|Detail of a Shang Bronze|
The History of China is surprisingly well known far back. Reasonably accurate records go back to 1600 B.C.E., with the establishment of the Shang Dynasty.
We owe this exactitude to the surviving writings of Chinese chroniclers but more especially from the remarkable Chinese Historian Szuma Chien, perhaps one of the most remarkable historians to have ever lived.
He lived during the period of the early Han dynasty in the late 2nd and early 1st century B.C.E., and created with his history the template for the succeeding Chinese dynastic histories.
Szuma had a remarkably rational and “scientific” mode of thought for his time and his “Records of the Historian” is a remarkable and frankly rather long and detailed document.
In it Szuma records early Chinese history including the legendary rule of the sage kings and the supposed first Chinese dynasty the Xia.1
Several historians consider that the Xia dynasty is entirely legendary and basically a repeat of the Shang projected back in time.2 Such a view is not worth taking with complete seriousness. After all just in what way is the Xia a “repeat” of the Shang? It also makes the terrible mistake of arguing from ignorance. The idea being that since we have not found inscriptions that mention members of the Xia dynasty then the dynasty must be mythical.
There is a problem with this view that should make one pause before dismissing the idea of the Xia being real. Many historians in the late 19th early 20th century labeled the Shang dynasty has being a myth and Szuma’s, and the traditional, list of Shang Kings, as his own concoction, and / or a traditional invention, designed to give Chinese history a fake amount of depth.3
Those opinions, were blown away with the discovery of the Shang capital of Anyang in the 1920’s, and further the discovery of some bronze inscriptions and, far more significant, very large numbers of oracle bone inscriptions. These inscriptions date from the last period of the Shang dynasty, the period of c. 1300-1050 B.C.E. Inscriptions dated from earlier in the dynasty or even earlier have not been found.4
Before returning to the oracle bones among the great discoveries around the last Shang Capital has been some truly spectacular Noble and Royal burials, complete with large numbers bronze objects of very high quality. What was also discovered was something only fitfully alluded to in surviving Chinese traditional accounts was mass human sacrifice of in some cases hundreds of people to accompany the deceased. 5
|Royal Tombs at Anyang|
The oracle bones were usually tortoise shells that had questions inscribed on them that were then burnt in various ways so that by studying the cracks that resulted from the burning divination could be done about the possible outcomes to the questions asked.5
On those bones were found the names of the great majority of Shang rulers mentioned in Szuma’s account and those mentioned in other Chinese sources. Thus vindicating traditional Chinese history to that extent. Of course given that it turns out that the Shang were a real dynasty it is possible, even probable, that the Xia are also real.6
Of course the fact that Szuma’s bare list of Shang kings is basically correct does not mean that the narrative he supplies is equally reliable. In fact it seems to be larded with legend and myth. The traditional dates for the Shang dynasty are 1766-1122 B.C.E. Other sources give the date for the end of the dynasty has 1111, B.C.E., or 1027 B.C.E. Some traditional sources give the total length of the dynasty has 496 years, which appears to be far too brief. Other traditional sources describe the Shang has ruling for c. 600 years. Certainly 30 rulers ruling for only 496 years does seem a trifle low.7
The traditional listing of Shang Dynasty Kings is as follows to the left. The list compiled from the oracle bone inscriptions is to the right.
1. Ch’eng T’ang Ta Yi
2. Wai Ping Ta Ting
3. [Chung Jen] P’u Ping
4. T’ai Chia Ta Chia
6. T’ai Keng Ta Keng
7. Hsiao Chia Hsiao Chia
8. Yung Chi Lu Chi
9. T’ai Wu Ta Wu
10. Chung Ting Chung Ting
11. Wai Jen P’u Jen
12. Ho T’an Chia Ch’ien Chia
13. Tsu Yi Tsu Yi
14. Tsu Hsin Tsu Hsin
15. Wo Chia Chiang Chia
16. Tsu Ting Tsu Ting
17. Nan Keng Nan Keng
18. Yang Chia Hu Chia
19. P’an Keng P’an Keng
20 Hsiao Hsin Hsiao Hsin
21. Hsiao Yi Hsiao Yi
22. Wu Ting Wu Ting
23. Tsu Keng Tsu Keng
24. Tsu Chia Tsu Chia
25. Lin Hsin Fu Hsin
26. Keng Ting K’ang Ting
27. Wu Yi Wu Yi
28. T’ai Ting Wen Wu Ting
29. Ti Yi Fu Yi
30. [Ti Hsin]
The brackets about names are for those rulers for whom no oracle bone records have been found. The gap in the canonical list is for one ruler mentioned in the oracle bone inscriptions who is not mentioned in the canonical account.
