chapter  5
The Shang dynasty
Pages 24

With the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE), the East Asian Heartland Region makes the transition from proto-history to history, from interpretations based on inferences from non-verbal archaeological evidence to direct accounts based on contemporary written documents. The Shang continued the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age practice of using animal bones in divinations designed to diagnose present problems or to predict eff ective solutions for the future, but added the innovation of carving the divination questions into the bones themselves (Figures 5.1 and 5.2 ). In this way, the Shang rulers and their divination specialists created a body of written work that speaks to us across a time gap of more than 3,000 years (see Focus: Oracle bones). While these “oracle bones” limit our view to certain ritual activities, the subjects and concerns expressed reveal previously unknown aspects of early Chinese government and religion. Of great signifi cance is the fact that they corroborate some of the later written accounts of the Shang, allowing that evidence to be used, with due caution, in understanding Shang history.