-existed throughout the period in different areas and the different groups rose to prominence at different times. The Xia were (probably) in the central Yellow River basin, the Zhou in the Wei River valley in the west & the Shang from the eastern Yellow River region.
So this chapter covers the first three dynasties of China, the Xia (2100BC-1600BC), the Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and the Zhou and their aftermath (1046BC-221BC). For context here’s some dates of events in other parts of the world, starting with some Ancient Egyptian stuff coz that’s probably what I know best in the ancient world (tho I still needed to check the exact dates of them). Khufu (whose tomb is the Great Pyramid at Giza) pre-dates the Xia, he reigned from 2470BC to 2447BC. The Middle Kingdom era in Egypt is 2066BC-1650BC roughly concurrent with the Xia. The New Kingdom (1549BC-1044BC) is roughly concurrent with the Shang, and Tutankhamun (1343BC-1333BC) and Ramesses II (1279BC-1212BC) are in the middle of that. After that in Egypt it’s the bit that I think of as the complicated bit – but a point of reference is that Alexander the Great ruled Egypt 332BC-323BC. All of those Egyptian dates are taken from “The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” by Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton (which I had a note of for my post about shabtis from a while ago).
For the rest of the world (er, by this I mean the Mediterranean …) I’m just going to pull a few dates quickly out of wikipedia (and one thing writing these books up in more detail will hopefully help me do is not have to go to wikipedia for stuff like that – I now have orientation dates for China, for instance). The Minoan civilisation on Crete is approx 2200BC to 1450BC and Linear B script is written (by Mycenean Greeks on Crete) around 1700BC-1500BC. The collapse of several eastern Mediterranean civilisations known as the Bronze Age collapse occurs around 1200BC, and the “Greek Dark Ages” run from then until 750BC. Archaic Greece is the period from 800BC to 480BC (includes Pythagoras), and Classical Greece after that until 323BC. Classical Greece is effectively the bit with most of the names one knows – Plato, Aristotle etc – and it ends with Alexander. Rome is founded in the 8th Century BC (their origin myth states 753BC) – the Roman Republic (as opposed to the initial Roman Kingdom) is formed in 509BC. The first Punic War (Rome v. Carthage) begins in 264BC, so just within our time frame – the second Punic War (Rome v. Carthage round 2, the time of Hannibal) begins in 218BC so just outside this time.
Whether or not the Xia as Sima Qian writes about them actually existed is in doubt – they didn’t have writing (or at least not any that’s been found) and so there’s nothing to definitively tie a particular Bronze Age culture to the Xia. There is a site in Erlitou, western Henan, that existed at the right time in the right sort of place so it is identified as the probable Xia. Which seems a little circular to me as evidence for the existence of a Xia dynasty (and the book does point this out – the two double-page spreads on the Xia seem to be dancing carefully around the need to acknowledge both that the Xia are an important part of Chinese cultural identity and the lack of concrete evidence for them). The most compelling bit of evidence that they present (in my eyes) is the bronze ceremonial vessels – 20 of them have been found, and they’re a lot simpler than the later Shang & Zhou ones but they have similarities & are more complex and sophisticated than the previous Neolithic bronzes that have been found.
The legend of the Xia ties into and probably creates the narrative paradigm that is used by later Chinese historians to describe the dynastic cycle of later dynasties. It starts with Yu who is all that is good & wise in a ruler and then ends with a terrible tyrant (Jie) who is all that is dreadful in a ruler and who is then overthrown by the start of the next dynasty. So the classical view of the dynastic cycle is “from growth to decline”. Yu is the hero who is credited with figuring out how to ameliorate the floods of the Yellow River by digging channels to divert the flow – and is probably almost entirely mythical. The next rulers seem more plausibly real people – with petty scheming and succession struggles as well as more benign stories. Jie is again probably mythical, and the books says the stories of his tyranny & replacement were probably a way for the Zhou dynasty to give a precedent for their own usurpation of the Shang.
The Shang definitely existed – in the early 20th Century their oracle bones were discovered. These bones were used in divination rituals by the King, and the results of the divination were then written down on the bone. These provide a wealth of data about the later Shang (which is the period when they were used) because for a while the King didn’t make any major decisions without consulting the ancestors first. Sometimes even minor decisions were only taken after consultation. The oracle bones were in some ways astonishingly easy to decipher, in comparison to other ancient texts – this is because the writing system (and written language) used are directly related to modern Chinese script & languages. So a lot easier than getting ancient Egyptian and trying to figure it out. The oracle bones are used during the later Shang period, but towards the very end the range of questions narrows & the use of them starts to die out.
The Shang social/political structure was very much based around kinship & lineages – the King ruled because he was senior member of the senior lineage. Sub-regions of the kingdom were ruled by the next most senior branches of the lineage, sub-regions of these by junior branches of the sub-region’s ruling lineage etc etc. They also appear to have had a mechanism to make sure there was always a mature ruler – you get succession to a king’s brothers (down the line of seniority) until his son is old enough to rule. Which sounds fascinating because it feels like it shouldn’t work (why wouldn’t the brother want his own sons to inherit – the rules about seniority must’ve been very ingrained). The King wasn’t just senior in political terms, but also in religious terms. Every lineage could worship its own ancestors but as the King was head of the senior lineage his ancestors were the most important ones. The state wasn’t particularly cohesive, but it was bound together by this network of kinship & seniority.
