Chinese History - 1750-1100 BC - Shang / Yin Dynasty
Somewhere near the early to middle part of the second millennium before Christ the Shang Dynasty emerged from the mists of historical uncertainty. Situated in the North China Plain, the Shang offers historians the first dynasty with a complete writing system. Dominated by an elite class who worshipped their royal ancestors (intermediaries between the earthly realm and the high god Shang-Di), this rather small kingdom held wide sway.
The Shang domesticated horses, refined metals, built chariots, and made bronze weapons. With these advantages they traveled the Yellow River valley creating a league of settlements over which the Shang king and his immediate relatives ruled. The Shang used its large army and political stability to influence neighboring settlements perhaps as far south as the Yangtze River. And this was the Shang's great success, transforming primitive villages into semi-independent city states, each loyal to the royal household of Shang.
Archaeological evidence about the Shang comes mainly from excavations at Zhengzhou and Anyang, both in Henan province. Zhengzhou (the type site of what is called Erligang culture) is assigned to the period 1500 to 1300 B.C. and Anyang (ancient Yinxu) to the period of roughly 1200 to 1050 BC.
Remains at Zhengzhou include the foundations of city walls, large buildings, bronze foundries, and bone and pottery workshops, as well as a number of burial sites. By 1500 B.C., Shang burial traditions were becoming well defined. The deceased lay in a wooden coffin at the bottom of a shaft. Below the coffin chamber was a sacrificial pit (yaokeng) containing the body of a sacrificed man or dog (probably a guard). Surrounding the chamber was a platform (ercengtai) that held grave goods and more human sacrifices. Sacrifices of humans and animals were also placed beneath the foundations of buildings at this time. Bronze vessels included in burials were much larger than those created previously, and more varied in shape.
Archaeology has revealed that important regional centers existed alongside the Shang, including those centered around the site of Dayangzhou, south of the Yangzi River basin in Jiangxi province, and the site of Sanxingdui, just north of the modern city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.
Ch'eng T'ang, the founder of the dynasty of Shang, which later passes into the Yin dynasty, is another favorite of the Confucian historians. He had, it is said, graven upon his bath the words, thrice repeated, "Renew thyself every day." He was careful in all his hunting expeditions to diminish in all possible ways the sufferings of the victims such as were necessitated by the royal sport. His especial title to fame is, however, in his offer to yield himself as a sacrifice in order to bring to an end a severe seven years' famine which had reduced the country to great extremities of distress. Putting on the symbols of mourning, he mounted his car and drove to a certain designated spot at the foot of a mountain. Here he dismounted, prostrated himself to the earth and made confession of his own sins and of those of the people. Hardly had he finished his prayer when there came an abundant rain and the land speedily recovered its former fertility.
The credit for T'ang's successful reign must be shared with the famous minister, I Yin, who was, it is said, "almost what Shun had been to Yao, and Yao to Shun." A legend declares that he was found as an infant in a hollow mulberry tree, a story probably due to the name of his birthplace. His enemies said that he owed his elevation to his skill in cooking, through which he maintained his influence over his royal master. But, cook or no cook, he remained a trusted councilor until his death in BC 1713.
Among the princes of the Shang dynasty, the successor of Ching-tang, Tae-kea, forfeited for a time his claim to the crown by a disorderly life. The prime minister, E-yin, shut Tae-kea up, therefore, in the catacombs of his ancestors, that he might repent and reform. This was certainly an extraordinary punishment, which had, however, the desired effect on the imperial pupil. E-yin was now, in fact, the emperor, and the trembling prince although grey-headed, a mere tool of his will; the minister lived to the next reign.
Under the following sovereigns the authority of the emperors over the vassal princes gradually decreased. Their names serve only to continue the chronology of history. Tae-woo, whose reign falls in 1637 BC, is praised for his humanity, his love towards the people, and severity against the Mandarins. After him, the princes appear to have led an ignominious life; their names are recorded, but their actions are buried in oblivion. The Mandarins had obtained the complete mastery over the people, who were borne down and impoverished by oppression. The empire was in this state for about two centuries under eight princes.
