Thursday, July 21, 2016

Origins of Chinese Civilization, Part VIII: The Dark Side of the Shang Dynasty

Hello friends, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things. Today we’ll be delving into something a little more sinister: the dark side of the Shang dynasty...and how!

Most of what we know about the Shang dynasty today comes from their capital at modern Anyang, in east-central China’s Henan province. Given the richness of documentary and material evidence recovered from the Anyang site, it appears that the 13th century BC represented the apogee of Shang power. This was a civilization that, finally, had all of the trappings of a historical Chinese dynasty: ritual, stratification, urbanization, and now the written word.

All this talk about the cool stuff from the Shang dynasty might lead one to think it was a pretty cool time to be around. It wasn’t. Although the Shang got off to a good start, life under the dynasty’s later kings wasn’t exactly Woodstock.

Of course things were pretty good if you happened to be the king or one of his buddies, but for the other 99% of the population life seems to have been pretty rough. For one thing, the Shang upper crust seems to have been pretty keen on human sacrifice, often using highly creative methods(1—don’t read if you’re eating). Sacrificed and decapitated skeletons in the hundreds have been excavated from Shang royal tombs:

It appears that life was cheap to the Shang aristocracy, and commoners were seen as little more than livestock, fuel for the twin engines of food productions and ritual.

In part five I showed you a picture of an extremely disturbing Shang-dynasty axehead. Just in case you haven’t had any good nightmares lately, here it is again:


Good gravy. It looks like something from a DnD campaign run by Tim Burton. Whoever made this thing needs therapy.

Imagine the cruel grin on the axe gleaming red in the firelight as it rises and falls from one helpless victim to the next. Blood drips from its greedy maw as it drinks the life of a new sacrifice. The executioner—Fu Hao, we talked about her last time—is a beautiful woman, swaying back and forth in her trance. Her hands purple with gore, she kneels before a fire, scratching arcane sigils onto a bone. Three thousand years later, that very bone is again held in human hands, and the mysterious carvings thereon are read once more. The blood is gone, but the innocent bones filling the Shang tombs remain. And they cry out to us over the chasm of history at the cruelty of their fate; and though in this life their suffering went unrewarded, we can hope that in the hereafter they have found rest.

So we have human sacrifice, axes with monster faces, a beautiful but deadly war-queen, and to top it all off they write on bones. This sounds like something out a fantasy novel, but it’s history! From the 13th century BC on, the Shang dynasty gradually waned in power and waxed in decadence and cruelty. If the later records are any indication, what was already a dark and brutal society got darker and brutal-er:

The Shang dynasty, or at least the late portion of it, became something less in line with “splendorous ancient civilization” and more “Dark Eldar from Warhammer 40k”. So, to my friends with time machines, if you’re planning a trip I would rethink that.

But, the eventual fate of all tyrannical regimes is to fall, sooner or later, and the Shang were no exception. Next time we’ll be talking about the collapse of the Shang, so I hope you’ll look forward to it. See you then!


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