How Do the Zhou and Shang Dynasties Compare?

The Shang and Zhou dynasties shared an interest in education, domestic family structure and socioeconomic segregation but differed in their academic interests and approaches to government.

While the Shang dynasty encouraged the arts and humanities, the Zhou family promoted science and mathematics. The Shang clan ruled with a system of central governance, while the Zhou established independent feudal states, vesting power in local rulers instead.

The Shang family assumed control over Ancient China following the reign of the Xia clan and was ultimately succeeded by the Zhou dynasty. The Shang and Zhou clans shared an interest in promoting education and establishing familial and social order. Both families built strong city walls to physically separate classes of citizens; the few wealthy Chinese residents lived in city and urban areas, while the majority of the poor, farming population lived in surrounding villages. Upon assuming the throne, the Shang family established a domestic family structure, which placed the father or oldest son at the head of the family; wives and children were considered subservient and directed to obey orders of the eldest male. Despite sharing these commonalities, however, the Shang and Zhou dynasties had significant differences. While the Shang clan promoted arts and literature, the Zhou dynasty drew attention to the sciences and mathematics. Under Shang leadership, China was united as one country. When the Zhou assumed throne, however, it was divided into a series of feudal states.

The Shang family immediately succeeded the Xia clan, accepting the position of leadership in 1700 BCE. This royal family was quite wealthy, and upon inheriting the position of ruling clan, introduced exotic items such as chopsticks, jade, silk, spices and oracle bones to the wealthy segment of the Chinese population. The Shang family was well-educated too, and sought every opportunity to advance literature and the arts. The Shang dynasty introduced a novel system of writing using calligraphy and an expansive alphabet, and encouraged the growth of establishments and organizations designed to promote culture and the arts, including museums, art centers and large theatres. The Shang family kept the centuries-old political structure of China, which was one of a single, unified country and a central government. However, it introduced a rigid domestic and social class structure, which remained in place long after its succession. The Shang dynasty established the patriarchal dominance of the individual family, appointing the father or eldest son as master of the household, and forcing women and children into subservient roles. This clan also created large city walls to separate themselves from the majority of the population, which consisted of peasants and farmers living in villages in rural areas. The Shang dynasty ruled until around 1100 BCE, when the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang clan and assumed leadership of China.

Upon ousting the Shang family from rulership in 1000 BCE, the Zhou kept the patriarchal family structure and continued to enforce distinct social barriers between the societal classes. While the Shang family promoted the arts and literature, however, the Zhou clan preferred education in mathematics and the sciences; astronomy was its forte. The Zhou also divided China into a series of fragmented, feudal states, erasing the unified nation found under the Shang dynasty. A tribal leader or clansmen was appointed to rule each state, ultimately changing power from a central federal system of government to one of state and local control.