Most people during the Shang dynasty lived in small farming villages. The farmers grew grain, kept chickens and pigs, and raised silkworms for silk cloth. Craftworkers made bronze tools, weapons, and beautiful vessels used for rituals. A ritual is a set way of conducting a ceremony.
The Shang people used bronze ritual vessels in ceremonies to honor their ancestors who had died. Ancestors are relatives further back than grandparents. Because of the importance of the rituals, the Shang devoted much skill, energy, and time to making bronze ritual vessels. Sometimes the maker of a bronze vessel would carve an inscription into it that told who made it and which ancestor it honored. Such inscriptions are among the earliest examples of Chinese writing.
The ancient Chinese worshipped their ancestors and several gods. Ancestors were worshipped because they were thought to be very wise and able to guide the lives of the living. Most of the gods Shang people worshipped were nature gods. The Shang prayed to the gods of wind, rain, and fire, as well as to the gods of directions—north, south, east, and west. The chief god of the Shang was called Shang Di, which means "God-on-High." This god's name suggests that the people believed he lived in the sky and oversaw everything they did.
The ancient Shang thought that their ancestors could communicate with the
gods. Ancestors were asked to encourage the powerful gods of nature to be kind to humankind. The Shang feared that angry gods might bring disasters, diseases, or enemy attacks.
Shang kings would often ask their ancestors for advice on a wide variety of subjects. To learn the answers to his questions, the king needed the help of a diviner. A diviner was a person who, it was believed, could communicate with the spirits of the dead.
The diviner would lay out animal bones or turtle shells. Then, the diviner would touch the bones or shells with hot metal sticks. The heat caused cracks to form on the bones and shells. The diviner then gave the bones and shells to the king. The Shang king "read" the cracks to find out the answers to his questions.
Lady Hao (About 1250 B.C.)
Much of the information we have about the Shang people comes from their tombs. Unfortunately, most Shang tombs were robbed before they were discovered by archaeologists. The only royal Shang tomb not robbed before its discovery is Lady Hao’s tomb. It contained over 460 bronze objects and several sculptures in jade and ivory.
Little is known about Lady Hao. Some researchers believe she is mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions of the time as a wife of the king Wu Ding. According to these inscriptions, Lady Hao handled certain rituals and managed an estate outside the capital. She also led military campaigns once with more than 13,000 soldiers.
The Legend of Silk
Silk has long been used in China to weave beautiful clothing, fine ribbons, and colorful decorations. A legend tells that the Chinese discovered silk in 2700 B.C., when Xilingshi (SEE»LING»SHIR), a ruler's wife, noticed worms eating a prized mulberry tree. She took a cocoon spun by a worm, dropped it into hot water and watched the thread unwind. Xilingshi then used the thread to weave a beautiful piece of cloth. No one knows whether this story is true or false, but silk has been produced throughout the Huang He Valley since the time of the Shang and probably earlier.