Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties

Sun Xiaoyu. A Chinese History Reader. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2010.

The Xia Dynasty initiated the slave society, normally maintaining the blood ties of the clan. The Western Zhou Dynasty practiced the patriarchal clan enfeoffment system, melting the ties of blood into state ruling, which played an important role in binding clans, stabilizing the hierarchical order, and maintaining national unity.

Yu the Great Taming the Flood


It is said that during the ruling period of Yao and Shun, it rained continuously for a very long time. The ensuing flood became uncontrollable, and the fertile farmland was submerged by water, causing enormous losses. Yao assigned Gun to tame the raging waters. Gun had built earthen dikes all over the land in the hope of containing the waters, which turned out to be a miserable failure. When Shun became the ruler, he just sent Gun into exile at the Yu Mountain where Gun died. Shun recruited Yu as successor to his father Gun's flood-control efforts and sent Qi, Houji, Baoyi, and Gaotao to assist Yu. Drawing lessons from the predecessor's failure, besides blocking and damming the water, Yu adopted the dredging method to lead the flood waters to flow harmlessly along river courses and out into the sea.

Yu worked very hard. It is said during his thirteen years of fighting the flood, Yu passed by his own family's doorstep three times. He did not enter the home even when his wife was in labor. He led the workers to dig the new river channels, to serve both as outlets for the torrential waters and irrigation conduits for distant farmlands. As a result of his successful efforts, the people bestowed on him the title “Yu the Great.” When Shun was old, he passed his leadership of tribal alliance to Yu the Great. After he became the leader, Yu the Great organized people to further develop agricultural production. He asked Boyi to distribute rice seeds to people living at low and wet areas to plant rice. He sent Houji, who was good at planting crops, to distribute varieties of crops to people and teach them the way to plant them. Since Yu the Great carried out a series of effective measures, agricultural production grew rapidly in his reign. Legend has it that Yu the Great divided the whole country into nine zhou (prefectures): namely, jizhou, yanzhou, qingzhou, xuzhou, yangzhou, jin-gzhou, yuzhou, liangzhou, and yongzhou. He collected products as tributes in accordance with the conditions of every zhou. Yu the Great ordered to cast nine great ding (an ancient cooking vessel with three or four legs) as symbols of the nine zhou under his rule. During the rule of Yu the Great, there appeared many inventions: Boyi invented well-digging, Yidi invented wine-making, Xizhong improved on the structure of chariots, and so on. Gaotao formulated laws for Yu the Great, quelling those who opposed Yu the Great so as to stabilize the social order.

With the development of production, the chieftains of tribes possessed greater and greater wealth and exercised considerable power. Even slaves became a kind of private property. In order to grab even more wealth and slaves, Yu launched an expedition on the southern “san miao” nationalities. After protracted fierce wars, “san miao” nationalities were defeated and many captives became the slaves of chieftains of tribes or heads of large patrilineal families, and these chieftains and heads slowly evolved into aristocratic slave owners.

Amid the aggressive wars staged, Yu strengthened his ruling position and further established his authority. It is said that when Yu held a conference for all the chieftains at the Tu Mountain, over 10,000 chieftains brought gifts and treasures to please him. On another occasion, Yu called all chieftains to attend a meeting at the Kuaiji Mountain. The chieftain of the Fangfeng (protection against the wind) tribe came late for the meeting. Yu was furious with him and had him executed at once. By establishing personal authority, Yu became tian zi (son of heaven) in the real sense of the term (all powerful), and was called xia hou (King of the Xia people).

Qi Establishing the Xia Dynasty


In his old age, Yu proposed Boyi as his successor. Boyi could not establish his authority, as Yu had not allocated him any important assignment to do. Quite the contrary, Yu helped to cultivate the forces of his son Qi in secret. After Yu died, Boyi, following the example of Yao and Shun, abdicated the throne to Qi. Unexpectedly, Qi did not wish to return the throne to Boyi. The chieftains of tribes showed no opposition, but Boyi would not let it go just like that. He rose to rebellion and contended with Qi for the throne, but Qi killed him in the end. A tribe called Youhu rebelled, claiming that Qi had destroyed their traditions. Qi maneuvered troops and fought against this tribe. Before the expedition, Yu told his subordinates, “Whoever obeys orders will get a grand reward; if you refuse to obey orders, I will execute you and enslave your family members.” The rebellious tribe was defeated a year later. In the twenty-first century BC, Qi established the first slavery dynasty in the history of China—the Xia Dynasty. Since then, the hereditary system replaced the abdication system. The establishment of the Xia Dynasty marked the end of China's primitive society and the beginning of the slave society.

