Early Chinese Civilization
Ancestors, Divination and Sacrifice
Map: Early Chinese Civilization
 
Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty
c. 1766-1040 BCE

The Shang were bloodthirsty — their kings expressed their authority through a tripartite expression of violence. Hunting and warfare were extensions of the third and most integral form of ritual violence, the sacrifices that tied the other pursuits together, followed by prescribed methods of dismemberment and display. ...
Shang ax used for human sacrifice
Of the thirty-seven different kinds of sacrificial ceremony found on the oracle bones, many seemed to involve partial destruction of bodies, carcasses, food or treasures — burning them seems to have been seen as a means of releasing their essence for the gods or ancestral spirits. This spelled disaster for a lot of dogs, as these animals were seen as guides, and hence would be thrown into the inventory as some sort of insurance policy.
 
Oracle Bone Video
 
Funerals were the worst. The tombs of the Shang aristocracy are piled high with the dead — sacrificed slaves or prisoners of war beheaded at the graveside, animals as food, steeds and companions in the afterlife. But a Shang funeral was a dangerous occasion even for the upper classes, who might find themselves called upon to prove their loyalty or friendship by joining their lord or lady in death. Concubines appear to have been sacrificed whole, strangled or buried alive rather than beheaded, in order to keep their bodies intact in the afterlife.
 
Image showing burial practices
 
This carnage escalated as the Shang state both expanded and faced increasing problems both inside and outside its borders. Some 13,000 human sacrifices are scattered around the Shang capital for the reigns of its last nine emperors — an average of 33 victims a year, slain in cemeteries to open channels of communications with the ancestor-gods, or ritually sacrificed to “purify” princesses and dukes troubled by ailments or worries. (BHC, 44-5)
 
Taotie (monster mask)
Ancestor Veneration and the Shang Pantheon
A supreme being, Shangdithe “lord above” was an unknowable deity, with whom only the king stood a chance of communicating. The motivations of nature spirits was also difficult to grasp, although appeasing them was a process that the priests claim to have worked out through a process of sacrificial trial and error. The spirits of the ancestors, however, were accessible to someone who knew the right rituals and payments, and could be prevailed upon to intercede from the afterlife. The natural accretion of prayers “answered” ensured that the older an ancestor was, the more likely he or she was liable to be credited with great powers. Often, according to the oracle bones, such ancestors were malicious or irascible, quick to take offense or to send bad omens as signs of their disapproval. (BHC, 46)
Image showing the relationship between the realms of the gods/spirits and humans
Xiao: Filial PietyThe Shang treated their ancestors with the kind of ritual regularity and order that they were unable to apply either to the Nature Powers or to Di himself. As ex-humans, the ancestors were approachable and comprehensible in ways that the other Powers were not. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 14)
 
The power of the Shang elites depended, in part, upon their control of superior armaments like bronze dagger-axes and horse-and-chariot teams, but the true authority of the dynasty — like that of the Neolithic chieftains who had preceded them — was psychological. Their material power had to be sanctified and legitimated. Much of the elites’ legitimacy derived from their ability — through divination — to define, explain, and control reality, a reality that, in a Bronze Age theocracy, was primarily conceived in religious and familial terms. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 16)
Shang Bronze Casting
[The] most time-consuming stage in the process of bronze casting was to make a mold. The first step was to produce a model of the desired bronze vessel out of clay. Another layer of clay was applied to the surface of the model in order to make a mold. Once the hollow clay mold had dried, it could be cut into different sections. A layer of clay for the bronze vessel — of the desired thickness for the bronze vessel — was removed from the original clay model, which became the core. With the core at the center, the sections of the mold were reassembled, and the casters then poured the molten metal between the mold and the core. The caster then waited for it to cool, which could occur within seconds. Then they opened the mold and removed the vessel. After the vessel had been cast, workers polished it with a series of abrasives progressing from rough to fine. (Open Empire, First Edition, 31)
 
Shang Dynasty bronze altar
 
The general assumption that the ancestors, when properly treated, continued to smile on their living descendants is again central to much of the religion of Zhou and Han. The preference for male children — so marked in later Chinese culture and entirely comprehensible in a dynastic system in which descent passed through the male line — was already present in the Shang divinatory record. The central value of xiao or “filiality” must surely have had its origins in the great reverence that the Shang paid to their ancestors — in divinatory inquiry, in cultic offerings, and in the rich furnishing of their graves. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 22)
 
Ancestor Veneration: Contemporary
Bamboo Separator
Oracle Bone
Oracle Bone Divination
Communicating with the Ancestors

