An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Period Philosophy and Thought

Jul 2, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Not all issues of Shang religion can be solved by studying the oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文). The analysis of transmitted texts, even if these were written much later, allows to learn more about the world of thought during the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). In two cases, extraordinary planetary conjunctions seemed to have been a reason to overthrow a powerful royal house, once the termination of the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) by the Shang in 1576 BCE, and the attack of the Zhou on the Shang in 1059 BCE (Eno 2009: 90).

The beginning of documentation

One of the important contributions by the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) to Chinese culture is the invention of writing. Even if traces of proto-scripts appeared on Erlitou-period 二里頭 (1900-1500 BCE) objects, and even if traditional texts report of the Xia dynasty's 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) archival texts (for instance, a quotation of the Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 in the encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽), archaeologists did not discover any written texts dating from earlier then the reign of King Wu Ding 武丁 (trad. r. 1324-1266 BCE) of the Shang dynasty.

The Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" (ch. Duoshi 多士) therefore says that it was the forefathers of the Shang who had the instrument of archives and statutes and so were able to supersede the charge to universal rule once given to the Xia (wei Yin xian ren, you ce you dian, Yin ge Xia ming 唯殷先人,有冊有典,殷革夏命) (Zhou 2000: 192; Keightley 1999: 287).

Written language was important not just to transmit information of events of the past, but also to express thoughts. The oracle bone inscriptions were discovered in 1898. Apart from demonstrating that the Shang dynasty had really existed, the inscriptions give information on political matters, military affairs, hunting expeditions, agriculture and manufacturing, the system of family lineages (zongzu 宗族), social structure and religion. A second type of written source from the Shang period are inscriptions in bronze vessels. Last but not least, the researcher can rely on the surviving eleven chapters in the Shangshu 尚書 dealing with the Shang dynasty (Shangshu 商書). These texts are mainly speeches of the kings and high dignitaries.

During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), Confucius 孔子 (551-479 BCE) explained that knowledge of Shang-period rituals and ceremonies were still preserved in the regional state of Song 宋, which had been founded by descendants of the Shang dynasty. Confucius went to Song, but was much disappointed because he could not find documents on the rites. A reason for this might be that the documentary culture of the Shang did not pertain to detailed legal descriptions, but only to daily matters of the state and the royal house.

Divination and shamans

Oracles were made to "dispel doubts" (bu yi jue yi 卜以決疑) about decisions in action. The Shang kings had made prognostications about (ancestral) sacrifices, announcements, construction work, acting or non-acting, hunting and fishing, military campaigns, weather, harvest, diseases, and made oracles for a full ten-day week (xun 旬, see calendar). Nearly every daily activity of the Shang kings was determined by the outcome of divination. The question of the oracle was recorded on the bone, the "answer", and the eventual outcome.

The transmitter of the oracle was the animal with the help of whose bones the oracle was produced. The Shang used the breast shields of tortoises (jiagu 甲骨) or the shoulder blades of cattle and made cracks on them with the help of heated instruments. Turtles were therefore highly venerated throughout history as "numinous tortoises" (linggui 靈龜), perhaps because of their old age and their relation to water creatures, to which also the dragon belongs, a very auspicious animal and symbol of the emperor. The scholar Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) was of the opinion that the originator of sacred responses to the king's questions was not the tortoise, but "Heaven". Yet the concept of Heaven was actually promoted by the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), while the Shang relied on their ancestors as the source of knowledge about the future.

Divination consisted of the inspection (zhan 占) of cracks (bu 卜) produced by heating certain points of bones. This type of prognostication emerged during the Longshan period 龍山 (3200–1850 BCE) and remained in use until the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE). The Zhou themselves used a different type of divination, namely the arranged counting of milfoil stalks (shishi 蓍筮), but often combined the two ways of divination and chose the auspicious answer (Chang 1980: 89). During the apogee of tortoise-shell divination, there were between three and five divinations for the same matter (Chang 1980: 91).

