The Future is the Past: The Beliefs of the Shang

The Shang dynasty is the earliest ancient Chinese dynasty that is shown through archaeological evidence to have actually existed. Excavations at the ruins of the final capital of the Shang, Yin (near modern-day Anyang in Henan Province) uncovered eleven royal tombs, the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, weapons, the remains of both animal and human sacrifices and thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts. The beliefs of the Shang underpinned their society.

Read on to find out more about their religion, divination. 

You may have heard the story of Chang’E, who flew to the moon after drinking an elixir of immortality given to her by her husband, archer Hou Yi. Hou Yi shot at the ten suns to stop them scorching the earth and was rewarded with the elixir. 

If we go back in time to the Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), the ten suns were birds that would go out from the mulberry tree, one on each day of the 10-day Shang week, to fly across the sky. Their mother, Xihe, bathed them in sweet water and their father was the great grandson of the Yellow Emperor, Di Ku

Jian Di, one of Di Ku’s wives, swallowed an egg dropped by a sun-bird and gave birth to Xie, the founder of the Zi clan, a descendent of which, Tang, established the Shang dynasty.  

Sun birds on a silk pennant from Mawangdui Han Dynasty tombs, tomb no. 1. Western Han (206BC-25AD). Hunan Provincial Museum.

These stories give a glimpse of the Shang people’s worldview. They were not restricted by facts, freely mixing the real and the fantastic or, in other words, they ‘thought in myths.’ According to their beliefs, people continued to exist after death, keeping the power they had while alive, and so a pantheon of spirits was created which could be called upon to assist the living ruler.

At the top of the pantheon was Lord-on-High. Out of his love for the people this highest god would ensure that the governance of the earthly ruler was righteous, rewarding him with rain, (the major concern of the agrarian Shang), or punishing him with natural disasters. Next to Lord-on-High were ancient sage kings, the foremost of which were the founders of the Shang dynasty, Di Ku and Tang, as well as Wang Hai, thanks to whose efforts the name of the Shang people (商人 shāng rén) became a word for merchant (商人 shāng rén)

Bronze Ding vessel. Shang Dynasty (c. 1200BC). The British Museum.

Worshipped together with the dynasty’s legendary ancestors were spirits of mountains and rivers and other nature deities. Ranking beneath them were the real former rulers and their consorts. Not all the rulers deserved a place in the pantheon, only those who performed noble and brave deeds. It is because of the ancestors’ knowledge and experience that the Shang people sought the spirits’ advice and help

Being both the descendant of the dynasty’s ancestors and the ruler over the living, the king, ‘I, one man,’ as he named himself, connected the two worlds. As the spirits lived in heaven the king communicated with them through divination rituals. During the rituals, while the king’s enquiry was announced to the spirits, a diviner applied fire to specially prepared turtle shells or ox shoulder bones. The spirits’ answers appeared as cracks on the surface of the heated bones. Their interpretation, often made by the king himself, the enquiry and sometimes the outcome of the event were written onto the bones using ink, and then the characters etched over. (These ‘oracle bones’ are now invaluable evidence of life in the Shang Dynasty, and the earliest surviving Chinese texts.)

Oracle bone. Shang Dynasty (c. 1200BC). National Museum of China. By BabelStone.

The king’s questions were formulated as statements, such as ‘it shall rain’ and ‘it shall not rain,’ which were to be confirmed or refuted by the spirits. The ruler sought divine help in affairs of the government such as rain and harvest, wars and establishment of new settlements, as well as his own matters – dreams, a toothache or a consort’s childbirth. If the spirits’ answers were unfavorable to the king, he would try to change fate by making sacrifices. To ensure a successful outcome, he would confirm in advance the ancestor’s preferences regarding the number and type of offerings and pinpoint the right addressee. Sacrifices included millet and wine, animals and humans, sometimes several hundred head of cattle and thousands of humans. The lavishness of the offerings symbolized the ancestors’ power, which manifested equally in ample harvest and devastating drought and was made known and controlled by the king, legitimizing his power. The knowledge of the past not only guided its possessor through the future but also gave him the right to shape it.

Tomb of Lady Fu Hao. Shang Dynasty (c. 1200BC). Yinxu. By Chris Gyford.

Sarah Allan, The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 25
Ibid., 33
Ibid., 40
Kwang-Chih Chang, Art, myth, and ritual : the path to political authority in ancient China. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 12
Sarah Allan, (1991), 14
Alessandro della Seta, Religion & Art: a study in the evolution of sculpture, painting and architecture. (New York, Scribner’s, 1914), 50
Sarah Allan, (1991), 43
Kwang-Chih Chang, Shang Civilization. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1980), 12
Sarah Allan, (1991), 50
Kwang-Chih Chang, (1983), 41
Ibid., 88
Sarah Allan, (1991), 42
Robert Eno, “Deities and Ancestors in Early Oracle Inscriptions,” in Religions of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 42
Sarah Allan, (1991), 118
Ibid., 113
Ibid., 117-119
David N. Keightley, “The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture,” History of Religions, Vol. 17, No. 3/4, Current Perspectives in the Study of Chinese Religions (Feb. – May, 1978), 213
Sarah Allan, (1991), 8
David N. Keightley, 213

Did you know much about the Shang, the earliest Chinese dynasty, before reading this article? Would you like to learn more? Let us know in the comments below. We would love hearing your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture!

Photo Credits
– Photo by BabelStone here: CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo by Chris Gyford here: en:wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
– Top image: Wine Pouring Vessel decorated with birds, dragons and other animals. Shang (c. 1200BC). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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