Shang Period Elites and the Hou Title in the Light of The Inscriptions of the Thirteenth–Eleventh centuries BCE: An Onomastic Research

Timur Safin

Vostok/Oriens '2018, №4

DOI: 10.31857/S086919080000453-5

The hou-lords’ status and their authority during the late Shang period China in the thirteenth–eleventh centuries BCE remain the point of discussion. Three main hypotheses are put forward. The hou-lords could be either autochthonous leaders of semi-independent polities in the periphery of the Shang state, or ‘feudal’ lords in possession of land granted by the king, or appointed ‘officials’ with limited authority and with more or less determined functions. These hypotheses are now rather problematic due to the data on the names of hou and of their domains. First, the hou names and their domains names both may possess attributes of ethnonyms but these facts show no general tendency. The phenomenon is better explained with peculiar features of ancient Chinese language and writing, such as excessive amount of homonyms, inability to distinguish common words from proper names and to distinguish different types of proper names (place names, personal names, ethnonyms etc.) Cases are too many when we cannot tell whether given proper name is a place name or a personal name, a name of some kinship group or something else. Thus hypothetical connection between hou and kinship groups or primitive polities has no solid ground. Second, Shang period inscriptions refer to hou in style and manner proper for independent or semi-autonomous rulers and not for officials on the king’s service: the way place name is attached to the title argues for the fact that hou actually possessed the land and not just performed certain degree of control over it. Despite other versions cannot be disproved for good, the ‘feudal’ hypothesis should be taken as the main one.

Keywords: Ancient China, Shang dynasty, oracle bone inscriptions, Chinese nobility, feudalism

Pages: С. 6–30

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