They practiced human sacrifice – some victims buried in tombs, some in foundations of buildings, others in pits that seem to be just to bury victims. The book suggests this was in large part about defining the Shang as “the people” and outsiders (in particular Qiang tribes people who they warred against) as “others” who were fit only for decapitation. The tomb burials were also about providing the recently deceased with a proper retinue for their life after death – death wasn’t an end of a person, it was a relocation to the land of the ancestors, so important to send along all one would need. Ritual offerings of food & drink (and human sacrifices) were then used to communicate with the ancestor (as well as the oracle bones used only by the King). The book describes the religion as “increasingly bureaucratic” – the sorts of questions that could be asked were, over time, narrowed down to particular things. The rituals that could be performed were determined by the day of the week etc.
The Shang Dynasty ends with a tyrant, of course – called Zhouxin. Actual evidence from the time period is minimal, most of what’s known is later spin designed to make the Zhou look good initially. And in later periods designed to make their own rulers “not as bad as Zhouxin so not worthy of being overthrown” (which is an interesting way that the “current” time affects the writing of history). But the actual evidence is more that the state of the Shang had disintegrated – there are fewer alliances mentioned between the King & outer regions, for instance. So their power was fading and the Zhou rush in to fill the gap.
The whole rest of this period is lumped in as “the Zhou dynasty” but actually only the first bit of it fits into the concept of a dynasty as I’d normally think about it – the rest of the time it’s fractured into small states which war between themselves in various combinations. The Zhou seem to’ve started out as a polity on the fringes of the Shang ruled area, who took on the culture & religion of the Shang. When the Shang started to disintegrate they took advantage and overthrew the Shang. While their culture was mostly the same they stopped the large scale human sacrifice & stopped using oracle bones for divination. Another departure was that their religion had a supreme deity “Heaven” which legitimised the rulers not based on their lineage but based on their worthiness. This legitimised the overthrow of the last Shang King, but later when the rule of the Zhou was beginning to collapse it meant that the people expected a new morally upright leader to emerge and to overthrow the Zhou.
After about 300 years this Western Zhou regime collapsed (there is a tyrant “responsible” for it but it’s not that simple) and over the next five centuries various states occupied the Chinese territory. The first period is the “Spring and Autumn Period”, and there are two main superpowers with lots of smaller allied states – the Jin in the north & the Chu in the south. Even tho they warred and were different countries there was still continuity of culture across the aristocracy of all of what had been the Zhou lands. This period lasted for 300 years and then the Jin collapsed into smaller states, and this period of about 200 years is known as the Warring States Period. During this time the small states coalesced into 7 large states. These expanded to cover between them the whole of the territory that would become China.
The Warring States Period moved from the kinship based state apparatus & hierarchy to a bureaucratic one – the beginning of what we might think of as how the Chinese state works. There was more social mobility, as officials were appointed based more on merit than ancestry, and because they were paid in money rather than land the positions didn’t tend towards becoming hereditary as they had before. This diluted the aristocratic culture that had characterised the Spring and Autumn Period, but there were still cultural norms that were common across the seven states due to contact between them including officials moving to work in other states.
This period was one of the formative periods of what we now think of as typical Chinese culture – Confucius and Laozi (the founder of Daoism) were both products of the rich intellectual life of the era. There was a great emphasis on the practical in the philosophies of the time, because of the way this is a period of both collapse of the old order & rising of a new one. And the fragmented political situation also led to development of philosophies of warfare – Sun Tzu wrote his “Art of War” during this time, and the development of conscript armies changed the way wars were fought. The need for lots of peasant conscripts also meant that states encouraged people to breed (by taxing unmarried youths) and to encourage immigration.
It is also the time during which cities started to grow. Previously cities in China had been more religious and political centres but during this time they also became the sort of economic hubs that we expect when we think of a city, and had many more people living in them. The Iron Age began during the Spring and Autumn Period, but it was in the Warring States Period that it developed to its full – the book says that the Chinese were casting high quality iron tools a millennium and a half before the rest of the world. I guess that’s carefully chosen phrasing – obviously the Iron Age starts everywhere around this time, but these must’ve been a particular level of technique or craftsmanship that the Chinese reached at this time before anywhere else.
Coins began to be minted during this period, with each of the seven states having their own particular coins. Several states moved to collecting their taxes in coin rather than goods, which revolutionised the economy. And despite having different currencies for each state they did all recognise each other’s coins as valid – so another way that despite being fragmented there was still a common culture across the region.
Tangents to follow up: Not really any as such, but the Shang sound interesting to know more about … sometime when I’m done with several of the other books I have lined up I shall pick up a book on them.