Shang Dynasty Bronze Zun

Shang Dynasty Bronze Zun

Shang Dynasty Bronze Ding

Shang Dynasty Ding. Tripod with 3 legs and 2 looped handles. Standing 22.7 centimetres tall and 18.4 cm wide. Used for ceremonial sacrifice and showed status/power (cite/link)

This ding was found in modern-day Anyang, China. It is made of bronze and was created around 11-13th century BCE. Created by Shang Dynasty craftsmen, it served a ceremonial purpose and represented the status of the owner. A staple in Shang and Zhou Dynasty culture, it now resides in Berlin, Germany at the Museum

This artifact, formed with bronze mined in the surrounding areas using such tools as pulleys and impressive mine shaft construction (Childs-Johnson 170). After the ore is mined, it is then smelted and poured into a clay model. When all of the pieces have been shaped they are then assembled and given handles this process is called piece-mould casting (See Fairbank pg. 9). The designs on this particular piece protrude from the sides, showing that the artwork was inscribed in the model, not on the resulting bronze ding (Fairbank 10).

Dings were often buried with the collection which was established between June of 1995 and May of 1996 (See Museum Huelsmann archive)t

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Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Evolution and History

The history of China and its metallurgical advancements in the area of making and appreciating ritualistic Bronzes starting around 2,000 BC is a fascinating one. Over the centuries these powerfully shaped marvels have become a symbol of antiquity and art for the culture.

Ancient Chinese bronze ware fall into three category's: ritual vessels, weapons, and then miscellaneous objects.

Ritual vessels are genrally those objects employed and used by aristocrats in sacrificial ceremonies or presented before guests. Many are deeply religious and have shamanist uncharacteristic's to them. These include food containers, wine vessels, water pots and a wide range of musical instruments.

Bronze weapons come in many varieties such as the knife, sword, spear, halberd, axe, and dagger. The miscellaneous objects generally are bronze utensils made for daily use.

Below are listed over 60 of the bronzes held in the collection of the Chinese Government in Mainland China. They are truly among the finest in the world spanning 4,000 years.

Images: Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Ding is one of the most important types of bronzes used for rituals and cooking meat. It may be three-legged and round or four-legged and rectangular. It may have a lid. In most cases, the rank of the owner can be judged by the number of pieces used. Its size varies from very small to extremely large. Inscriptions engraved on Dings are sometimes very long.
Li is another kind of cooking vessel with pouchlike hollow legs. Like Ding, Li is used to cook food, mostly congee but sometimes meat. Lis are generally round although some are rectangular. Most have no ears. On most occasions Lis are used in pairs.

Close to Gui, Dui is used for cooked cereal. After the middle Spring and Autumn Period, Dui gradually came into use. Their shapes had regional characteristics that varied greatly from the Central Plains to the southern states.
Yan is a type of cooking vessel for steaming. Its belly is composed of two rooms. The upper room is Zeng for food, and the lower one is Li for water. The two rooms connect with each other with a Bizi, a kind of grid. Bizi, linked to the body, lets steam pass and can be turned upwards to clean the inner part of the Li.
Xu is a type of container for cereal. Sometimes Xu is taken to be a variation of Gui and it has a similar function. Its belly is usually a cuboid with a vertical wall or an ellipsoid with a curvy wall. The use of Xu lasted only for a very short period.
Gui is the most common food vessel. It is a container for cooked food. It appeared in the early Shang Dynasty and gradually became the basic ritual vessel. Usually it is used in pairs with Ding. It has either two or four ears, three or four assorting legs and sometimes a ring foot upon a square stand.
The Chinese character Dou is a pictograph whose shape comes from the bronze vessel Dou. Dou is used for keeping minced meat or vegetables. Bronze Dous unearthed or retained to the present day are relatively rare. It is probable that people usually used potteries, lacquerwares, bamboo or wooden Dous that were not very durable.