Oracle Bone PitAlthough archaeological discoveries are now suggesting the existence of written characters scratched on Neolithic pots as early as 3000 B.C.E., the earliest corpus of Chinese writing consists of the oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang. These inscriptions record the pyromantic divinations performed at the court of the last nine Shang kings. In this kind of divination, the king or his diviners would address an oral “charge,” such as “We will receive millet harvest,” to a specially prepared turtle plastron or cattle scapula while applying a hot poker or brand to produce a series of heat cracks in the shell or bone. They then interpreted these cracks as auspicious or inauspicious, and the king would deliver a prognostication, such as “Auspicious. We will receive harvest.” After the divination had taken place, engravers carved the subject of the charge, and (sometimes) the king’s forecast, and (less frequently) the result, into the surface of the shell or bone — hence the modern Chinese term jiaguwen, “writings on shell and bone.” (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 5; cf. BHC, 24-5)
 
King Ding of the Shang
Divining the Future
Reading the Past

Oracle Bone DivinationFive turtle shells lie on the rammed-earth altar. The plastrons have been polished like jade, but are scarred on their inner side with rows of oval hollows, some already blackened by fire. Into one of the unburned hollows, on the right side of the shell, the diviner Que is thrusting a brand of flaming thorn. As he does so, he cries aloud, “The sick tooth is not due to Father Jia!” Fanned by an assistant to keep the glowing tip intensely hot, the stick flames against the surface of the shell. Smoke rises. The seconds slowly pass. The stench of scorched bone mingles with the aroma of millet wine scattered in libation. And then, with a sharp, clear, puklike sound, the turtle, most silent of creatures, speaks. A bu-shaped crack has formed in the hollow where the plastron was scorched. Once again the brand is thrust, now into a matching hollow on the left side of the shell: “It is due to Father Jia!” More time passes ... another crack forms in response. Moving to the next plastron, Que repeats the charges: “It is not due to Father Jia!” Puk! “It is due to Father Jia!” He rams the brand into the hollows and cracks [of] the second turtle shell, then the third, the fourth, and the fifth.
Oracle Bones
The diviners consult. The congregation of kinsmen strains to catch their words, for the curse of a dead father may, in the king’s eyes, be the work of a living son. Que rubs wood ash from the fire into the new set of cracks and scrutinizes them once more. But the shell has given no indication. The charge must be divined again. Two more cracks are made in each of the five plastrons ... and there is again no sign.
       Another brand is plucked from the fire and the new charge cried: “The sick tooth is not due to Father Geng! ... It is due to Father Geng.” Father Geng — the king’s senior uncle. This time the indications are clear. His sons, the king’s older cousins, turn away in dismay at the diviner’s reading of the cracks. The spirit, their father, has been blamed. ...
       In such an atmosphere and in such ways
in a routine that must have consumed tens of thousands of hours during the Shang historical period — the Shang kings and their diviners sought to know and fix the future. As the ceremony ended, the diviner handed the five plastrons to scribes, who began the task of carving into the shell’s smooth front a record of the charges proposed and results observed.
       The Shang kings read the mantic cracks to divine the wishes of their ancestors. We read the mantic inscriptions to divine the wishes of the Shang kings. May the oracle bones, once used to read the future, now be used to read the past!
(Classical Chinese Literature, 13-15)
Bamboo Separator
King Zhou of the Shang
King Zhou of the Shang
The Last Shang King

The last of the Shang kings was called Dixin, although the word that is used for him in many historical records means “crupper” — the part of a saddle that is looped around the horse’s tail, and is most likely to get covered in waste. We only have the word of the dynasty that supplanted King Crupper. They claim that they had ample reason to overthrow him. There were intimations, in his younger days that he was brusque and arrogant, and legends that he had managed to insult the gods through his impious behavior, once even joking in a temple that the statue of the goddess Nwa was so beautiful, he wished he could have sex with her.
 
Daji, Concubine of King Zhou of the Shang
 
He had enjoyed a long reign, and was enjoying his old age. He liked his drink, his food, and his women, and best of all among the women, he liked Daji. Said to have been one of the most beautiful ladies in Chinese history, she had entirely bewitched the King, to the extent that later legends would claim she was an evil spirit, sent by Nwa to avenge his temple insult. The king would entertain Daji with lavish orgies and banquets. He indulged her cruel love of the sound of others in pain, and her evil medical experiments, which included cutting out the heart of one of his chief ministers. He even assented to the paolao, a torture device in which a naked victim was made to dance atop a heated cauldron, only to inevitably tumble into the burning charcoal beneath.
 
Zhou Conquest
 
The great challenge to the Shang was mounted by another tribe in the area, the Zhou, former nomads who had been a vassal people of the Shang for several centuries, prized for their skills with horses and chariots. Whatever language they had spoken when they first arrived, they were thoroughly assimilated — they spoke Chinese and worshipped with the rituals and ceremonies of the Shang. ... They appear to have been powerful allies for the Shang ruler, becoming increasingly assertive as their own power rose and the Shang kings’ faded. By the 1050s BCE, the Zhou elders were ready to trust in omens and portents that claimed the Shang era was over. Later legends, however, offer a far more scandalous motivation, suggesting that the Zhou acted in revenge for the death of their leader’s heir, who had been executed on trumped-up charges of attempted rape and kingly slander, after he had rejected the sexual advances of the insatiable Daji. As an indicator of the degree to which the Shang dynasty had devolved by now, the same legend has King Dixin ordering the dead youth minced and baked into cakes, which his father was then obliged to eat.
 
