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China's Shang Culture On Assignment

China's Shang Culture On Assignment

China's Shang
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By Peter HesslerPhotographs by O. Louis Mazzatenta

A trove of artifacts has shattered China's traditional story of its origins—but the new narrative, like the old one, still packs a political punch.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The rediscovery of the Shang began with malaria. That, at least, is the legend. In 1899 a sick member of Wang Yirong's family sent out to a pharmacist for turtle plastrons—the ventral shells—that could be used to make traditional Chinese medicine. Before the shells were ground up, somebody in the family noticed that they were inscribed with strange characters that resembled written Chinese.
Ever since, historians have argued about whether the tale is true. But there's no doubt that Wang Yirong, an expert in ancient Chinese texts, became the first major collector of the inscribed shells, called oracle bones, which he purchased from pharmacies. To the average literate Chinese, the oracle bone characters were at first glance unintelligible, but classical scholars like Wang immediately recognized them as an early form of the Chinese script. Wang's scholarship came to an abrupt end in 1900, when the Boxer Uprising raged across the nation in protest of foreign occupation of Chinese territories. Wang, who was a Qing dynasty government official, reluctantly accepted the command of some of the Boxer forces. On August 14, when European, U.S., and Japanese troops entered Beijing to put down the Boxers, Wang committed suicide by drinking poison and jumping down a well.

For years after Wang's death it seemed as if the objects—which were described by pharmacists as "dragon bones"—were anything but healing. Scholars bickered over their authenticity, and dealers tried to maintain a monopoly by lying about the source, which was a small village outside Anyang called Xiaotun. Villagers in Xiaotun became so obsessed by the dragon bone trade that they engaged in fights and lawsuits. Forgeries flooded the antiquities markets in Beijing and Shanghai.

But behind the chaos, the Chinese intellectual climate was undergoing revolutionary changes that allowed the oracle bones to be viewed in a new light. After the Qing fell at the end of 1911, intellectuals began calling for China to embrace Western science and philosophy. Realizing that archaeology could provide a fresh perspective of the past, the newly established Academia Sinica sent an excavation team to Xiaotun in 1928—a project that trained a generation of Chinese archaeologists.

The earliest digs, which followed in the tracks of looters and dealers, focused on retrieving oracle bones. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as more than 100,000 inscribed fragments came to light, the once mythical Shang dynasty became historical.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Chinese names are difficult enough for Westerners—unfamiliar with the sounds and spellings—to pronounce, but additional confusion results because there are two different systems of romanization of Chinese characters: Wade-Giles and pinyin. Wade-Giles, the first widely used system, was developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s by two British sinologists. Developed for a European audience, it was relatively easy for Westerners to use.

In the first half of the 1900s China began to develop a system of romanization based on Peking dialect that would more accurately reflect Chinese pronunciations. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the work intensified. The new version, called pinyin, became the official system of romanization within the PRC in 1979.  (Taiwan adopted pinyin only in 2002.)

During the 1980s pinyin became widely used throughout the international community, including much of the Western news media, publishers, and the United States government. It was at this time that Peking—the original British spelling for the city—switched to pinyin Beijing.

Other issues complicate transliteration of Chinese names and words. For instance, Yangtze (or Yangzi), named after the ancient fiefdom of Yang, is the common and highly recognizable name used in the West for China's renowned river. In pinyin it is called Chang Jiang, in Wade-Giles Ch'ang Chiang, both meaning "long river."

The National Geographic Society makes allowances for the preferences of individuals. Some Chinese, especially those in Taiwan, such as archaeologist Shih Chang-ju, still prefer to use Wade-Giles spelling for their names. While the Chinese method of writing a name is surname first, given name second, naturalized Americans often prefer to have their surname placed at the end—such as archaeologists K. C. Chang and Zhichun Jing. Throughout the story on Bronze Age China, if you see a one-syllable name, such as Tang or Jing, it's a surname. A two-syllable name, such as Jigen or Zhichun, is a given name.

A short guide to less obvious pinyin pronunciation

x = sh (as in shovel) or s (as in sun)
zh = j (as in Joe)
ou = o (as in no)
q = ch (as in church)
ui = way
eng = ung (as in young)














Xu Wenqiu

shoo wen-chyo







Zheng Zhenxiang

jung jen-shiang)

Zhichun Jing

ji-choon jing

Useful romanizations related to our feature story



Deng Xiaoping

Teng Hsiao-p'ing

Di Xin

Ti Hsin

Li Ji

 Li Chi

Mao Zedong

Mao Tse-tung







Wang Yirong

Wang I-yung

Wu Ding 

Wu Ting









UCLA Library
For links to Wade-Giles and pinyin syllabic conversion tables, see for Wade-Giles to pinyin, and for pinyin to Wade-Giles. 

—Elizabeth Snodgrass

Did You Know?

Related Links
Ancient Writing From the Ruins of Yin: Special Exhibition of Oracle Bone Inscriptions From the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica
Find out all about oracle bones and early Chinese script in Shang times, and see more examples of engraved bones and shells.

National Gallery of Art: Teaching the Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology
Explore this in-depth guide to China's glorious past through archaeology. Learn about ancient China, or get teaching activities, bibliographies, maps, and more.

International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History (ICEAACH)
Want to know more about archaeology in East Asia? Check out Boston University's ICEAACH website for library resources, calendars and events, teaching aids, and links to additional websites.

Dragon Bones and Teeth
Learn about the origin, preparation, and uses of "dragon bones" in traditional Chinese medicine in this paper written by Subhuti Dharmananda of the Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon.

Peking Man World Heritage Site
Read how "dragon bones" led to the discovery of Peking man at a site called Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, in the 1920s.

China Internet Information Center Archaeology Link
Link to articles on the latest archaeological discoveries in China. You can also take a virtual tour of many of the artifacts from Sanxingdui.


Bagley, Robert, ed. Ancient Sichuan: Treasures From a Lost Civilization. Seattle Art Museum and Princeton University Press, 2001.

Chang, Kwang-chih. The Archaeology of Ancient China. Yale University Press, 1986.

Chang, Kwang-chih. Shang Civilization. Yale University Press, 1980.

Li, Chi. Anyang. University of Washington Press, 1977.

Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds. Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Murowchick, Robert E., ed.  Cradles of Civilization: China. University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Rawson, Jessica, ed. Mysteries of Ancient China. George Braziller, 1996.

Shaughnessy, Edward L., ed.  China: Empire and Civilization. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Yang, Xiaoneng, ed.  The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Yale University Press, 1999.


NGS Resources
Hessler, Peter. "Chasing the Wall," National Geographic (January 2003), 2-33.

Hessler, Peter. "Rising to Life: Treasures of Ancient China," National Geographic (October 2001), 48-67.

"Hidden China," National Geographic (May 2001), Geographica.

Harper, Damian. The National Geographic Traveler: China. National Geographic Books, 2001.


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