Society Under the Shang Dynasty

Learning Objective

  • Summarize the social class system during the Shang Dynasty

Key Points

  • The Shang Dynasty (also called the Yin Dynasty) succeeded the Xia Dynasty, and was followed by the Zhou Dynasty. It was located in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BCE. Citizens of the Shang Dynasty were classified into four social classes: the king and aristocracy, the military, artisans and craftsmen, and peasants.
  • Members of the aristocracy were the most respected social class, and were responsible for governing smaller areas of the dynasty.
  • Next in social status were the Shang military—both the infantry and the chariot warriors.
  • The Shang “middle class” were artisans and craftsmen, who mainly worked with bronze.
  • The poorest class in Shang society were the peasants, who were mostly farmers. Some scholars believe they functioned as slaves; others believe they were more like serfs.



The nobility, or the hereditary ruling class.


Skilled manual workers, who use tools and machinery in a particular craft.


Members of the lowest social class, who toil on the land. This social class consisted of small farmers and tenants, sharecroppers, farmhands, and other laborers on the land, forming the main labor force in agriculture and horticulture.

The Aristocracy and the Military

The aristocracy were centered around Anyang, the Shang capital, and conducted governmental affairs for the surrounding areas. Regional territories farther from the capital were also controlled by the wealthy.

The Shang military were next in social status, and who were respected and honored for their skill. There were two subdivisions of the military: the infantry (foot soldiers) and the chariot warriors. The latter were noted for their great skill in warfare and hunting. Archaeological evidence has supported the use of horses and other cavalry during the late Shang period, c. 1250 BCE.


A bronze battle-axe dated to the Shang Dynasty.

Artisans and Craftsmen

Artisans and craftsmen comprised the middle class of Shang society. Their largest contribution was their work with bronze, which the Chinese developed as early as 1500 BCE. Their work with bronze was a very important aspect of society. Bronze weapons and pottery were commonly made, but the most prominent creations included ritual vessels and treasures, many of which were discovered via archaeological findings in the 1920s and 1930s. Shang aristocrats and the royalty were likely buried with large numbers of bronze valuables, particularly wine vessels and other ornate structures.


Houmuwu Ding. The “Houmuwu Ding” is the heaviest piece of bronze work found in China so far.


At the bottom of the social ladder were the peasants, the poorest of Chinese citizens. They comprised the majority of the population, and were limited to farming and selling crops for profit. Archaeological findings have shown that masses of peasants were buried with aristocrats, leading some scholars to believe that they were the equivalent of slaves. However, other scholars have countered that they may have been similar to serfs. Peasants were governed directly by local aristocrats.