Shang Religion

Learning Objective

  • Explain the religious foundation of Shang Dynasty culture

Key Points

  • The Shang believed in spiritual control of the world by various gods. They also practiced ancestor worship. They appealed to the gods, including the supreme god Shangdi, and consulted their ancestors through oracle bones.
  • The Shang established a lunar calendar using 29-day months, and 12-month years.
  • There appears to have been a belief in the afterlife during the Shang Dynasty, evidenced by human and animal bodies and artifacts found in tombs.



A shaman is a person who is seen to have access to and influence in the world of spirits, and who typically enters a trance state during rituals, and practices divination and healing.


The practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.

Shang Religion

Shang religion was characterized by a combination of animism, shamanism, spiritual control of the world, divination, and respect and worship of dead ancestors, including through sacrifice. Different gods represented natural and mythological symbols, such as the moon, sun, wind, rain, dragon, and phoenix. Peasants prayed to these gods for bountiful harvests. Festivals to celebrate gods were also common. In particular, the Shang kings, who considered themselves divine rulers, consulted the great god Shangdi (the “Supreme Being” who ruled over humanity and nature) for advice and wisdom. The Shang believed that the ancestors could also confer good fortune, so they would also consult ancestors through oracle bones in order to seek approval for any major decision, and to learn about future success in harvesting, hunting, or battle.


Shangdi. One depiction of Shangdi, the Supreme Being who ruled over humanity and nature.

Oracle Bones and Divination

The oldest surviving form of Chinese writing is inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals—so-called oracle bones. Oracle bones were pieces of bone or turtle shell used by the ancient Chinese, especially Chinese kings, in attempts to predict the future. The ancient kings would inscribe their name and the date on the bone along with a question. They would then heat the bone until it cracked, and then interpret the shape of the crack, which was believed to provide an answer to their question.

Questions were carved into oracle bones, such as, “Will we win the upcoming battle?” or “How many soldiers should we commit to the battle?” The bones reveal a great deal about what was important to Shang society. Many of the oracle bones ask questions about war, harvests, and childbirth.


Oracle Bone. This oracle bone from the Shang Dynasty dates to the reign of King Wu Ding.

The Afterlife

It appears that there was belief in the afterlife during the Shang Dynasty. Archaeologists have found Shang tombs surrounded by the skulls and bodies of human sacrifices. Some of these contain jade, which was seen to protect against decay and give immortality. Archaeologists believed that Shang tombs were very similar to those found in the Egyptian pyramids, in that they buried servants with them. Chinese archaeologists theorize that the Shang, like the ancient Egyptians, believed their servants would continue to serve them in the afterlife, so aristocrats’ servants would be killed and buried with them when they died. Another interpretation is that these were enemy warriors captured in battle.


The Burial Pit at the Tomb of Lady Fu Hao. This tomb is located in the ruins of the ancient Shang Dynasty capital, Yin.

The Lunar Calendar

The Shang also established a lunar calendar that was used to predict and record events, such as harvests, births, and deaths (of rulers and peasants alike). The system assumed a 29-day month that began and ended with each new moon; twelve lunar months comprised one lunar year. Priests and astronomers were trained to recalculate the lunar year and add enough days so that each year lasted 365 days. Because the calendar was used to time both crop planting and the harvest, the king had to employ skilled astronomers to predict dates (and successes) of annual harvests; this would help him maintain support from the people.