The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) explains the five types of tortoise-shell divination mentioned in the Shangshu (ch. Hongfan 洪範): the diviners will find omens (zhao 兆) of rain (yu 雨), ceasing rain (ji 霽), cloudiness (meng 蒙, 雺), want of connexion (yi 驛, 圛), and of crossing (ke 克). These concepts point into the direction of Eight-Trigram (bagua 八卦) divination as used in the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" which is based on the belief that objects or phenomena of nature (and not ancestral spirits) determine the outcome of activities. These are Heaven, the Earth, mountains, swamps, waters, fire, wind, and thunder.

The Shang relied on mediums (wu 巫, "shamans", "sorcerers") supporting the king in his contact to the ancestors or natural spirits. In the early Shang period, the medium Aheng 阿衡 (i.e. Yi Yin 伊尹) allowed for the spiritual survival of the dynasty, and only gradually sank to that of a functional priest who was mainly used for funerals. The medium called back the spirit or soul of a deceased person to revive him or her, and only then began with the rites preparing the interment. Funeral rites play an important role among the wide range of Confucian rituals, and many aspects of them can be traced back to the Shang period. The oracle-bone character for "medium" resembles a cross with two beams, the vertical one connecting Heaven and the spirits with the Earth and the living ones, and the horizontal one connecting all regions of the kingdom.

Mediums were credited with the invention of medicine (Wu Peng 巫彭) and divination by milfoil stalks as used in the Yijing (Wu Xian 巫咸), and also with astronomical observations (Wu Xian). The office of historiographer was originally identical with that of astrologer, as can be seen in the case of the Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) scholar Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145/135-c.80 BCE). The execution of divinations was closely related to time and calendar. The combination of political and religious power in the persons is relevant for the positions of "shamans" (wu), "[political] managers" (yin 尹), and astrologer-historiographers (shi 史). These offices are often seen as markers on bronze vessel inscriptions.

Each medium had furthermore to master certain ritual dances, to care for the harmony of musical instruments, and for the decorative patterns on sacrificial vessels. There is a special character for "rain dance" in the oracle inscriptions, consisting of the parts rain 雨 and (abbreviated 舞) "dance" 無 (later written 雩). In early times, the king himself took over the role of a medium, like Tang the Perfect 成湯, who prayed for rain. In extreme situations, mediums burnt themselves (Li 1994: 78) to pray for rain.

Virtue and rituals

Shang-period inscriptions on bronze vessels also demonstrate that the Shang believed not just in ancestral or natural spirits, but also in the Heavenly mandate (tianming 天命) given to them. They also knew the concept of the "agency of virtue" (de 德), which was given to the ancestors. Quite interestingly, a few Shang-period bronze inscriptions use the word "filial piety" (xiao 孝), which is a core concept of Confucianism. King Wu Ding, for instance, mourned three years for his father. The corpses of deceased persons were bathed, and the bereaved fasted for some time. The character 孝 is in oracle bones barely discernable from 老 and 考, all of them expressing the veneration of the parents or progenitors. The character 教 "instruction (by the elders)" is also used in this context.

It can therefore be concluded that many aspects of rituals and social concepts were transmitted from the Shang to the Zhou dynasty.

Yet the word de 德, in the Confucian context usually translated as "virtue" and in a more general context translatable as "agency", had originally a very different meaning. Shang-period texts write the word 徝, a character actually meaning "to advance", "to rise", or "to go straightly" (in the sense of 直 "direct"). The word de 德 is etymologically related to the word de 得 "to obtain", meaning to display benevolence allowing others to obtain what they desire, and to strengthen one's heart to reach what oneself desires (commentary of Duan Yucai 段玉裁 (1735-1815) on the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 entry of de 悳).

The chapter Pan Geng 盤庚 in the Classic Shangshu uses the word de in the sense of "exemplarious behavior" of the ancestors, or in the sense of being modest and frugal, and not arrogant or live in luxury. Rulers like Pan Geng 盤庚 (trad. r. 1401-1374 BCE) or Wu Ding had to argue against the will of the elite to live in splendor and extravagance and who were not willing to give up their sources of revenue.

