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Shang economy had three main pillars: trade, agriculture and artisanship. The backbone of the economy was agriculture, which was mixed with the Huang He or Yellow River, which provided nutrient-rich sediment (called loess) and a steady supply of water. 


The Yellow River unpredictably changed its course from time to time, and so the farmers developed flood control and irrigation techniques to harness the river to their benefit and high productivity. 

Farming also employed the largest segment of the population (peasants). Peasants were like tenant-farmers for the kings, landowners or nobles. They also raised livestock such as sheep, pigs, cattle, and horses. Farmers used rudimentary tools even when the nobles had bronze-based tools and jewelry as well as weapons available. The primary produce from the farms included cereals such as wheat, rice, barley, millet as well as fruits and vegetables. Landowners claimed most of the farm produce, leaving only the leftovers for the farmers. 

Farmers and peasants also worked on construction projects for king requiring heavy labor, mainly for irrigation canals. Slave (mostly prisoners of war) labor also contributed to farming, mining, and other projects needing extensive manual effort.


Trade was the second pillar of the Shang economy. Excavations of the ancient Sheng dynastic period sites and tombs provide insights into the trade that must have occurred during this period. For example, some of the excavated artifacts were not native to Shang dynasty. They appear to belong to areas that were outside of Shang territories. Some of these were more than five hundred miles from Shang dynastic region. These findings indicated trade routes that must have brought these artifacts to near Yellow River region. Jade and tortoise shells arrived from hundreds of miles South, whereas the Cowrie shells, considered very precious, came from the Indian Ocean.

The third pillar of Shang economy was artisan craftsmanship. Three prominent class of artisans included the Bronze workers, the architects, and the craftspeople. Bronze workers were experts at making fine art, jewelry, tools, weapons, and armour for kings and noblemen to use. In that period, Shang dynastic bronze workers had a monopoly on this expertise. 

The architects made sturdy houses in a region that was often flooded by Yellow River water. Architects also planned the villages consisting of residential, business, religious and prominent government / royal buildings. Architects also designed the earthen platforms served as the foundations for notable and significant buildings.

The craftspeople created artistic works involving embroidery, jade, glasswork, ceramics (which the Shang craftsmen invented there), ivory, lacquer, and precious stones. 

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