Hi there guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Tonight: Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part V: The Rise of the Shang.
Last time we talked about the Xia Dynasty, which appears to be a mythologized recollection of the real-life Erlitou culture of the early second millennium BC. The dynasty was founded by my main man Da Yu, and remained in the hands of his descendants. Four, maybe five centuries passed, until an incompetent and sadistic alcoholic named Jie became king. His favorite thing to do was get drunk and—get this—force his officials to give him piggy back rides around the palace(1):
Jie of Xia, gettin' str8 crunk.
Anyone who said “No your highness, you’re a grown man, that’s ridiculous” was put to death. Needless to say this did not endear him to his vassals, who around 1600 BC got tired of his bullshit and deposed him. The leader of the rebels was Lord Tang of Shang; the dynasty he founded, therefore, was known as the Shang dynasty.
It is worth noting here that 1600 BC more or less lines up with the Erlitou culture’s collapse, further evidencing that it was the center of what would be remembered as the Xia dynasty. Meanwhile, sites at Erligang and Anyang came to prominence, mirroring the rise of the Shang(3)(4). The question is less whether the Erlitou people were later known as the Xia, and more whether they called themselves the Xia. Did the Erlitou kings match those found in the Bamboo Annals? Were they even Chinese speakers? We just don’t know, and this is something that keeps me up at night.
At any rate, as of the 16th century BC, there was a new sheriff in town, one who aimed to clean up these here parts. Tang, who was now king, seems to have been a pretty cool dude. During his reign there was a drought so bad that the poor farmers had to sell their kids off into slavery. When Tang found out he had a bunch of gold distributed to the people so they could buy their kids back (and, presumably, food, because otherwise they’d be back to square one).
When I heard this story I noticed something interesting. Whereas the first Xia king had to deal with a flood, the first Shang king had to deal with a drought—implying a dualism between the Xia and Shang. To me at least, this invited a comparison with one of China’s most widely recognized cultural exports:
The ying-yang sign.
The ying-yang is essentially a representation of how seemingly opposing forces can complement one another. Chinese 陰 yin1 can mean, variously, femininity, darkness, negativity, overcast weather (hence water?), female genitalia or the moon. On the other hand, 陽 yang2 represents light, the sun, and masculinity. According to the leading Sinologist Sarah Allan, the Xia dynasty was associated with water and darkness, the Shang with light and fire(4). It is therefore possible that every time we see someone walking around with a ying-yang t-shirt or tattoo, we’re actually looking at a cultural concept with extremely deep roots, maybe as old as the Shang dynasty itself—or older.
The idea of Shang-Xia dualism could lead one to dismiss the Xia, and even the early Shang, as mythological. But I think that just because a story contains mythical elements doesn’t make it completely untrue. Indeed, I would argue that the presence of a palace complex at Erlitou more or less proves the existence of a state later known as the Xia, although we don’t know what they called themselves.
So, the Shang are now in charge, and we’re going to talk some more about them in the next video. The Shang dynasty was a critical period in the Story of China. It was during this period, after all, that we find the oldest written documents thus far recovered in China. “Chinese History”, by its proper definition, had finally begun. What were these written documents, and what are their significance? Find out next time, on Origins of Chinese History, Part VI: Roll the Bones. Bye everyone, see you next time!