In the way of venerating ancestors of natural deities, the Shang used a complex network of rites. Apart from "ruling by virtue" (de zhi 德治), they knew the "rule by rites" (li zhi 禮治). Proper rites without an attitude of "virtue" were not feasible, while veritable "virtue" could only be achieved when correctly performing the rites. The oracle-bone character for "rites" shows a vessel filled with jades or other objects (豐 or 豊, the right part of the modern character 禮).

How important ritus was in daily life, can be seen in the many archaeological excavations. Temples, palaces and tombs in the sites of Anyang and elsewhere show the intricate methods of arranging the performance of sacrifices or bringing deceased rulers rightly into the neither world, accompanied by hounds, chariots, and human sacrifice of consorts, slaves or guardians. Another aspect of ritual are the decorations of bronze vessels with which the royal tombs were furnished. Cloud patterns and divine animals or taotie masks 饕餮 characterized the vessels as sacred objects, and not such of daily use. The number and types of vessels depended on the status of the tomb owner. Some vessels bore the mark of an owner or a short inscription with a dedication. Tombs of kings or royal consorts, but not that of ministers or lower persons, were also furnished with jade objects or lacquered objects.

In the context of Shang society, the word "rites" often meant the performance of sacrificial rites, and not the correct behaviour in certain social contexts (funerals, weddings, hosting guests, etc.), as in the Confucian way. It was therefore concluded that the Zhou extended the meaning of "rites" from the religious context so the social context – in other words, from spirits to humans.

The sequence of royal succession was not, like from the Zhou period on, giving primogenital right to the oldest son of a ruler, but in the Shang system, a deceased king was usually succeeded by a younger brother, and only in case of need by a son. The period from King Zhong Ding 中丁 (trad. r. 1562-1550 BCE) to Yang Jia 陽甲 (trad. r. 1408-1402 BCE) was characterized by internal struggles for succession. The multiple transfer of the royal residence was perhaps caused by an attempt to avoid clashes within the various lineages of the royal house. The internal struggles allowed regional rulers or vassal states to expand their power and to cease paying tributes. In the later half of the Shang dynasty therefore, clear rules of "rites" helped to avoid such internal struggles and to strengthen the power of the Shang dynasty.

The ritual Classic Liji 禮記, compiled during the Han period but based on Western-Zhou thought, is very critical towards the Shang dynasty. Chapter Biaoji 表記 says that the Shang venerated spirits and forced its people to serve their (ancestral) spirits (Yinren zun shen, shuai min yi shi shen 殷人尊神,率民以事神); they kept in high esteem the souls of deceased persons and neglected the rituals (xian gui er hou li 先鬼而後禮); they preferred punishment to rewards (xian fa er hou shang 先罰而後賞), and so exerted a regime of subservience instead of a government of harmonization with the people (zun er bu qin 尊而不親).

This statement is confirmed by the oracle bone inscriptions which demonstrate the paramount importance of sacrifices to Heaven, the Earth, the royal ancestors or that of outstanding dignitaries, or natural phenomena.


The ornaments on bronze vessels (taotie masks, spirals, cloud patterns) as well as the vessel shapes were more or less identical to pottery vessels of the early Shang period. Bronze vessels were a more durable means of expressing the appreciation of the ancestors. They served as means of connection with the spiritual world and so the strengthening the dynasty. At the same time, they were an expression of royal power over tributary states. The shapes of motifs resembled the imagination of dragons.

Dragons played an important role in ancient Chinese belief. In inscriptions, the S-shaped character (巳) for the word "dragon" resembled a snake. Dragons were symbols for water, rain, and fecundity. When praying for rain, the Shang people used to "make dragons" (zuo long 作龍) in the field, either by drawing or forming a dragon on the soil, or by persons assembling in the shape of this animal (perhaps dancing). Yet economic historians interpret the word 龍 as a homophone to long 壟 "ridges in the fields (to drain or keep water)" (Zhou 2000: 257). The belief in dragons went back to the Neolithic cultures of southeast China, and continued into the Han period, when the creators of the world, Fu Xi 伏羲 and Nü Wa 女媧, were drawn with their bodies having the shape of snakes.

