The Shang Dynasty is the earliest empire in recorded Chinese history, of which there exists some archeological evidence. The first, possibly mythical, dynasty in Chinese history that came before the Shang was the Xia Dynasty. The Shang Dynasty lasted from about 1766 - 1027 B.C., give or take a few years, of course. The Shang ruled in northern China, with their kingdom situated along the Huang He, Yellow River.
During this time, the first writing system was developed, in which pictographic and ideographic characters were inscribed into bones. These bones also play a central role in the medical system of the time, as will be discussed shortly. The Shang society is said to have produced the earliest known evidence of both the prevention and treatment of illness to be found within Chinese culture.
The Shang were ruled by a centralized king, and the majority of all other citizens were peasants who lived in the small rural towns outside of the capital. Daily life was occupied by livestock maintenance and agricultural work. Although they were considered to be beneath the king, each member of society held a specific role and attempted to maintain the integrity of the whole to the best of their ability. The only members of society whose status was superior to even the king were the deceased ancestors, who were believed to continue to influence the lives of the living even after they were physically gone.
The most important ancestor was Ti. Ti was the reason for the changing of the seasons, and also for good and bad fortune. It was the king's job to make sure that Ti was pleased, and he did this by communicating with Ti, as well as with his own direct ancestors, through the use of oracle bone divination. The bones of animals, particularly tortoise shells, after having several holes pierced through them, were presented to the king. The king would then make his inquiry or request to the ancestors and expose the bone to heat. This heating would produce cracks in the bones that were interpreted by the king as the will of the ancestors, guiding political and other decisions to be made for the benefit of society.
Individual illness, as well as community-wide pandemics and bad luck, were believed to come about whenever Ti or any other ancestor became displeased. The entire community sought to please one another's ancestors to ensure that this did not happen. In early China, sickness was mainly linked to curses brought on by the ancestors, and in order to prevent or cure illness, the Shang king spoke directly to the ancestors on behalf of the afflicted persons. The king was the one and only link to the deceased, making him a healer as well as a leader. Healing was done on a mass scale, and included the entire society as a whole. In addition, sacrifices and offerings of precious items were made to both prevent and counteract illness.
Unschuld, Paul U. "Illness and Healing in the Shang Culture." Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 17-28.
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