The stereotype of the tyrannical, capricious, and insensitive king in the face of the people’s suffering is true to a certain extent and almost always in periods later than the origin of that institution when it was the guarantor of the survival of its people. A good example could be the Chinese Shāng Tāng, who even distributed money among his subjects to lift them out of poverty.

Monarchy is not a medieval institution, as is often said—in fact, it underwent a crisis during the Middle Ages due to feudalism—but rather, it has its origins in Antiquity, in the earliest historical societies, with a very clear function: to exercise a protective role over the community, both defensively and in ensuring the cereal supply. Hence, the king had absolute power to command the army and distribute grain from his warehouses in times of scarcity. The case of the agrarian empires of the Fertile Crescent is paradigmatic: remember the silos owned by the pharaoh and the Egyptian clergy for this purpose and similar ones in Mesopotamia.

It is always difficult to determine exactly when the history of a country or territory begins, and that’s why periodizations are only indicative. Taking as a reference the element used to consider it, the appearance of written documents, China would have made the leap from prehistory about five thousand years ago when the first attempts at proto-writing are dated. But since there is no unanimity to seriously consider such attempts, it is common to place the beginning in the Shang dynasty.

Shang means trade, and the word is used because that dynasty grew closely linked to that activity, a result of great progress in agriculture. It was not actually the first, as there was a previous one, the Xia, but there is no information about it until much later times, and it does not present a proven archaeological record, so its seventeen kings have a rather legendary character. Thus, it is considered that it was the Shang, their successors, who brought China into history.

In reality, there were also doubts about the historicity of the Shang since the documentary sources were all several centuries later, from the Zhou period, and there was no archaeological evidence. It was necessary to wait until the 20th century for these last ones to begin to be excavated in the Yellow River environment to prove that the Zhou texts were telling the truth. Specifically, oracle bones (bones with writing), bronze objects, and turtle plastrons (turtle shells with inscriptions) were found, to which later were added archaeological sites of the Erligang Culture (near Zhengzhou, in Henan) and the city of Yin (which was the capital of the Shang in 1350 B.C.).

The Chinese entered the Neolithic approximately at the beginning of the third millennium BC, thanks to rice cultivation, just as in the Fertile Crescent, wheat was the driving force, and in America, it was corn. This stage coincided with the Xia dynasty, whose last ruler was named Jié. Chronicles say he was a tyrant, corrupted by the influence of his favorite concubine, Mo Xi, described as depraved, sadistic, and immoral; even her wickedness is illustrated by the legend of the wine lake that he had made to then force three thousand of his subjects to drain it by drinking, most of them drowning drunk.

Example of an oracle bone: a scapula with writing/Photo: Herr Klugbeisser on Wikimedia Commons

Thus, Jié lost popular sympathy, something he worsened by forcing his subjects to collaborate forcibly in the construction of a sumptuous palace. The state’s coffers were squandered on his megalomaniac work, and, incidentally, the people became impoverished by neglecting their fields. Since the power of his dynasty had been weakening even before, he would be the last and weakest link; a bad thing if, on top of that, his capricious behavior had everyone irritated.

This is when the figure of Shang Tang appears, whom we mentioned earlier. Born around 1675 B.C., he was of noble lineage, from a family that had served the court of Shang for several generations, one of the lordships that were under the sovereignty of King Jié. By marrying the daughter of Prince Xīn, he gained access to the government, where he did good work for seventeen years and managed to make Shang increasingly important compared to other vassal territories of the king.

Shang Tang perceived the suffering of the people and became aware that a radical change was necessary, which obviously involved overthrowing Jié and his hated concubine. Thus, he began to establish contacts with the various lordships of the kingdom and attracted the support of forty of them. Although he expressed that he was not in favor of the chaos that such movements usually generate, he also interpreted the opportunity presented to him from his privileged position as a divine mandate, thanks to which, by the way, he knew that the military leaders were also fed up with Jié.

Tang also had the advantage of placing a trusted man in the court: Yi Yin, a servant of his wife who had risen through his wisdom and impressed the king so much that he made him a minister. The first insurrectionary step was prudent. The lordship of Shang stopped paying royal tribute to gather funds and publicly distance itself from the monarch. He did not react thanks to Yi Yin intervening and dissuading him. But the following year, Tang refused to pay again, and Jié could no longer remain inactive.