Wine Vessels

Jue has a spout at the front like a beak, a tail at the back and three slender legs below the belly. Most Jues have two small pillars on the mouth, but a few have one pillar or none. Until today experts are not able to get a concensus on the difinite function of Jue for drinking or filtering.
Jia is an important type of bronze ritual vessel. It has a very long history: a pottery Jia was unearthed at a Longshan Culture site that dates back to the Neolithic Age a bronze Jia was found at an Erlitou Culture site of the Xia Dynasty and it was very popular in the early and middle Shang Dynasty. Usually a Jia has a broad mouth and a tubular body which bears a slight resemblance to a Jue. With a handle, two pillars, three legs and four times the capacity of a Jue, Jia is rather big and could not be used for drinking but only for rituals.
Gu has a simple shape, usually with a broad mouth, a tube-shaped body and a high ring foot. Generally speaking, Gu in the early years is rather plump and only later becomes slender and elegant.
Zhi is a type of goblet for drinking wine. Its body is flat or round, with an open mouth, a deep belly, a ring foot, and sometimes a lid. Zhi came into use only in the late Shang Dynasty. Later, it replaced Gu on some occasions and joined the Jue to form a fixed set. But with the decline of drinking vessels in rituals, Zhi never got a chance to be fully developed.
The earliest Hu we know today dates back to the middle Shang Dynasty and it was still widely used until the Han Dynasty. The basic shape of Hu is round, sometimes flat or rectangular. Most have ring handles or tubular ears on the shoulders through which a cord can be threaded for carrying.
According to historical documents, You is a container for a certain kind of precious wine. It generally has loop handles for carrying. The shapes of You commonly seen are elliptical, tubular, rectangular or more specially, animal-like which could be an owl, a rooster, a pig or a tiger. You gradually disappeared during the middle Western Zhou Dynasty.
Zun and You are usually used together and date back as early as the beginning of the Shang Dynasty. Zun is one of the bronzes that existed for a long time until the Warring States Period. It is normally round or square in shape. There also exist animal-like Zuns that could be in the shape as follows: elephant, rhinoceros, ox, goat, tiger, pig, horse, owl, duck or fish.
Lei originated from the late Shang Dynasty. Usually it has a lid, a small mouth, a short neck, a round shoulder, a deep belly and vertical or diagonal walls. The stand can be a flat or loop foot. Some have a nose in the lower part of the belly for holding when pouring wine.
Ling and Lei both have small mouths and big bellies, and sometimes they are not easily distinguishable from each other. Ling was developed from Lei, and gradually replaced it. Ling came into use in the late Western Zhou Dynasty and passed into oblivion in the Warring States Period.
Pou is perhaps only used in the middle and late Shang Dynasty. It has a short neck, a low body, a broad mouth and a ring foot. Some have round shoulders and others flat shoulders. Some Pous have lids and some are decorated with three or four goat heads or heads of other beasts on the shoulder.
Gong emerged in the late Shang Dynasty. Its body normally is elliptical or rectangular. It has a lid, a spout at the front and a handle at the back. At the base, it has a square stand or several legs. Some Gongs are elaborately decorated, mostly with lively animal designs.
Square Yi was popular from the middle Shang Dynasty through the early Western Zhou Dynasty. The distinct characteristic of Square Yi is that its lid and sometimes its knob is cast in the form of the roof of a house. It has a rectangular belly and loop foot.

Water Vessels

Pan is a type of water container. Research shows that, around the middle Western Zhou Dynasty, Pan is originally coupled with a He. In the Shang and early Zhou dynasties Pan generally has no ears. After the middle Western Zhou Dynasty Pan has beast-like ears or attached ears. Attached under the ring foot are feet in the form of beast legs or people supporting the Pan.

