The Shang dynasty is considered to be the first state-dynasty in the history of Chinese civilization. Archaeologists have discovered the first socially stratified and politically complex Chinese state. The Shang ‘empire’ was socially differentiated into commoners, a class of merchants, nobility and elites, and an emperor. This social structure influenced the political structure of the Shang state. We will merchants and elites emerging to sustain a complex political structure that the Shang dynasty gradually developed. Regardless of the structure of their state, the Shang state had a central authority which is symbolized by the king. Although the king traveled around the domain of his empire to publicize his authority and confirm his power, the capital was his home, and hence, became the center of the empire.
Further, the emperor was a symbolic representation of both a political empire (the World and the earth) and the spirtual realm (the heavens). In other words, he held two powers: a secular position as the political and cultural center of the Shang state (the world), and a spirtual position as the head of the spirit-worship religion. The king was the intermediary between the earth and the heavens; he connected the people with the heavenly gods. Through this ideology, which was composed of two parts, the capital became the center of the Shang world and the outerlands symbolized the remaining parts.
In order to firmly fulfil such an ideology, and due to the difficulty of controlling vast outer lands, the king developed a tributary systerm (semi-fuedal). In other words, because the emperor had difficulty organizing a military and political power to control the outer domains directly, he utilized a tributary system that eases the expansion of his empire. Using this system, the empire lay further and beyond the city-state nature. Instead, it reaches out to the neighboring lands and imposes strong but indirect rule over them. Moreover, this practice of indirect contorl produced allied states or possibly territories that pay tributes through resources, goods and perhaps military support to the central Shang capital. The rulers of those outer provinces belonged to the elite class of the state. On the other hand, the merchant-class was used to endorse the communication among the provinces and between the provinces and the central capital. In other words, the Shang emperor utilized the merchant class and possessed absolute control over the circulation and the distribution of goods and resources. Evidentally, the king became successful in shifting their political power from being a city state to a more complex political organization.
As we can see, there’s evidence that supports both the centrality of the capital and the possible existence of outer provinces. Furthermore, the Shang-military presence in the capital, which is supported by archaeological evidence, reflects a rather firm central authority and a strong identification with the capital and the emperor. At the same time, the absence of the military in the outerlands can further serve as evidence for the possible tributary territorial system that the Shang developed to expand their state. On the other hand, the Shang oracle bones, which also were mostly found in the capital, actually mention some warfare in the later phase of the Shang. This could also be a consequence that is attributed to the tributary system. Further, the warefare involved the outer territories who were fighting among themselves but still paid tribute and loyalty to the Shang emperor. Thus the outer territories while belonging to the Shang world system, still practiced partial autonomy over their land.
In fact, this could also account and explain the demise of the Shang dynasty: because of their increasing power, the loyal territories stopped paying tributes to the Shang emperor and gradually revolted against him. To the point, this actually connects with the chronicles that describe the Zhou dynasty’s arrival to the rule of China. Chrnoicles tell that the Shang emperor committed suicide after his own supporters and military betrayed him and allied with the Zhou dynasty.