Perhaps everything followed a plan, but in any case, Tang was arrested while visiting a temple and locked up in the Xia Tower, thus becoming a martyr and an example for all. So much so that the other lordships rebelled, and the military leadership refused to mobilize to suppress the revolt. The king had no choice but to release him… to see Tang openly leading the insurrection. All this happened between the twenty-second and twenty-third years of Jié’s reign.

Tang conquered several important cities, expanding his dominions and attracting more and more supporters. China, to be exact, did not yet exist as such, became embroiled in a civil war for several years until in the thirty-first year of the reign, both armies met at Mingtiao (now Anyi) for the decisive battle. Helped by a strong storm that disorganized the enemy and the detachment of his own men, who showed indifference in battle, Jié was defeated and had to flee.

Representation of Jié symbolizing his oppression by carrying a halberd and sitting on two women/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Initially, he took refuge in Sanzong, but Tang’s soldiers pursued him there, and he had to resume his escape until they captured him in Jiǎomén. The king was overthrown and sent into exile in the Nánzhào mountain, where he would die some time later. One historical source, the Shiji (Historical Records, by Sima Qian), says that Jié summarized his fall very succinctly, attributing it to not having executed Tang at the right time. In any case, the Xia dynasty ended, making way for another that would have thirty sovereigns until 1046 B.C., when it would have to make way for the Zhou.

But in the meantime, Tang was the first of the Shang dynasty, who has gone down in history as the protagonist of the considered first aristocratic revolution in China. The memory he left was good, despite being a pioneer in establishing an organized state in a feudal style with a significant pillar in slavery, as he reduced to that condition all those who continued to resist the change: after definitively defeating them, he deprived them of freedom and sent them to work in the fields as forced labor. It was probably a necessary measure, given the harsh situation of the country after that long internal war.

In fact, it took five years to get things back on track. Most Chinese families had lost members, and the fields were semi-abandoned, which, combined with a fatal period of droughts, led to misery and famine. Aware that he could not lose popular support, Tang then promoted an unprecedented shock measure: he ordered his mints to mint extra batches of gold coins that were then to be distributed among the most disadvantaged classes so that they could not only cope with their hardship but also buy back their children.

Territory of the Shang Dynasty/Image: dominio público on Wikimedia Commons

Buying back children is not a metaphorical expression. When subsistence crises occurred, many peasants were forced to sell their offspring to ensure the survival of the children (buyers took care of them) and their own (fewer mouths to feed). The enormous size of the country and the high reproductive rate of its population made this a custom that would be repeated throughout history, along with getting rid of newborn girls for the benefit of boys.

In any case, the image of state officials distributing coins must have been unusual. In a later period, with a more developed economy, the measure would have been catastrophic due to its effect on prices and fiduciary value. But we are talking about the Protohistory, the beginning of Ancient China, coinciding with the Bronze Age. Everything was too primitive to have a significant negative impact, and the peasants received the initiative with obvious satisfaction, of course.

This, along with the tax reduction decreed by Tang, the relaxation in military recruitments, and the advanced agricultural technique that the Shang clan had promoted (which ultimately led to displacing the Xia, whose fields yielded much less), favored economic development, also allowing many neighboring states around the Yellow River to accept a vassalage relationship. The kingdom prospered, the new king established the capital in Anyang, and he did not vent his anger on the memory of his predecessor, respecting his palace and erecting monuments in his honor. He would die around 1646 B.C., after seventeen years of reign

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 9, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El rey chino que acuñó monedas de oro para repartirlas entre sus súbditos


Gregorio Doval Huecas, Breve historia de la China milenaria | Flora Botton Beja, China. Su historia y cultura hasta 1800 | Haiwang Yuan, ed., This is China: The First 5,000 Years | Endymion Porter Wilkinson, Chinese History. A manual | David S. Nivison, The Key to the Chronology of the Three Dynasties: The “Modern Text” Bamboo Annals | Michael Loewe, Edward L. Shaughnessy, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.C. | Wikipedia

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