Early Chinese Civilization

The story of the oracle bones of Shang is one of the most exciting in the annals of archaeology, in view of the flood of light it has shed upon the early history of China....Altogether 100,000 of these bones—shoulder blades of deer and oxen and the carapaces of toroises—have been unearthed and the results of research upon 15,000 of them published. The characters inscribed upon them, dating from about 1300 B.C., and some of the signs found on Yang-shao pottery represent the earliest known form of the Chinese language. Some 5,000 characters have been distinguised and 1,500 of these deciphered. A major reform of Chinese writing in the second century B.C. is the reason why the meanings of many of the older characters have been lost. [China: Its History and Culture, 14-5]

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]
Their kings were buried in coffins in immense pits with two or four sloping access ramps. A dog was sacrificed and placed immediately under each coffin, and numerous treasures (5,801 articles in one particular tomb) were buried along with the monarch. Among the most valuable of these objects, and ranking as status symbols, were cult vessels of bronze and war chariots, with horses and charioteers previously killed and buried along with them....A grim feature of Shang burials was the sacrifice of large numbers of human victims in groups of ten. They were ceremonially beheaded with large axes, also found in the tombs. These were prisoners taken in war or captured from nomad shepherd tribes on the western borders of Shang. [China: Its History and Culture, 15]

The Shang Pantheon
From Divination to Sacrifice
The Shang kings lived in a world that was dominated by a complex pantheon of Powers that included: Di, the High God; Nature Powers, like the (Yellow) River, the
ain, and Ri, the Sun; former Lords, like Wang Hai, who were apparently ex-humans whom the cultists now associated with the dynasty; pre-dynastic ancestors, like Shang Jia; dynastic ancestors, whose cult started with Da Yi and ended with the deceased father of the reigning king; and the dynastic ancestresses, the consorts of those kings on the main line of descent, who likewise received cult in the order of their husbands’ accession. [
Sources of Chinese Tradition, 10.]
The 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 chief glories of Shang art and craftsmanship are the magnificent vessels of bronze. These vessels, in a number of carefully prescribed shapes, were designed primarily for use in sacrifice to ancestors and gods, but they were also used to mark occasions of royal favor, such as the granting of a fief or an honor to a noble. Possession of bronze vessels was a conspicuous sign of wealth and a means of preserving it in the family....Shang bronze-working attained an extremely high standard, scarcely excelled anywhere else at any date. The rise of Shang bronze techniques appeared until recently to have been very rapid, and this led to speculation that knowledge of bronze casting might have been introduced from West Asia, then applied and developed in China. But discoveries in the 1970s have revealed examples of earlier, thinner, and much more primitive bronzes, which point to a long development within China itself. It now seems likely that the Chinese invented the casting of bronze independently. [China: Its History and Culture, 17]
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:
Ah! 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]