Yin Dynasty - BC 1373-1123
Pwan-kang made a desperate effort to suppress the insolent aristocracy, around 1400 BC. A period of renewed fluorescence clearly began shortly after P'an Keng or one of his immediate successors moved the capital to Anyang around the year 1384 BC. He removed his capital to the Yin district in Honan, and gave to the succeeding emperors the name of Yin dynasty. The town of Anyang is the site of a rich archaeological find: the remains of the Shang Dynasty capital of Yin, an area that had once been occupied by predynastic Shang culture.
Since its rediscovery in the late nineteenth century, excavations at Anyang and the evidence on the oracle bones have confirmed the existence of the Shang dynasty. It had been recorded in the legendary histories written many centuries later, but in the early part of the twentieth century Chinese scholars had doubted that it had actually existed. In 1976, near Anyang, the last Shang capital, archaeologists uncovered a Shang tomb, the only one that has been found intact. Tomb 5 contained the burial of Fu Hao, referred to in the oracle bones as one of the consorts of Wu Ding, twenty-first king of the Shang. The tomb, though modest in size, contained more than fifteen hundred objects. In addition to Fu Hao's own lacquered coffin were the skeletal remains of sixteen humans and six dogs.
The most remarkable event of the reign of Pwan-kang / P'an Kung [BC 1401-1373] was the removal of the capital from King-t'ai in Chihli to Yin, a town North of the Yellow River in Honan. His reason for this was because his kingdom was not prospering, and righteousness was declining throughout the nation. He therefore wished to return to the region where the great kings of former days had had their seat of government, in the hope that their spirits, lingering about the place, might influence his people, and so bring back the prosperity of other days. Honan, moreover, was more central than their present situation, and all parts of the country could be more easily reached from it. The people of the capital were at first unwilling to consent to this removal. They did not like to endure the sacrifices demanded by it. Their lands and property would have to be abandoned, and for this they were not prepared. The Emperor, knowing this, wrote out his reasons for the step he was advocating, and they have been handed down to us in the Historical Classic.
Finally, after much grumbling, the people consented to his wish, and the capital was moved to Yin, or the Western Po, as it was also called, and henceforth the name of the dynasty was changed from Shang to Yin. From this time P'an Kung followed the methods of T'ang in his government of the people, and in consequence there was a marked improvement in every department of life. After a successful reign of twenty-eight years he was succeeded by his brother Siau Sin (BC 1373-1352), and after twenty-one years he again was followed by his brother Siau Yih (BC 1352-1324, who occupied the throne for twenty-eight years.
His successors destroyed the good he had wrought. The emperor's authority was more and more slighted, while the princes of Chow, by their statesman-like wisdom, conciliated general esteem, and drew multitudes of inhabitants to their capital (1352 BC). As in the case of the Hsia dynasty, vicious kings soon dimmed the glory of the dynasty which had been won by T'ang, the Completer, and ruined the results painfully achieved. Wu Ting tried his best to stay the plague of wickedness by going back to the people for his chief official, choosing as minister a poor artisan whom, under divine inspiration, he had beheld in a dream. Lun Sin (BC 1225-1219) put all responsibility on his ministers and refused frankly to be bothered with any of the duties or cares of government. Wu Yih (BC 1198-1194) openly defied the gods and blasphemed the spirit of Heaven. "He played chess with it and told a man to make its moves. When the spirit of Heaven lost, he derided and insulted it; and making for it a leathern bag, he filled it with blood, hung it up in the air, and shot arrows at it." Poetic justice, in this case, came with no halting foot, and the blasphemous libertine was struck by lightning and died.
