Xia dynasty- Shang dynasty夏代-商

As I wrote last week (Mythology 神话, December is focused on sharing few ideas on organizational development and change inspired by reading a somewhat detailed history of China.

The reason? Have a look at my tag cloud profile summary– studying societies and organizations, their cultures, and how they evolve has always been my hobby before I started turning it into my main line of activity.

And part of the attraction to the Chinese language is that it is the expression of a civilization that managed to survive and (through up and downs) thrive for 4/5000 years old civilization.

I consider “thrive” appropriate when overall the history from A to Z is kept, and not obliterated by new rulers, who at best managed to temporarily sideline what they didn’t like or didn’t fit their own “political” programme.

Obviously, “development” implies a transition- therefore, each post will cover a transition, with no further aim than shared few thoughts- it would be quixotic to assume that you can summarize hundreds of pages with a mere 1,000 words 🙂

This first short post is about the Xia dynasty and the transition to the Shang dynasty, but I assume that you read the previous introductory post.

Change implies knowing where you are heading to, but also two other elements should be known: where you are coming from, and your “transition roadmap”.

When dealing with myths “documented” by those outlining them as a stepping stone toward their own role, it is quite common to have to consider that, along with outright inventions, there will be a certain amount of “politically correct-ed” (i.e. rewritten) events.

In the pre-Xia time, my history book (see bibliographical info in the previous article) reports that within the Guanzi is said that there were Three Sovereigns: Fu Xi, who created the eight trigrams (in the West, we are moderately familiar with the I Ching / Yijing), Shen Nong 神农, who created agriculture, and Huangdi黄帝, who is credited with creating the first set of conditions needed to convert a nomadic tribe into peasants (domesticating animals, laws, state, etc.)

Of course, talking of historical sequences while focusing on pre-historical myths is an oxymoron.

It can be said that, according to this, first the idea of order was created by Fu Xi, then the others Sovereigns gave the means to do more than just survive and contemplate, and the Xia started structuring society and social differentiations.

Incidentally: traditionally is from Huangdi, specifically from 2697 BC, that time is divided in cycles of 60 years, i.e. “history” is counted- also if, at the time of printing of the book that I used as a reference (2013), the late Shang period, specifically the reign of Wu Ding (? – c. 1189 BC) is the first that gave us inscriptions.

Di Ku (2436 – 2366 BC) is credited of actually “generating” the two other dynasties, Shang and Zhou, as two of his wives are said to have generated Xie and Hou Ji, through… the ingestion of eggs and walking on a giant’s footprint.

His son Yao (2357 – 2257 BC) decided to abdicate and transfer power to a successor chosen not by blood, but by merit- an interesting element- but is credited with a further “organizational change”: the first calendar, and scheduling of activities by season.

His successor Shun created ceramics and tools to be used in agriculture, but was “on trial”, as Yao didn’t just abdicate, but gradually transferred powers.

Shun then created… government, by surrounding himself with a team of 22 trusted collaborators who were subject to rigorous tests every three years, including Xie (the beginner of the Shang dynasty), in charge of the education of the people, and Hou Ji of Zhou (Zhou dynasty), in charge of agriculture.

Shun too abdicated and coopted Yu son of Gun: Yu the Great大禹 (c. 2200 – 2100 BC), who, beside controlling waters, was supposed to have been the founder of the Xia dynasty (2207 – 1766 BC), and to have divided the world (i.e. China) into nine provinces (but the “partition of the World” could be used as a metaphor even today- see a previous post, Nine islands 九州).

Yu tried to transfer power by establishing a hereditary succession, but merely because nobody worth considering was found.

Anyway, none of Yu’s successors is said to have been worth his name, and the descriptions of their rule sound like a truculent version of Shakespeare, ending up with a continuous decline, with a twist: the last Xia king, Jie, summoned to court Tang of Shang, imprisoned him in a tower, released him, and… Tang waged war that in a battle at Mingtiao resulted in Jie’s troops refusing to engage, and deserting.

It is quite entertaining to read the history of the transition from Xia to Shang, but the “organizational development” elements are actually quite simple: transferring power from a charismatic leader (Yu) to a “default choice” (having no better candidate, chose blood) wasn’t really an inspired choice.

It is something common in other environments: charismatic leaders are too busy being who they are, setting an unreachable example, to take dynastic responsibility, and build their successors into their future role (as, instead, Yao did with Shun).

But the interesting element is that the transition actually happened within the same social circles, i.e. also a “coup” by Tang of Shang wasn’t, as it will happen in future changes, from somebody that was really an outsider.

It was a dynastic discontinuity, but it was a continuation of the State.

Next week, a more detailed discussion on the first dynasty that can be defined “historically documented” (Shang), what it delivered to the development of China, and how the transition to Zhou evolved.

From January 2015, I will assume that the basics have been shared, and, keeping my focus on organizational development, I intend to write about specific topics, adding few posts “connecting-the-dots” with current affairs whenever appropriate.

For the time being… have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂


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