The center of power during the Xia Dynasty lay in the present western Henan and southern Shanxi. Qi made Yang (now Dengfeng, Henan) the capital of Xia. The Xia Dynasty established an army, formulated criminal laws, and set up prisons. The state institution of the Xia was used as the tool for slave owners to oppress slaves and the common people. With the increase in agricultural output, grains were also used to make wine. At that time, people used bronze utensils and weapons, and jadeware and beautifully patterned clay objects. In recent years, in Dengfeng County, Henan Province, archaeologists discovered two ancient city sites full of pebbles, believed to be the remains of Yang. In the late Xia Dynasty, as the ruling class accumulated even greater wealth, they began to build spacious palaces. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of such a palace in Erlitou, Henan Province from this period of time.

Cheng Tang Establishing the Shang Dynasty


Cheng Tang is also known as Shang Tang whose family name is Li. The tribe of Shang had a long history. The ancestor of Shang was Xie, the man who had helped Yu harness the flood. Legend has it that Xie was born after his mother swallowed an egg which had been laid by a pair of swallows. Probably this is the reason why the tribe chose a swallow as their totem. The tribe of Shang was a tributary state of the Xia Dynasty, dwelling in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. Cheng Tang was the fourteenth generation descendant of Shang. Shang had been expanding their influence to the middle reaches of the Yellow River. After he ascended the throne, Cheng Tang appointed Yi Yin and Zhong Hui as his right-and left-hand prime ministers. Under their assistance, Shang began to grow strong.

Witnessing the tyranny of Xia Jie who had lost the support from people, Cheng Tang was engaging himself in preparation for annihilating the Xia Dynasty. The Xia Dynasty, established by Qi in the twenty-first century BC, lasted for around four hundred years, with seventeen kings of over fourteen generations. In the final years of the Xia Dynasty, after Jie ascended the throne, the social conflicts intensified. Jie was a notorious tyrant, who built lavish palaces and places for entertainment. It is said that King Jie once ordered a pond to be dug and filled with wine. He commanded some people to drink wine from the pond and in the end, they all drowned in the pond being drunk. King Jie stood watching by the side of the pond, laughing at them as they all drowned. The Xia people hated Jie. Because he had likened himself to the sun, people pointed to the sun and said, “When will you perish? Let it be soon, even it means that we perish with you!”

Shang Tang was a capable sovereign. He was diligent in politics and loved his people. He also appointed virtuous and talented people to important posts. Shang Tang appointed Yi Yin who was an intelligent and capable man as the prime minister, despite his slave origins. Yi Yin presented his plan of annihilating the Xia Dynasty. He also recommended many capable men for the job, who then became the major warriors of Shang Tang in his battle with Jie. Meanwhile, the Xia Dynasty, under the rule of the tyrant Jie, was beset with difficulties both at home and abroad and was in rapid decline. Tang saw that the time was ripe to conquer the Xia Dynasty. He carried out the strategy of wiping out the wings of the dynasty one after another, weakening the rule of Jie gradually, finally replacing the Xia Dynasty entirely. Tangfirst annihilated the nearby Ge (now Ling County, Henan Province), and then subdued a dozen small states and tribes. Tang went on to conquer, one after the other, the Wei state (now Hua County, Henan), the Gu state (now Juancheng County, Shandong), and the Kunwu state. These three states were important pillars for Jie's rule in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. The Kunwu state was the closest allied force and the eastern defense of the Xia Dynasty. The demise of Kunwu left the Xia Dynasty vulnerable to the frontal attack.

Jie, eager to save his dynasty, which was under great threat, called for an alliance meeting with his tributary states to be held at Youreng. The Youmin tribe rebelled against Jie, and Jie was utterly isolated. Tang ordered an attack on Jie at once. A great battle between Xia and Shang took place at Wutiao, north of present Kaifeng in Henan Province. Jie was defeated and fled to the south, and died at Nanchao, southeast of present Shou County, Anhui Province. Tang's army advanced westward on the crest of their victory, captured the ruling center of Xia, and annihilated Xia's tributary states. The Xia Dynasty was overthrown, and Tang finally established the Shang Dynasty.

