The History of the Shang Capitol of Zhengzhou

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The site of Zhengzhou can offer us great insight into the history of China, due to its virtually continuous occupation since the middle Shang Dynasty. Due to this, Zhengzhou is one of the most important sites in Henan Province.

It is believed by scholars that Zhengzhou could have been the city of Bo, the first Shang capitol, or Ao, founded by the 6th king, Zhong Ding (Higham, p.561). However, it must be stressed that we do not know the original name of this site, due to a lack of written texts.

The capitol was established at the junction of two rivers, “commanding the link between the loess uplands to the west and the Yellow River plains to the east” (Higham, p.561). It is believed that Zhengzhou was a royal centre; the word ‘zhen’ on oracular texts suggests ritual divination. The remains of dogs have shown that dog sacrifice was practiced to ancestors, and humans sacrificed when new buildings were constructed.

The walls of Zhengzhou enclosed 828 acres and when excavated, archaeologists found a wealth of goods, cemeteries, homes, workshops and much, much more. Rice remains were found, but none of them were securely identified and dated.

Excavations at Zhengzhou yielded two figural stamps on bricks from two hollow brick tombs depicting the goddess Xiwangmu, the ‘Queen Mother of the West’. In the first, “Xiwangmu sits on a mountain top wearing the sheng. Deep valleys lie in front of and behind her. A second mountain at the left closes off the composition. The doubling of the mountains could well indicate a range of mountains rather than two isolated peaks. Two trees, one at the lower left, the other at the far right, grow in these mountains. The auspicious nine-tailed fox climbs up the mountain at the right while a hare stands upright on the downslope of the same mountain; it faces Xiwangmu who sits in the three-quarter pose. Her companion, the bird, representing the three birds who bring her food, flies towards her “(James, p.23 – 23).

Although Zhengzhou was eventually superseded, it still remained a major power in its own right, especially through the Warring States period (481 – 221 BCE). However, Zhengzhou declined towards the late Upper Erligang phase, and became an ordinary settlement afterward. Despite this, the history of this remarkable site sheds much light on the history and the people of ancient China.


Higham, Charles (2005) The Human Past – Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, London.

Hames, Jean M. (1995) An Iconographic Study of Xiwangmu during the Han Dynasty, Artibus Asiae, Artibus Asiae Publishers.


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