This dynasty embraced twenty-eight emperors, who were most wicked, cruel and despicable sovereigns. The climax of evil came with the reign of Chou Hsin [BC 1154-1123], or Shu, whose career of infamy runs in many respects parallel with that of Chieh. The list of his enormities is summed up in the "Great Declaration" of the Shu King. The good advice of the faithful minister and relative, Pi Kan, he requited with the brutal order addressed to his minions to take out the heart of the courageous councilor. "I have heard," said he, "that a man's heart has seven openings; I would fain make the experiment upon Pi Kan." The palace and the pleasure grounds, known as Luh T'ai or Deer Tower, were the unhallowed scenes of nameless orgies. To these he was stimulated and encouraged by his mistress, T'a Chi, one of the most sinister names in the history of China. This lady, who was a daughter of the chief of Su and a prize of war, distinguished herself by the invention of sundry ingenious instruments of torture. Among these were the "Heater" and the "Copper Pillar." The latter was a metal column, well greased, which was laid over a pit of burning charcoal. The unhappy victims of the royal caprice or mirth were pressingly invited to walk across this fatal bridge, with a result which was as pleasurable to the royal libertines as it was disastrous to themselves.
He inflicted the most exquisite torments on the unoffending people, merely to gratify an insatiable love of cruelty. A narrative of his infamous conduct occupies a considerable space in the history of this dynasty. To say that he was a sensualist, a debauchee, a tyrant, a murderer, is a faint delineation of his detestable character, unless each point be combined with all that is diabolical in malignity, ruthless in tyranny, and revolting in cruelty. The singular ferocity to which this wretch and his paramour attained, seems to require an illustration or two. His extravagance, which finally ruined him, was first developed, says his faithful minister, in the use of ivory chopsticks. To suit this elegance, splendid dishes and costly viands were provided, which the people admired and imitated; thus the king to gratify his passion for extravagance ruined his country.
At length the cruelties of Chou Hsin exhausted the patience of the princes and the people. A revolt broke out headed by Ch'ang, Duke of Chou, known also as Si Peh, "the Chief of the West," and better still by the name given to him on canonization, Wen Wang. To the assembled troops he gave the following singular advice: "In to-day's business do not take more than six or seven steps, then stop and dress your ranks. Heroes, exert yourselves! Do not exceed four, five, six or seven strokes, then stop and dress your ranks. Exert yourselves, heroes! Put on a terrible look! Be like tigers, bears, wolves, and dragons in the neighborhood of Sheng."
The tyrant in desperate straits showed some last flicker of courage but his army was put to flight in the battle of "the ford of Meng." Chou Hsin decked himself in all his jewels, mounted the marble tower he had built for his mistress in the notorious pleasure gardens of Luh T'ai and there, like another Zimri or Sardanapalus, set fire to the palace and cast himself alive into the flames. In this way Chou Hsin put an end at once to his own not very valuable existence and to the dynasty which had begun so gloriously.
The favorite, T'a Chi, who had had so large a share in precipitating the disaster, was captured and beheaded. It is said that so great was the influence of the personal charm of this Chinese Circe to the very last that no one could be found to deal the fatal stroke, until the aged councilor of Wu Wang, whose name was T'ai Kung, stepped forward and, covering up his face, made himself the avenger of a nation's wrongs. The accumulated treasures of the "Deer Tower" gardens were distributed by the conqueror to the people from whose spoliation they had been acquired.
Ki Tzu, one of the vainly protesting ministers of the defeated Chou Hsin, deserves to be mentioned, if not as the author of one of the most important sections of the "Shu King," as the real founder of the civilization of Korea. He was, like Pi Kan, alied to the Emperor by blood, but, with his two fellow ministers, Pi Kan and Wei Tzu, was imprisoned by his fatuous kinsman when he refused to remain silent with regard to the fatal folly which was threatening the fall of the dynasty. The two fellow-prisoners perished, but Ki Tzu was released from prison on the accession of the first Chou sovereign. He was promised rank and office under the, new dynasty, but his sturdy loyalty to his first allegiance prevailed and he preferred expatriation.
Korea was the land to which he turned. The legendary history of this country goes back as far as BC 2333, to the time when the Son of the Creator of Heaven came down to a mountain in the province of Phyong An. Here he assumed the name of Tan Gun and reigned on earth a thousand years. But it is Ki Tzu's migration to Korea and his conquest of the land, to which he gave the name of Cho-sen, "Land of the Morning Calm," which marks the real beginning of Korean history. It is believed that he came by sea, landed somewhere south of the Han river, and brought with him all the arts of civilization. He died BC 1083 and the dynasty he founded had the good fortune to survive until BC 193.
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