Tang made his capital in Bo, Shangqiu County of Henan Province. Nevertheless, due to political turbulence and flooding, Shang moved the center of activity several times, finally settling in Yin (present Xiaotun in Anyang County, Henan Province) under the king of Pan Geng. Hence, the Shang Dynasty is also called the Yin Dynasty or Yin Shang Dynasty, consisting of thirty-one kings, belonging to seventeen generations. At that time, its territory extended to Liaoning Province in the north, covered Hubei Province in the south, reached Shaanxi Province in the west, and bordered the sea in the east.

Shang further improved and strengthened the slavery system. The emperor of Shang was the supreme ruler of the national land and subjects. There was a set of bureaucratic structures supporting the rule of the emperor: the highest-ranking executive official was called Yin or Xiang, and the official in charge of military affairs was called Shizhang. Under them were various levels of officials in charge of agriculture, banquets, sacrifices, and so on. The emperor had strong forces, divided into the left, middle, and right Shi. The emperor had nearly ten thousand soldiers ready to fight; Emperor Wuding, who boasted the most brilliant military career, ordered 23,000 troops to be made ready to fight within three months.

The social economy began to flourish as a result of the consolidation of the state ruling machine and the social stability. After Emperor Pan Geng moved the capital to Yin, the economy grew rapidly. Many slaves worked in the fields in groups: they used stone hoes and shovels to remove weeds and stone sickles to harvest. The crops included corn, millet, wheat, and rice. The livestock husbandry grew to a high level. On the occasion of worshipping ancestors by emperors, hundreds of livestock would be killed at a time. Livestock were raised for pulling carts as well as for food. The techniques in smelting and casting bronze ware, making pottery, and carving jade objects progressed significantly during the Shang Dynasty.

Emperor Wuding was an accomplished emperor in the late Shang Dynasty. After ascending to the throne, he appointed people based on their merits, was cautious and attentive with state affairs, and pacified the nomadic peoples. By doing so, he consolidated his imperial power on the one hand, and enlarged his territory on the other. Legend has it that Emperor Wuding ruled the Shang Dynasty for fifty-nine years and pushed the Shang Empire to its zenith.

Fuhao was the wife of Wuding, a woman general brave and tactical in warfare. She often commanded troops to fight and had decisive victories over the Tus, Ba-fang, Yis, the rebelling vassals, and other hostile tribes. Emperor Wuding loved and respected her very much, and after the death of Fuhao, Wuding was heartbroken. He prepared a large number of funerary objects for her, including more than 440 pieces of fine bronzeware.

Flourishing Bronze Culture of the Shang Dynasty


In ancient times, the Chinese people learned the bronze smelting technique. Archaeologists have found bronzeware relics at Yangshao and Longshan culture sites. Of course, most of the bronzeware excavated was smelted in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and hence, these three dynasties are also known as the Bronze Age. There is less bronze-ware from the Xia Dynasty than from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The earliest bronzeware discovered so far are the knives, bores, fishhooks, bells, and other small items excavated at the Erlitou cultural relics. The Shang and Zhou dynasties represent the height of the Bronze Age. During the Shang Dynasty, the foundry workshops, grouped together in the capital city, were of a large scale. The Western Zhou Dynasty also saw further developments in the bronze founding industry. The daily-use bronzeware increased in number as the industry developed.

The manufacture of bronzeware reached its zenith during the Shang Dynasty. The bronzeware is the alloy of copper, zinc, and lead. The craftsmen were able to vary the proportions of the copper, tin, and lead according to the hardness required for different bronze wares. The bronzeware was of five types: ritual wares, weapons, tools, tableware, and miscellaneous objects. The most common types of tableware are Jue, Gu, Ding, and Zeng. The bronze weapons include dagger-axes and spears. The bronze tools include knives, axes, and so on. As bronze at that time was quite expensive, it was seldom used to cast farming tools. Bronzeware with animal-mask designs, such as tigers, elephants, and turtles, were popular in the Shang Dynasty.

Simuwu Ding, excavated from the Anyang Yin Ruins in Henan Province in 1939, is the heaviest piece of ancient bronzeware known in the world today. It was named after the three Chinese characters “si mu wu” carved on the belly of the vessel. With a height of 133 cm and a weight of more than 800 kg, Simuwu Ding was molded in the late Shang Dynasty with a majestic and monumental form. To mold such a huge piece of metalwork, the craftsmen had to cast every part of the Ding separately first and then join them together. It is estimated that nearly three hundred men were required to work together to mold the Ding. The quantities of copper, tin, and zinc in the casting of the Simuwu Ding have been tested to be almost perfectly proportionate, showing the advanced technical standards of bronze casting industry during the Shang Dynasty. It is considered a representative work of the bronze culture at the height of the Shang Dynasty's power.