Weapons and Other Items

Sword originated from nomadic tribes in the north. As early as the first period of the Western Zhou Dynasty, its form attained maturity and became popular over a large area. Usually a sword was in the shape of a willow leaf accompanied by a sheath. The bronze sword disappeared when the iron sword came into use during the Han Dynasty.
Yue is a long-stock and arc-blade weapon for chopping and killing as well as an instrument of torture. The blades of large Yues were capable of cutting a man in half at the waist. They were also commonly carried by guards of honor during rituals as it normally symbolized rulers' political authority or military power.
Zhong is the most widely used bronze percussion instrument. Its form was developed from Nao and was hung on a wooden hanger, at least three in a set, with mouth facing downwards. It can produce a sound clearer than Nao. It appeared in the early Western Zhou Dynasty and fully developed after the late Western Zhou Dynasty. Through the years, the number of bells in a Bian Zhong (a chime of bells) gradually increased and allowed more complicated tunes.

Nao is a kind of bronze percussion instrument appearing early in ancient China. It usually has a flat bottom, a concave mouth and a short hollow handle. While playing, people hold it and strike it with a wooden mallet in hand or set it on a wooden stand with its mouth facing upwards. Nao could be used singly or in a set of several pieces. Typically three pieces can constitute a set. Sets of five and nine pieces have also been discovered before.

The bronze drum is not covered with skin but made entirely of hollowed bronze, and it is the most popular instrument among the ethnic minorities in the south and southwest of China. Its beginning may be traced to be bronze cauldron, a cooking utensil in ancient times.

It was used in its time as a sacrificial vessel at offerings and rituals, or as a percussion instrument to give the signals to summon the people of the tribe. In battles it was struck to direct the fighting. For this reason, it was in the possession of the clan headman or tribal chief as a symbol of ruling power. With the decline of chieftain dominance, the bronze drum usually fell into the hands of powerful or rich families.

Chinese bronze wares, which are also called bronzes for short, mainly refer to the utensils and vessels alloyed from the red bronze and some other chemical elements such as tin, nickel, lead, phosphorus, etc during Pre-Qin Period (Dynasties before 221BC). From the time when bronze wares were invented, they became very popular in ancient China and there came a brand new age---the Bronze Age in the history of China.

The Chinese people used rare and precious bronze to cast large quantities of ritual vessels, musical instruments, and weapons that were elegant in form, finely decorated, and clearly inscribed with Chinese characters. They affirm the artistic achievement of ancient China, and demonstrate how early Chinese used their ingenuity to create works incorporating both science and art from resources in nature.

The Beginning of Bronze Casting in China

Bronzes were quite popular from the late Neolithic Age (10,000 years ago) to the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-220AD), during which the bronze wares made in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (from 17th century BC to 3rd century BC) were extraordinarily well known for their exquisite qualities and beautiful designs. The earliest bronze wares were mainly small tools and ornaments. In the Xia Dynasty (Between 21th century BC and 17th century BC), bronze vessels and bronze weapons were invented.

Then during the mid-term of the Shang Dynasty (from 17th century BC to 11th century BC) there were relatively much more kinds of bronze wares, and inscriptions and delicate decorative patterns were carved onto the bronzes. From the late Shang Dynasty to the early Zhou Dynasty, it was heyday of the development of bronzes. There were various kinds of bronzes which were more colorful and solemn, with gradually more and more inscriptions, and complicated and beautiful decorative patterns. At that time, bronze wares could be used as ritual utensils exclusively by the aristocratic classes.

Later the main parts of the bronzes were made thinner and thinner, and the decorative patterns were gradually made simpler and simpler. From late Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period (476BC-221BC), as a result of the widely use of iron wares, there were fewer and fewer bronze wares used in people's life. Then in the Qin and Han Dynasties, porcelains and lacquer wares were invented and widely used in the daily life, therefore there were much fewer kinds of bronze wares, which at that time were also designed to be much simpler and thinner.

