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Xia, Shang, & Zhou Dynasties

Xia Dynasty

Bronze Jue (a wine vessel) (22.5 cm high)

As the first slave dynasty in Chinese history, the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC) began with the reign of Qi, the son of the Great Yu, and ended with the fall of Jie. With its capital located in Anyi (north of Xia County in mid-west Shanxi Province), the Xia was ruled by the descents of the Xiahou tribe. Altogether, there were 16 kings in 13 generations.

Ding (a container to store food) with cloud patterns

Formed on an alliance of a dozen closely related tribes led by the Xiahou tribe, the Xia Dynasty carried out a system of hereditary monarchy and nobility. Noble organizations at different levels kept their original consanguinity and were strictly restricted to different surnames. The king of the Xia practiced enfeoffment on lords. With the patriarchy clan at the core of the social system, the nobles were divided into different levels according to positions in the family hierarchy and close or distant relationships between clans.

Square tomahawk with cross patterns

The Xia established its own army and penal code Yu Xing (penal code of Yu). The Xia also created a calendar, which is said to be China,s first calendar, using the Big Dipper to determine months. Xia Xiao Zheng, kept in Da Dai Li Ji (Book of Rites by Da Dai), is an important existing document of the Xia calendar. It recorded the movements of the sun, moon and stars in line with the 12 lunar months of the year and also the seasons of stockbreeding and farming accordingly. Xia Xia Zheng, to certain extent, reflects the development of animal husbandry and agriculture in Xia, leaving an invaluable record of the earliest scientific knowledge in ancient China.

Shang Dynasty

Script on animal bones and tortoise shells

The Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC) is the second slave dynasty in Chinese history. With its first capital established in Bo, the Shang moved its center of activities several times, finally settling in Yin (present-day Xiaotun in Anyang County, Henan Province) under the king of Pan Geng. Hence, the Shang Dynasty is also called the Yin Dynasty, consisting of 31 kings who belonged to 17 generations.

The Shang basically followed the system of a hereditary monarchy with the younger brother succeeding the elder one at first, and gradually developing into the eldest-son succession system in the later period of the Shang. This laid an important foundation for the patriarchal clan system adopted by the following Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC)

Simuwu Rectangle Ding (110 cm long and 78cm wide)

The Shang is very famous for its augury and the existing Jiaguwen (inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells) is the witness of augury of the time. The ruling area of the king was limited to a small central area, with surrounding areas belonging to princes of the royal family and other tribes. At that time, the centralization of state power had not yet been developed.

The Shang Dynasty inherited the tradition of astronomical phenomena observation. Many inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells discovered in Yin ruins record astronomical phenomena, including the description of the solar and lunar eclipses, stars, and the earliest record of new stars in the world. 


Square Zun with the design of four sheep heads on four sides

Based on the Xia calendar, the Shang used a lunar calendar that was combined with the solar year through the addition of an intercalary month once every few years to make up the difference between a year of 12 lunar months and a solar year. The number of days in a month was fixed at 30 for a long month and 29 for a short one. The intercalary month was added at the end of the year as a 13th month. This is the origin of an intercalary month in Chinese history, which laid down the foundation for the traditional Chinese calendar. Compiling calendars had since experienced many changes and the calculations have become increasingly exact.

Sets of musical instruments have been unearthed in the Yin ruins, including pottery Xun (an egg-shaped wind instrument), stone Qing (chime stone), copper bell, copper cymbals and drum. One big stone Qing with an embossment of a staring tiger was discovered in a tomb in Wuguan Village in Anyang of Henan Province. It is the earliest existing large musical instrument and also a piece of sculpture with high artistic value.

Zhou Dynasty