The Xia Dynasty (夏朝; xià cháo), ca. 2100 BC–1600 BC,of China is the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical records such as Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. Though there is disagreement pertaining to the actual existence of the dynasty, there is archaeological evidence which points to its possible existence. According to historical records, it was preceded by the period of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors and followed by the Shang Dynasty.
According to the official history, the Xia Dynasty was founded when Shun abdicated the throne in favor of his minister Yu, whom Shun viewed as the perfect civil servant. Yu was greatly praised by his people for eliminating flooding by organizing the building of canals in all the major rivers. Soon before his death, instead of passing power to the person deemed most capable of rulership, Yu passed power to his son, Qi, setting the precedence for dynastic rule or the Hereditary System. The Xia Dynasty thus began a period of family or clan control.
The Skeptical school of early Chinese history (yigupai) in the twenties, started by Gu Jiegang, was the first to seriously question within China the traditional story of its early history: "the later the time, the longer the legendary period of earlier history… early Chinese history is a tale told and retold for generations, during which new elements were added to the front end".
Yun Kuen Lee’s criticism of nationalist sentiment in developing an explanation of Three Dynasties chronology focuses on the dichotomy of evidence provided by archaeological versus historical research, in particular the claim that the archaeological Erlitou Culture is also the historical Xia Dynasty. "How to fuse the archaeological dates with historical dates is a challenge to all chronological studies of early civilization."
According to traditional Chinese proponents of the Dynastic cycle, it was during this period that Chinese civilization developed a benign civilian government and harsh punishment for legal transgressions. From this the earliest forms of Chinese legal codes came into being.
Jie, the last ruler, was said to be a corrupt king. He was overthrown by Tang, the leader of Shang people from the east.
Archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the possible existence of the Xia dynasty at locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts.
There exists a debate as to whether or not Erlitou culture was the site of the Xia dynasty. Radiocarbon dating places the site at ca. 2100 to 1800 BC, providing physical evidence of the existence of a state contemporaneous with and possibly equivalent to the Xia Dynasty as described in Chinese historical works.
In 1959, a site located in the city of Yanshi was excavated containing large palaces that some archaeologists have attributed as capital of the Xia Dynasty. Though later historical works mention the Xia dynasty, no written records dated to the Xia period have been found to confirm the name of the dynasty and its sovereigns. At a minimum, the archaeological discoveries marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang Dynasty.
The Shang Dynasty (商朝) or Yin Dynasty (殷代) (ca. 1600 BC – ca. 1046 BC) is the second historic Chinese dynasty and ruled in the northeastern region of the area known as "China proper", in the Yellow River valley. The Shāng Dynasty followed the quasi-legendary Xià Dynasty and preceded the Zhōu Dynasty. Information about the Shang Dynasty comes from historical records of the later Zhou Dynasty, the Han Dynasty Shiji by Sima Qian and from Shang inscriptions on bronze artifacts and oracle bones—turtle shells, cattle scapulae or other bones on which were written the first significant corpus of recorded Chinese characters. The oracle bone inscriptions, which date to the latter half of the dynasty, typically recorded the date in the Sexagenary cycle of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, followed by the name of the diviner and the topic being divined about. An interpretation of the answer (prognostication) and whether the divination later proved correct were sometimes also added.
These divinations can be gleaned for information on the politics, economy, culture, religion, geography, astronomy, calendar, art and medicine of the period, and as such provide critical insight into the early stages of the Chinese civilization. One site of the Shang capitals, later historically called the Ruins of Yin (殷墟), is near modern day Anyang . Archaeological work there uncovered 11 major Yin royal tombs and the foundations of palace and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and human as well as animal sacrifices. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone and ceramic artifacts have been obtained; the workmanship on the bronzes attests to a high level of civilization. In terms of inscribed oracle bones alone, more than 20,000 were discovered in the initial scientific excavations in the 1920s to 1930s, and many more have since been found.
The Shang dynasty is believed to have been founded by a rebel leader who overthrew the last Xia ruler. Its civilization was based on agriculture, augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. The Records of the Grand Historian state that the Shang moved its capital six times. The final and most important move to Yin in 1350 BC led to the golden age of the dynasty. The term Yin dynasty has been synonymous with the Shang in history, and indeed was the more popular term, although it is now often used specifically in reference to the latter half of the Shang. The Japanese and Koreans still refer to the Shang dynasty exclusively as the Yin (In) dynasty.
A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The capitals, particularly that in Yin, were centers of glittering court life. Court rituals to propitiate spirits developed. In addition to his secular position, the king was the head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. The king often performed oracle bone divinations himself, especially near the end of the dynasty. Evidence from the royal tombs indicates that royal personages were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.
The Shang had a fully developed system of writing; its complexity and state of development indicates an earlier period of development, which is still unattested. Bronze casting and pottery also advanced in Shang culture. The bronze was commonly used for art rather than weapons. In astronomy, the Shang astronomers saw Mars and various comets. Many musical instruments were also invented at that time.
Shang influence, though not political control, extended as far northeast as modern Beijing, where early pre-Yan culture shows evidence of Shang material culture. At least one burial in this region during the Early Shang period contained both Shang-style bronzes and local-style gold jewelry.This Shang influence likely made possible the integration of Yan into the later Zhou Dynasty。
The Shang king, in his oracular divinations, repeatedly shows concern about the fang groups, which represented barbarians outside of the civilized tu regions that made up the Shang center. In particular, the tufang group of the Yan Shan region is regularly mentioned as hostile to the Shang. The discovery of a Chenggu-style ge dagger-axe at Xiaohenan demonstrates that even at this early stage of Chinese history, there was some level of connection between the distant areas of north China.
Shang Zhou, the last Shang king, committed suicide after his army was defeated by the Zhou people. Legends say that his army betrayed him by joining the Zhou rebels in a decisive battle.