Working for His Majesty

Working for His Majesty

Research Notes on Labor Mobilization in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.), as Seen in the Oracle-Bone Inscriptions, with Particular Attention to Handicraft Industries, Agriculture, Warfare, Hunting, Construction, and the Shang's Legacies (CRM 67)

David N. Keightley

Publication date: 2012
ISBN-13 (print): 978-1-55729-102-8
ISBN-10 (print): 1-55729-102-0
ISBN-13 (e-book): 978-1-55729-156-1

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David Keightley continues his work on translating oracle bones to build up a picture of Late Shang culture and society. This volume is an invaluable contribution to scholars of early Chinese texts, culture, and archeology.

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Title information

This volume deals with the Shang 商 dynasty (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.) in North China, the first to leave written records, and its efforts—evidently with great success—which focused on the artisan corps, labor mobilization, farming, warfare, hunting, building, leadership, and culture that made it all possible. Keightley looks at oracle-bone inscriptions of the Late Shang dynasty, covering the period from Wu Ding 武丁 (ca. ?–1189 B.C.) to Di Xin 帝辛 (ca. 1086–1045 B.C.). His account of Late Shang labor mobilization is based primarily upon information that can be gleaned from the oracle-bone inscriptions, whose dynastic biases and divinatory impulses must be taken into account. The complexity and belief systems of the rest of Shang life must never be ignored. The author had translated 102 Shang oracle bones in his dissertation; the present work has 341 of them, often with several charges on the bone or shell. The volume includes a glossary of Shang terms and phrases.

Pages: 507
Language: English
Publisher: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley
OCLC: 809454961

David N. Keightley

David Keightley is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley. His research has focused on early Chinese civilization and oracle bone script. His publications include Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.), and Working for His Majesty.


B.A., Columbia University; Ph.D., Columbia University

Working for His Majesty

Preface — xi
Notes about the Sources, Citation, and Transcription Conventions — xvii

1. Introduction: The Setting — 1
2. The Work and the Workshops — 9
       Bone Working: 9
       Stone and Jade Working: 13
       Pottery: 15
       Textiles: 16
       Wood Working: 17
       Bronze Casting: 19
       Cowries: Bone and Bronze: 26
       The Emergence of Writing: 27
       The Workshops: 28
       The Products: 30
3. The Artisan Corps — 33
       The Status of the Artisans: 33
       The Duo Gong 多工: 34
       "The Many Strikers": 40
       Summary: 44
       The Dependent Laborers of Shang: 46
       A Note on Population: 48
4. The Zhong 眾 and the Ren 人 — 50
       The Status of the Workers: Slave, Free, or Dependent: 53
       The Differences Between the Zhong 眾 and the Ren 人: 58
5. Punishments, Human Sacrifice, and Accompanying-in-Death — 63
       Possible Punishments: 63
       The Qiang 羌 and Duo Qiang 多羌: A Sample Case: 66
       Human Sacrifice and Accompanying-in-Death: 69
6. Labor Mobilization — 78
       The Verbs for "Mobilize": 78
       The Verbs for "Making an Offering": 81
7. Who Was Mobilized — 86
8. The Occupational Lineages — 92
9. Numbers — 97
       Accuracy of the Figures: 99
       Casualties among the Zhong 眾: 101
       Casualties among the Ren 人: 104
10. Work Schedule of the Diviners — 106
       Discussion: 116
11. Leadership — 119
12. The Work: Agriculture — 124
       The Agricultural Context: 125
       Late Shang Agriculture: 126
              The Powers and the Weather: 129
              Agricultural Tools: 131
       The Yi 邑 and Tian 田: 132
       The Peasantry and the Population: 135
       Dynastic Agriculture: 136
       The Ritual Dimension: 152
       Opening Up New Land: 161
       The Use of Fire: 166
       Irrigation: 168
       Conclusions: 173
13. The Work: Warfare — 174
       Leadership in Warfare: 174
       Army Organization: 179
       Penetration: 184
       Horse-chariot Units and the Shang Army: 187
       Shang Weapons: 189
       Shang Military History: 190
14. The Work: Hunting — 194
15. The Work: Construction — 200
       Wall Construction: 200
       Rammed-Earth Construction: 203
       Settlements and Buildings: 204
       Temples and Other Buildings: 205
       Drainage: 208
       Royal and Other Tombs: 210
16. Some Elements of Ritual Concern — 214
17. The Role of Geopolitics and Culture — 220
       Ancestor Worship: 220
       Other Demands for Work: 226
       The Role of Writing: 230
       The Creation of the Ancestors: 232
18. The Legacies — 236

Figure — 224
Tables — 246
Appendix 1: Inscription Glosses — 250
Appendix 2: Glossary of Shang Terms and Phrases — 275
Bibliography A: Abbreviations for the Oracle-Bone Collections and Other Reference Works — 368
Bibliography B: Other Works Cited — 373
Key to the Inscriptions Translated — 483
Index — 488


"Twelve years after Professor Keightley published The Ancestral Landscape, which was a fascinating, elegant summary of decades of investigations of the Bronze-Age Late Shang dynasty, he has now published another wonderful book on the same era, under the title Working for His Majesty. As the title suggests, and as he recounts in a highly personal preface looking back at the origins of this work, he returns in this book to the topic of his doctoral dissertation on Shang labor (Public Work in Ancient China: A Study of Forced Labor in the Shang and Western Chou, Columbia University, 1969)." ~Magnus Fiskesjö, Cornell University, in Early China 37, no. 1 (December 2014): 567­–573 (

Working for His Majesty represents a feat of outstanding scholarship in the centennial history of studies dealing with late Shāng-dynasty China. Based primarily on oracle-bone inscriptions, jiǎgǔwén 甲骨文, the earliest extant body of Chinese texts dating from the thirteenth to the eleventh century BC, the author delves into the divinatory materials – notwithstanding their ephemeral and biased nature by origin – in an all-out pursuit of scholarship on labor mobilization. He does this in ways no one has done before, presenting his findings with lucidity and eloquence.” ~Ken-ichi Takashima, University of British Columbia, in T’oung Pao 100 (2014): 237–263 (doi 10.1163/15685322-10013p06)