The large-scale standing bronze figure found in the Sanxingdui ruins is the representative work of the bronze culture in the Shu area during the Shang Dynasty. It is 226 cm high and weighs over 180 kg. It was made using the technique of casting 180 kg. It was made by segments.

In recent years, many bronze wares of the Western Zhou Dynasty have also been excavated. For example, nearly 5,000 pieces of bronze-ware were excavated from the Guo state grave in Henan Province, including 180 pieces of bronze ritual wares, and many other bronze tools and cart decorations.

Zhou Dynasty Established by King Wen and King Wu


King Wen of Zhou, named Ji Chang, was the founder of the Zhou Dynasty. He was the descendant of Hou Ji, who assisted Yu the Great in controlling the flooding during his reign. The last monarch of the Shang Dynasty, King Zhou, is said to have been a cruel despot who neglected state affairs and abandoned himself to sensuous pleasures. In the meantime, a vassal kingdom of the Shang Dynasty called Zhou had begun to grow powerful in the valley of the Weishui River. The king of Zhou, named Wen, was an able and enlightened administrator who valued agriculture and made good use of talented people. Assisted by his able prime minister Jiang Shang (also known as Jiang Taigong), King Wen made his realm rich and powerful. In the mid-eleventh century BC, King Wen died, and his son came to the throne as King Wu. In 1046 BC, King Wu, assisted by Lu Shang and his own uncle Duke Zhou, led an army comprising nearly three hundred military chariots and forty-five thousand heavily armed warriors from many states against the tottering Shang Dynasty, and toppled King Zhou at the Battle of Muye (in now Henan Province). The victory was aided by a revolt in the Shang army, which consisted mostly of conscripted slaves. King Zhou burnt himself to death. The Shang Dynasty, from Cheng Tang to King Zhou, lasted over five hundred years, with thirty-one kings, and seventeen generations.

King Wu founded the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC, and founded his capital in Hao (southwest of present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi Province). This era, until the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang in 770 BC, is known as the Western Zhou Dynasty. King Wu called himself the son of Heaven. The king instituted an enfeoffment system. King Wu appointed family members and relatives of the royal family to rule over these city-states. He also conferred those deserving officials and generals with hereditary titles and the power to rule some of his city-states. Each vassal state was put under the obligation to make regular contributions to the king and to provide military support for defense when needed. King Wu also established fortresses at important places across the country, forming a network to control the whole country.

The collapse of the Shang Dynasty caused China to split into several separate states. At the time, the Shang only held power over a relatively small territory in the Yellow River region around Anyang. When combined with the State of Zhou, however, which already occupied a vast area to the west, the resulting territory of the Zhou Dynasty became incredibly large, numbering around 200–250 city-states. Each vassal state was put under obligation to make regular contributions to the king and to provide military support for defense. King Wu established his traditional capital near the heart of his kingdom at Haojing, just southwest of the present Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.

Duke of Zhou as the Regent


King Wu died in the capital of Haojing less than two years after overthrowing the Shang Dynasty, having succumbed to years of a rigorous military life and hard work. After the death of King Wu, his younger brother Dan, known as the Duke of Zhou, acted as the regent for King Cheng, as the son of King Wu was still a child. Some royal family members such as the Duke of Zhao were suspicious of the intentions of Duke of Zhou. Lord Guanshu and Lord Caishu also spread rumors that the Duke of Zhou would kill King Cheng and usurp the throne. Wu Geng, son of King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty, took this chance and prompted Lord Guanshu and Caishu to rebel. He also united the remaining royal tribes of the Shang Dynasty in the Southeastern region. Confronted with such a critical situation, Duke of Zhou dismissed the misgivings of the Duke of Zhao and other high-ranking officials, and reassured the royal family. Under the name of King Cheng, he commanded the troops to conquer Wu Geng and quelled the rebellion in the southeastern region. The success of the eastern expedition expanded and consolidated the rule of the Zhou Dynasty, preparing the road for even greater expansion.

