Social Studies Spark #40: Can You Read Shang?

The Shang Dynasty is the earliest ruling dynasty of China to be established in recorded history, though other dynasties predated it. The Shang ruled from 1600 to 1046 B.C.. They were known for their advances in math, astronomy, artwork and military technology.

People of the Shang Dynasty are believed to have used calendars and developed knowledge of astronomy and math, thanks to inscriptions on tortoise shells that have been unearthed by archaeologists. The Shang calendar was at first lunar-based, but a solar-based one was developed by a man named Wan-Nien, who established a 365-day year through his observations and pinpointed the two solstices. Shang Dynasty artisans created sophisticated bronze works, ceramics and trinkets made from jade.

By 1200 B.C., Shang armies were equipped with horse-drawn chariots. Before that, there is evidence of bronze-tipped spears, halberds (pointed axes) and bows.

The Shang Dynasty came to an end around 1046 B.C. The final king in the Shang lineage, King Di Xin, was considered a cruel leader, leading to calls for the end of his rule. The Zhou army, led by King Wu, marched on the capitol city. Di Xin armed nearly 200,000 slaves to supplement the defending army, but they defected to the Zhou forces. In what is known as the Battle of Muye, many Shang soldiers refused to fight the Zhou, some even joining the other side. Di Xin died when he set fire to his palace. The incoming Zhou dynasty would rule for 800 years, though the Shang Dynasty had left an indelible mark on the timeline of Chinese history.

The Shang were the first Chinese people to invent writing. The Shang people etched characters – pictures – onto bones. Shang writing is known as ‘oracle bone script’. Other ancient scripts, such as Egypt’s hieroglyphics, fell out of use, but oracle bone script developed into the modern characters which Chinese people still use today.


Go to this link to test your ability to decipher the Shang language. Once you’ve completed the quiz, make your own drawing of some Shang and modern Chinese writing. Take a pic of your writing and send it to your EY Coordinator!

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