It is worthy of note that although 3 rulers are apparently missing 17 of the names from the oracle bone inscriptions match those in the Chinese historical records almost exactly. Considering how remote in historical time and the almost certain lack of records that is remarkable. Further 7 other names although not exact duplicates of the names in the list are similar enough to indicate some sort of correspondence. 3 names are not found in the bones at all. For an overall correspondence of 24 out of 30 names. Just has important as the finding of similar and exact names is the fact that with only one glaring problem the names appear to be largely in the same sequence as the traditional Chinese histories state. Also two rulers listed in the oracle bones are not found in the list although one of those names is of a man listed as Crown Prince in the traditional account. One of the names is not in the traditional account at all.9
To further make things interesting the second king in the oracle bones list Ta Ting is stated to have been in Chinese traditional history has crown Prince and to have died before he could succeed to the throne. Certain Ancient Chinese writers like Mencius claim that Ta Ting had in fact succeeded and ruled after his father. Further it does appear that Ta Ting was succeeded by his brother P’u Ping which is similar to the sequence described in the Chinese traditional history of Wai Ping becoming heir and then King because his brother Ta Ting had died.10
It does appear that the there is a mix up in the first couple of kings it is possible Ta Yi listed as the founder of the dynasty got transposed to near the end as ruler Ti Yi.
As it is the traditional account actually agrees very well with the oracle bone inscriptions. Of course none of this verifies the accuracy of the narrative account of the Shang Dynasty or the various reign lengths given which are incomplete and frankly vary. It simply states that the bare king list is pretty accurate.
This is why certain tendentious accounts that display a hypercritical attitude and basically ignore the fact that the King list appears to be accurate and in fact amazingly so are hard to take seriously. In fact one version of this faced with the undoubted similarity between the traditional King list and what has been found in the oracle bones inscriptions claims with no supporting evidence except the needs of their hypercritical approach that the Shang oracle bone accounts are probably distorted oral history. This is pure supposition.11
In point of fact it does appear that the Xia dynasty does have an archaeological context in China and further so do the Shang. However has of yet there is no information available to sort out what is mythical / legendary and what is real in the traditional narrative accounts for both dynasties and perhaps, except in the most general sense it cannot be done.
But it does appear to be the case that the Shang is definitely historical and so probably is the Xia.12
|Shang Tripod Bronze|
1. See Chien, Szuma, Selections from Records of the Historian, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1979.
2. See for example Liu, Li and Xu, Hong, Rethinking Erlitou: Legend, History and Chinese Archaeology, Antiquity, v. 81, no. 314, pp. 886-901, 2007.
3. For example see Allen, H. J., Early Chinese History: Are the Chinese Classics Forged?, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1906.
4. Chang, Kwang-Chih, Shang Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 1980, pp. 42-60, Bagley, Robert, Shang Archaeology, in Loewe, Michael, Shaughnessy, Edward L, Editors, The Cambridge History of Ancient China, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 124-231, in same Keightley, David N., The Shang, pp. 236-247, Keightley, David N, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978.
5. See Keightley, 1999, p. 290.
5. Chang, 1980, pp. 31-43.
6. Loewe, Michael, Shaughnessy, Edward L., Introduction, The Cambridge…, pp. 65-71, Chang, Art, Myth and Ritual, Harvard University Press, New Haven CONN, 1983, pp. 107-130.
7. Shang Dynasty, Encyclopedia Britanica Here, Chang, pp. 17-18.
8. Chang, 1980, pp. 6, 167-168.
9. IBID, pp. 6, 167-175.
10. IBID, pp. 6-120, 166-175.
11. See for example Footnote 2. For a critique of the idea that so-called “Political Correctness” is suppressing this idea see Liu, Li, Academic Freedom, Political Correctness and Early Civilization in Chinese Archaeology, Antiquity, v. 83, no. 321, pp. 831-843, 2009. Kudos to Li Liu who co-authored the piece in footnote 2, for NOT playing the victim card and denying that opposition to views like the ones he holds are largely or even importantly partially, motivated by “Political Correctness” or ideology.
12. See Chang, 1980, 1983, Keightley, 1999, Bagley. See also Allan, Sarah, Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm, The Journal of Asian Studies, v. 66, no. 2 (May 2007), pp. 461-496.