After the eastern expedition, the Duke of Zhou moved the captive nobles of Shang to Dongdou near the capital city of Haojing. He also ordered the former vassal states of Shang to build palatial houses in Luoyi (present Luoyang, Henan Province). The new capital city was called Chengzhou. He stationed twenty thousand troops in Chengzhou to keep the followers of Shang under careful watch. Afterwards, the adherents of Shang acknowledged allegiance to the ruling of Zhou and never rebelled again.

To further control the vast conquered area, the Duke of Zhou expanded the system of enfeoffment after the success of the eastern expedition. The Duke of Zhou enfeoffed the vassal lords of territories as distant as the Zhou Dynasty's influence could reach. It was said that seventy-one lords were enfeoffed by King Wu, the Duke of Zhou, and King Cheng. Of these, fifteen lords were the brothers of the Duke of Zhou; forty-one lords had the same family name as the Duke of Zhou; others were mostly the relatives of the Zhou clan or renowned officials and generals, or the descendants of Yao, Shun, or Yu the Great. In this manner, the Duke of Zhou strengthened his control over the affiliated feudal states and tribes scattered across the vast area of the Zhou Empire.

The Ritual and Music Culture of Zhou


According to historical records, the Duke of Zhou, with the aim of strengthening the control over the vassal lords, formulated a complete set of regulations and systems in terms of politics, economy, and culture. He also created the ritual and music systems. By taking advantage of the popular concept of the Mandate of Heaven, he made the King of Zhou tian zi who was also the overlord of tian xia (the world). The King of Zhou belonged to the major lineage, and the vassal lords, bearing the same family name as the king, such as his uncles or brothers, belonged to the minor lineage that formed the ritual system connected by blood ties. The vassal lords, bearing different family names from that of the King, as most of them were relatives of the Zhou clan, could also be controlled by the ritual system.

Since the King of Zhou was tian zi and overlord of tian xia (the world), the vassal lords were the subjects of the king, and between the king and the lords, there was a distinction of rank, such as superior and subordinate, and close and distant kin. The vassal lords had different ranks and titles. Under the vassal lords, there were various levels of officials: qing, da fu, and shi. Thus, a top-down hierarchical system—tian zi, vassal lord, qing, da fu, and shi—was established. The combination of a hierarchical system with a patriarchal clan system resulted in the complete and highly regulated ritual system pertaining to the monarch and his subjects, superiors and subordinates, fathers and sons, elder brothers and younger brothers, close and distant kin, the honorable and the lowly, and the noble and the inferior.

By performing the sacrificial ritual, the rulers of the Western Zhou attempted to civilize the populace so as to reconcile social conflict, preserve the hierarchical system, and maintain the social order. The original meaning of the ritual was the ceremony performed to offer sacrifices to ancestors and gods. In the early Western Zhou Dynasty, the rulers drafted a series of dances accompanied by music in which food, clothes, shelter, and transportation as well as marriages, funerals, banquets, alliances, and so on were shown to demonstrate that all should observe the ranks of the hierarchical system as regards the honorable and the lowly, and these evolved into the typical behaviors of the people. For example, according to the rituals of Zhou, only the tian zi was entitled to an eight-row (sixty-four dancers) dance, and vassal lords and da fu were entitled to six rows and four rows, respectively. This system was probably the result of the “Duke of Zhou drafting the ritual and music systems.” These rituals also had a significant influence on the behaviors of rulers of later generations.

Book of History and Book of Changes


Shangshu (the Book of History) is China's earliest official compilation of documentary records. It collects historical and legendary materials of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. It also records events in ancient times such as Yao, Shun, and Yu the Great.

Yijing (the Book of Changes) is the earliest book of divination from China. It expounds many complex relationships such as Yin and Yang, and embodies the wisdom of the simple truths of the ancestors. Yijing had a great impact on almost all important thinkers and schools of thought in ancient China. Some concepts in the book, such as “just as heaven maintains vigor through movement, so a gentleman should constantly strive for self-perfection,” have a great bearing on the national character and spirit of the Chinese people. The book, however, also includes some superstitious beliefs.