Characteristics of Chinese Bronzes and Discovery

First of all, they are very large in quantity and rich in categories. Nobody is able to tell how many pieces of bronze wares there are nowadays in China. According to statistics made by some experts, of all the bronzes wares excavated from Han Dynasty till now, just those with inscriptions could be numbered as large as above ten thousand in quantity. And there are also much more bronzes without inscriptions which have been excavated in China. In addition of the large quantities of the Chinese bronze wares, there are also abundant kinds of them. For example, there are drinking vessels, water vessels, food vessels, bronze weapons, sacrificial vessels, bronze utensils used in carriages, agricultural tools, working instruments, and many other bronze tools used in daily life. All the bronze wares have been made in vivid designs and colorful appearances, as a result visitors are always amazed and shocked when seeing them. What's more, as a result of large quantities and various kinds, it becomes much more difficult for experts to identify the detailed information about each of them. This is a very special characteristic of the Chinese bronze wares.

Secondly, the Chinese bronze wares which have been excavated are widely distributed all over the country and they are all in very good quality. The central parts of China have the largest and densest distributions of bronze wares in the country, however, in other parts of China including the northeast, northwest , Sichuan Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Tibet and even the small islands on the East China Sea, large quantities of bronze wares have been widely discovered and excavated. Different designs and art styles could be reflected from the various kinds of bronze ware excavated. The most prominent ones are those excavated from the tombs of the Shang Dynasty kings and aristocrats, with elegant and splendid quality and large quantity. The Simuwu Ding is one famous bronze work from the Shang Dynasty, and it is very big and heavy, with imposing designs, exquisite patterns, and excellent techniques. And it is also the biggest piece of bronze ware ever found in the world. King Wuding of the Shang Dynasty had his men make it as sacrifice to worship his mother.

Thirdly, the most prominent characteristic of the Chinese bronze wares is that inscriptions have been widely found on the bronzes. Most of the bronze wares ever excavated in other parts of the world have no inscriptions, and only a few of them excavated in India have been found with inscriptions. However, of all the bronze wares with inscriptions which have been excavated in the world, those from China have been made with relatively more characters. For example, there are as many as 497 Chinese characters on Maogongding, which was made in the Zhou Dynasty and now is placed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. All the inscriptions are rich in various writing styles, with great calligraphic values, and they are the most difficult and mysterious parts when experts identify the Chinese bronze wares.

Fourthly, the Chinese bronze wares dominated by bronze vessels have a very unique and special status in the bronze culture of the world. The ancient Chinese people have made a lot of bronze vessels with very complicated techniques and various patterns. Of all the bronze vessels, Ding was the most important kind and it played a very special role in the political life of the country in ancient times. As the Ding was always made with various designs and styles which could reflect different meanings and politics was also involved inside, experts nowadays always show great interest in the mysteries and riddles about the Ding. Moreover, the bronze culture in Europe is represented by bronze weapons, while the Chinese bronze culture is represented by bronze vessels, there comes the question whether the former is always aggressive while the latter is very conservative. Well, who knows!


Bronze technology, the chariot and writing were probably developed with foreign influences by the Shang, but were given distinctly Chinese elements. The Shang rulers monopolized the use of bronze tools and weapons while their farmer subjects used only implements made from stone.

By around 1200 B.C. artisans were able to cast large bronze pieces, technology that wasn’t achieved in the Mediterranean for another thousand years. The Shang added lead to the mixture of tin and copper and developed a sophisticated casting process that allowed them to cast bigger and bigger bronze objects. The largest Shang vessel ever discovered weighed 1,900 pounds. According the Oxford University scholar Jessica Rawson, "the diversity of decorative motives on the bronzes indicated that influence of or manufacture by neighboring, contemporary societies of some sophistication."