King Zhou of the Shang's Self-Immolation
 
The father died before he could avenge the insult, but his second son took on the task, uniting a coalition of several hundred disgruntled clans, and leading a grand campaign against the Shang. In order to attract a little symbolic magic, he had carved a stone memorial to his father, proclaiming the dead man to have been a king, and carried it in a chariot in the midst of his army. ... The rebels poured into the inner compound of the Shang. Realizing all was lost, the last king of the Shang donned his “jade suit” — thought to be a shamanic robe covered in amulets and pendants — and set fire to his own palace. ... The rebel leader fired three arrows from his chariot into the smoldering body of the dead king, and then, for good measure, he climbed down and hacked off the corpse’s head.
 
King Wu after the Zhou Conquest
 
“Crupper,” he announced, “last descendant of the Yin, forsook his ancestors’ bright virtue, defied the deities, did not offer sacrifices, and in his arrogance, was cruel to the hundred surnames of the city of Shang. Let this be known to the gods above. ... I have been charged to change the great mandate,” he announced, bowing twice to heaven, “to replace the dynasty and to receive the bright Mandate from Heaven.” This is the first time that the concept of a Mandate from Heaven turns up in Chinese history. The rebel leader, shortly to be crowned as first king of the Zhou dynasty, might have overthrown a hated despot, but he had also started an unending cycle of regime changes. It was now official — kings ruled at Heaven’s sufferance. Kings had a duty to perform the right rituals and sacred ceremonies. If they failed in their duties, Heaven reserved the right to revoke its mandate, and to appoint a replacement. It would take eight hundred years, but even the luster of the Zhou would eventually fade to nothing. ( BHC, 47-50)
Zhou Dynasty Icon
The Mandate of Heaven
The Mandate of Heaven
The following section of the “Shao Announcement” (from the Book of Documents) is supposed to record the words of the second Zhou ruler’s uncle, the Duke of Zhou, who served as regent for the young king:
 
Duke of ZhouAh!  August Heaven, High God [Shangdi; a.k.a. the Lord on High], has changed his principal son and has revoked the Mandate of this great state of Yin [a.k.a. Shang]. When a king receives the Mandate, without limit is the grace thereof, but also without limit is the anxiety of it. Ah! How can he fail to be reverently careful!
       Heaven has rejected and ended the Mandate of this great state of Yin. Thus, although Yin has many former wise kings in Heaven, when their successor kings and successor people undertook their Mandate, in the end wise and good men lived in misery. Knowing that they must care for and sustain their wives and children, they then called out in anguish to Heaven and fled to places where they could not be caught. Ah! Heaven too grieved for the people of all the lands, wanting, with affection, in giving its Mandate to employ those who are deeply committed. The king should have reverent care for his virtue. ... Let the king reverently function in his position; he cannot but be reverently careful of his virtue. We cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Xia [an earlier dynasty]; also we cannot fail to mirror ourselves in the Yin. ... We must not presume to suppose that the Yin received the Mandate of Heaven for a fixed period of years; we must not presume to suppose that it was not going to continue. It was because they did not reverently care for their virtue that they early let their Mandate fall. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 36)
 
Yijing Divination Tools
From Oracle Bones to the Yijing
Continuity ... and the Seeds of Change

The Shang oracle bones reveal much about the king and little about his officials or the people who worked the land, while the gradually expanding source base for the Zhou, biased as it is toward ritual language, still provides information about a greater variety of people. Even so, our overriding impression must be of the continuities between the Shang and the Zhou. Both peoples used oracles constantly. The Shang king consulted oracle bones for momentous matters of state, like the launchings of military campaigns, and for personal matters, like his toothaches. The Zhou kings continued to divine with oracle bones at the same time they read the hexagrams [of  the Yijing] formed by yarrow stalks, and their subjects used oracles to determine whether they should marry or what the ancestors were saying during their ceremonies. (Open Empire, 54)
 
Oracle Bone Divination
In early times this process [i.e. the use of Yijing divination] apparently resembled the kind of divination that had been practiced in the Shang period; over time, however, divination changed from a method of consulting and influencing ancestors — the “powerful dead” — to a method of penetrating moments of the cosmic process to learn how the Way is configured, what direction it takes at such moments, and what one’s own place is — and should be — in the scheme of things. By developing the capacity to anticipate and accord with change, one could avert wrong decisions, avoid failure, escape misfortune, and, on the other hand, make right decisions, achieve success, and garner good fortune. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 318)
 
Taiji Bagua
Yijing Divination
Yijing Dude