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The Shang Dynasty Rulers were A Migrant Ethnicity: Ethnic Diversity in the Formative Stage of Chinese Civilization

Olga GORODETSKAYA (National Chung Cheng University, Sun Yat-sen University)
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Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that Chinese civilization first emerged in the river basins of the Yangtze and its northern tributaries, the Huai and Han. Some five thousand years ago the lower Han basin already had multiplicities that integrated and allied with one another form state structures. In this period the inhabitants of what is now north China were mostly nomadic and the political structure of the region was fluid. Some thirty-five hundred years ago, more complex forms of political authority gradually developed in north China. One consequence of this was that southern cultures were relegated to a secondary and subordinate role in the historical orthodoxy that developed subsequently. Archaeological investigation of Shang sites at Anyang reveals the diversity of cultural elements in Shang culture. Objects excavated as Shang sites come from very broad origins, extending south beyond the Yangtze, to the forests and steppes in the north, to Sichuan and Gansu in the west, and to the sea in the east. The Shang period was the source of many elements of Chinese tradition, including the earliest use of Chinese characters. Shang should be considered the first politically centralized state; transcending the limits of a single ethnicity, encompassing places with different styles of life, cultural traditions and languages. Political authority was exercised over numerous earlier city-states. It thus formed an enormous diverse civilization, earning it the title of "ancient empire" The new weapons and horse-carriage technology that were the symbols of the Shang ruling clan demonstrate that they were not native to the region, and that a considerable element of Shang culture came from the northern steppe. Linguistic data also shows that the language of Shang retained significant Altaic elements. This article uses physical anthropological data to explore the close links between the early formation of Chinese civilization and the peoples of the northern steppe. It argues further that from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Yellow River plain, the rulers of the ancient Shang empire belonged to an ethnic group from elsewhere.

Journal of History and Anthropology