Bagua and Taijitu


It is said that Bagua or the Eight Diagrams, was established by Fuxi, the first of the Three Sovereigns of ancient China. When observing the universe, Fuxi found that all things in the universe were formed by two elements: the “Yin” and the “Yang,” like a man and a woman, a male animal and a female animal, a male sun and a female moon, and so on. He adopted a continuous line to represent Yang, and a broken line to represent Yin. With just three lines, eight combinations (diagrams) could be formed. The diagrams are called “Gua” in Chinese. Each Gua represents a certain kind of thing in nature, which also reveals a certain aspect of the world. Fuxi explored these relations and rules of change in these diagrams so as to guide the behaviors of the people in their work and life. This was the origin of the Eight Diagrams.

Since it was invented, Bagua has, over the centuries, had a close connection with the work and life of the people. Many Bagua pictures were discovered in excavated cultural relics. By the end of the Shang Dynasty, King Wen of Zhou put two Gua or more together and developed sixty-four Gua. He also named all sixty-four diagrams and provided a guaci (the explanation of the meaning of the different diagrams). Duke Dan of Zhou further worked on the yaoci to explain the meaning of each yao (line). The picture of the Bagua is said to have inspired a scientist to create the binary system that laid the foundations for the modern computing language.

Taijitu or the Diagram of Supreme Polarity, is actually Taiji thinking, which maintains that the universe is non-polar. Non-polar refers to the infinity of space and time: for time, there is no starting and end points; for space, there is no measurable boundary. Both time and space are endless. For the convenience of the research of the universe, the concept of “supreme polarity” was introduced. Supreme polarity refers to the state of chaos without the distinction of “Yin” and “Yang.” It is the generality of the universe that any part of the universe can be viewed as “Taiji.” At the center of the Taijitu is a circle which suggests non-polarity gives birth to supreme polarity. The circle is separated by an S-shaped line, one half in black and the other in white. Each half is marked with a dot in the opposite color. The diagram is also called yin-yang fish, and black means Yin and white Yang. This suggests Taiji generates Two Polarities: the Yin and the Yang. In the black diagram there is a white dot while in the white diagram there is a black dot. If the small white dot expands endlessly, Yin will convert into Yang, and vice versa. This suggests that there is Yang inside Yin, and Yin inside Yang; they depend on, contain, penetrate, and convert into each other. The circle is surrounded by the Eight Diagrams, suggesting that the Two Polarities generate the Four Symbols, and the Four Symbols generate the Eight Diagrams. The Eight Diagrams develop into sixty-four Diagrams, which represents that all things, infinite and endless, retreat to the state of non-polarity. These are the main principles of Taiji thinking.

The Evolution of Chinese Characters


The Chinese characters are the vehicle of a language and a tool used to exchange ideas. They were cultivated and developed over a long time by the ancient people, not by any specific person. It seems incredible that the legendary Cangjie created these Chinese characters, yet it is possible that Cangjie collected, compiled, categorized, summarized, and taught these symbols, keeping records originally inscribed on the pottery or on some tools.

There are mainly six categories of Chinese characters as follows: pictography, self-explanatory characters, associative compounds, the pictophonetic method, mutually explanatory or synonymous characters, and phonetic loan characters. Many Neolithic pots excavated at Banpo in Shaanxi Province, Jiangzhai in Lintong, and Lü County in Shandong Province were marked with such symbols. Some of these symbols were pictographs and had the primitive shapes of Chinese characters, proving that the characters evolved and developed as symbols and marks used by our ancestors to keep records.

The oldest Chinese characters discovered so far are the Jiaguwen (ancient Chinese characters carved on tortoise shells or animal bones), which were already well-developed characters at that time. They all followed the six categories of Chinese characters. The Chinese characters now in use evolved from Jiaguwen. The characters were discovered in Anyang, Henan Province, which was the capital city of the Shang Dynasty. Around 150,000 of shell and bone pieces were excavated. Of the more than 4,600 distinct characters in these pieces, over 1,000 have been identified.

Besides Jiaguwen, there were also characters inscribed on bronzeware during the late Shang and early Zhou dynasties, which are known as Jinwen or Zhongdingwen. The Jinwen on bronzeware recorded important events and activities and reflected the social life of the time, and therefore are valuable material for studying the history of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Although Jiaguwen and Jinwen developed into a set of fairly comprehensive symbols for keeping records, there still exist many pictographic characters with strong elements of pictures. These characters are difficult to write because of their loose structures and complicated strokes. They tend to be simplified with unbending strokes and rough-and-ready structures. Up to the late Western Zhou period. the Jiaguwen had been made uniform to conform to one type called da zhuan (great seal script).