Dragons were a symbol of sovereignty and rulership.

Cosmology, mythology and proto-science

The custom to formulate questions in divinatory texts in a positive and a negative way ("Will there be rain? Will there not be rain?") is an early testimony of the belief in the complementary pairs Yin and Yang 陰陽 – which are derived from the phases of the moon and the progress of the seasons.

The concept of the Five Processes (wuxing 五行) is mentioned in the Shangshu chapters Hongfan and Ganshi 甘誓, and without doubt played a certain role in Shang period thinking, even if it did not play a great role in oracle bone inscriptions. The "Processes" water, wood, fire, metal, and earth might have been related to cardinal directions or meteorological phenomena, or the progress of the seasons.

In early China, mythological tales dealt with the origin of tribes. In the case of the Shang, the story of the conception of the dynastic founder Xie 契 by his mother Jian Di 簡狄, is very famous. Jian Di ate an egg laid by a black bird (xuanniao 玄鳥, variously translated as swallow, crow, cock, or phoenix). A black bird was perhaps the totemic symbol of the Shang people and often appears as marker on bronze vessels.

Another story relates to a pre-dynastic ancestor of the Shang, Wang Hai 王亥. A story in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 (ch. Dahuang dongjing 大荒東經), says that in the kingdom of Kunmin 困民, was a certain Wang Hai who held two birds in his hands, the heads of which he was eating. In one occasion, oracle inscriptions write the Wang Hai with the bird radical, 王{亥/鳥}. Yet the importance of a bird as a totemic symbol of the Shang must be questioned. The names of other mythological ancestors like Kui 夔, Nao 夒, or Ku 嚳 are written like beasts rather than like feathered creatures (Eno 2009: 94).

Divination was closely connected with astronomical points, and therefore required the observation of the starry sky (see calendar). The Shang made use of two types of cycles to measure time, the 10 Celestial Stems (tiangan 天干) and the 12 Terrestrial Branches (dizhi 地支). The former were used to count the ten-day weeks (xun 旬) through one 30-day lunar month, while the latter served to count the 12 lunar months. A combination of the two cycles resulted, by just using every second of the Branches, in cycles of 60 units. These were used to count days (over 3 months, making four series per lunar year) and years (60 years for one human life). Astronomers recorded events of lunar or solar eclipses.

The Celestial Stems were also used to count ancestral lineages. The posthumous names of Shang rulers therefore include "numbers" (see Shang religion).

In the realm of arithmetics, the Shang used to count in decades of 10, 100, 1000, and 10,000, and used particular characters for each of these units. Units of five or multiples of five were very common in sets of ceremonial vessels (e.g. 5 gui 簋, 5 li 鬲, 5 jue 爵) or sacrificial animals (20 pigs, 20 sheep, 20 cows) or humans.

Chang, Kwang-chih (1980). Shang Civilization (New Haven/London: Yale University Press).
Eno, Robert (2009). "Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the Oracle Texts", in John Lagerwey, Marc Kalinowski, eds. Early Chinese Religion, Part One, Shang Through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (Leiden/Boston: Brill), 41-102.
Keightley, David N. (1999). "The Shang: China's First Historical Dynasty", in Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaugnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 232-289.
Li Ji 李輯 (1994). Zhongguo yuangu ji sandai sixiang shi 中國遠古暨三代思想史 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe). (Zhongguo quanshi, bai juan ben 中國全史,百卷本)
Zhou Ziqiang 周自強 (2000). Zhongguo jingji tongshi 中國經濟通史, Vol. 1, Qian-Qin jingji 先秦經濟卷, part 1 (Beijing: Jingji ribao chubanshe).