In the Spring and Autumn Period, written languages were more widely and frequently used than ever. Due to different practices in character writing in different states, the same characters could sometimes be written in quite different ways, such as in a simplified form or in variant forms.

After Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China and established the feudal centralized system, he pushed forward the development of Chinese characters by unifying the various calligraphic styles that were thriving in other states, and created the standardized Xiaozhuan or small seal script on the basis of the script of the Qin state. The newly developed script, known as the small seal script, brought to an end the confusion of different forms of character writing since the Warring States Period, and also laid the foundation for the present regular script.

Soon after the Xiaozhuan became the official standard script, there arose one style called Sutizi (the commoner style), which was simplified from the script of the Qin state and used among the common people. Although Xiaozhuan was neater than the earlier scripts, it was still troublesome for the common people. Even though it was not of the highest standard, many people preferred using Sutizi, because it could be written more quickly, which was convenient. Eventually some official documents came to be written in Sutizi. This script came to be called Lishu (clerical script). A prisoner called Cheng Miao collected and organized the Sutizi. As prisoners at that time were called Tu Li, this Sutizi was named Lishu. The new script received the support of Emperor Qin Shihuang, and was widely used as the supplement for the small seal script. The Lishu of the Qin Dynasty is called Qinli (Qin clerical script) or Guli (Archaic clerical script), while that of the Han Dynasty is called Hanli (Han clerical script) or Jinli (Modern clerical script).

The script of Lishu revised and modified the former fat and curved strokes to be flat, upright, and horizontal. It completely changed the numerous original pictographic features and made the Chinese script more symbolic. Lishu was the main style during the Han Dynasty.

Based on the clerical script, an early form of cursive script called Zhangcao or old cursive script appeared in the Qin and Han period. Its strokes were linked together. Its horizontal strokes still ran upward; the end of its left-falling stroke and right-falling stroke still retained the clerical style. The clerical cursive script was widely used during the Han Dynasty.

After the Eastern Han Dynasty and Cao Wei state, a new style of script known as Xingshu or regular script came into being, evolving from the clerical and clerical cursive scripts. The regular script (often called standard script or simply Kaishu) developed further during the Sui and Tang dynasties and became a widely recognized style. As the name suggests, the regular script is “regular,” with each of the strokes placed slowly and carefully, the brush lifted from the paper, and all the strokes distinct from one another.

The running hand appeared after the regular script. Its style was between the regular script and cursive script. Different from other scripts, it did not have a specific style of its own. The strokes were rather flexible and natural. When carefully written with distinguishable strokes, the Xingshu characters will be very close to the regular style; when swiftly executed, they approach the Caoshu or cursive hand. Since the Jin Dynasty, most master calligraphers excelled at the running hand.

After the invention of printing technology, the regular fonts were normally used in printing books. Between the end of the Ming and beginning of the Qing dynasties, there appeared a new style of characters: square-shaped characters featuring light horizontal strokes and heavy falling strokes. It is a variant of the regular script. Since the square-shaped script developed from the printing fonts of the Song Dynasty, the type of script is therefore called the Song typeface, as is widely used in printing newspapers and books nowadays.

Astronomy and Calendar of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties


The traditional Chinese calendar system has a very long history going back to the Xia Dynasty dating from over 4,000 years ago. The lunar calendar which is still in use is also called the Xia calendar as it was created in the Xia Dynasty. In the Shang Dynasty, the calendar system became comprehensive: the year was divided into 12 months, with odd months having 30 days and even months having 29 days. In a leap year, one extra month would be added. The calendar of the Shang Dynasty, also known as the Yin Calendar, had clear distinctions with the concepts of year, month, xun, day, and hour. The calendar also included farming seasons, informing people when to grow and when to reap the crops.

In the ancient time, the Chinese people learnt to observe the astronomical phenomenon. In the Xia Dynasty, there were records of meteoric showers and solar eclipses, the earliest records in the world. According to the narration of the solar eclipse happening in the Xia Dynasty, the first-ever record in historical document, when the solar eclipse occurred, people were extremely frightened, and the musicians hurried to beat the drums. The common people ran around to find shelters while the officials were fleeing in their carts. Historical documents of the Shang Dynasty contain many records of solar and lunar eclipses. Scientific calculation has proved that these records matched the actual occurrences. Shijing (The Book of Poetry) recorded a solar eclipse occurring on September 6, 776 BC which is the first record of a solar eclipse that has an exact date of occurrence.