Most bronze objects from the Shang Dynasty are vessels used in various kinds of rituals. Three-legged bronze vessels from the 12th century B.C. contain images of bears, wolves and tigers. Other interesting bronze art from the Shang Dynasty includes bronze masks that look like bizarre Halloween masks and may have been used by shamans and a slender nine-foot-high-tall figure with stylized shamanist-style head and enormous hands that once held an elephant tusk. Soldiers from this period wore bronze chest plates engraved with attacking leopards with huge claws, birds with wolf ears and eagle beaks, hawks grabbing bear cubs, tigers leaping on antelopes, and dragons

During the Shang dynasty and Zhou dynasties jade objects were important objects in ceremonies and rituals. Shang Dynasty circular jades were generally similar to northwestern circular jades. Late Shang pieces featured raised inner rims and thin outer edges, sets of carved concentric circles and images of curling dragons, fish, tigers and birds. The Shang also made monster-face amulets with turquoise-inlay mosaics of swirls and eyes and part-tiger-part-human marble monsters.

Book: The authoritative introduction to Shang bronzes, both in terms of technology and through a rich array of annotated illustrations of bronzes, is “Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collection” by Robert Bagley (Cambridge, Mass.: 1987).

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004) “Early Chinese Religion” edited by John Lagerwey & Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: 2009) “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Ancient China Life 2) Ancient China for School Kids 3) Oriental Style 4) Chinese Text Project Books: Cambridge History of Ancient China edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy (1999, Cambridge University Press) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press) Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties by Jessica Rawson (British Museum, 1996)

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland 2) WWW VL: History China 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge 5) e-book Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)


Shang Music

J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the period between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago, Chinese rulers constructed elaborate tombs containing weapons, vessels, and remains of servants and, in some cases, full ensembles of musical instruments such as stone chimes (known today as qing), ovoid clay ocarinas (xun, 2005.14), and drums. In addition to these instruments, Shang-dynasty finds (ca. 1600–ca. 1066 B.C.) include beautifully decorated dual-toned bronze bells with and without clappers (ling and nao, 49.136.10), barrel-shaped drums (gu), and bronze drums. Hints as to the use of these instruments were inscribed on small pieces of bone (oracle bones) dating from the fourteenth to the twelfth century B.C. These pictographs make reference to ritual dance and music and those depicting instruments are easily equated with modern Chinese characters. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“From the earliest historical periods, particularly in ritual music from the Bronze Age onward, bells have been an essential component of instrumental ensembles in China The earliest known bronze bells, from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), are the type called nao (49.136.10), in which the mouth of the bell faces up, and seem to have been played singly or in sets of three or five. After the tenth century, during the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), sets of bells of the zhong type, suspended from a wood frame, were used. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art ^/]

“Both the zhong and the nao are struck externally and, thanks to their unique construction, are capable of producing two accurately tuned tones of intervals sounding a major or minor third. Both types are expertly cast, with sides that flare from the crown to the mouth, which is elliptical in cross section and concave in profile. Such a shape, used for small animal bells since 1500 B.C., provides one tone when struck in the center and another when struck on the side. The earliest evidence of a chromatic scale is a set of ten nao from the tenth or eleventh century B.C., unearthed in 1993 in Ningxiang, Hunan Province. The handlelike stem projecting from the crown helps to secure the bell to a frame. Tuned bells ranged greatly in size some were only about nine inches tall, while the largest found to date is about forty inches tall and weighs 488 pounds."^/

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “The first bell sets seem to go back to 12th century B.C. It seems as if the first set of bells found dating back to the 12th century B.C. were collected over the time and not produced at the same time. This diatonic set with bells collected from different ages and locations seemed to be the initial set for all following productions - this means, there was no “how to make a bell tuned C”, they just copied a bell further on for later bell sets, using it as the basic model for copies. This also is important for the historical impact of the bell tuning on other Chinese musical instruments. *** [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

Shang Dance

Images of Chinese dancers have been found on 4,500-year-old pottery. The earliest forms of dance grew out of religious rituals---including exorcism dances performed by shaman and drunken masked dances---and courtship festivals and developed into a forms of entertainment patronized by the court. In ancient texts there are descriptions of troupes of women dancers entertaining guests at official banquets and drinking parties.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen wrote: “It is known that during the Shang dynasty (c. 1766–1066 BC) hunting dances as well as dances imitating animals were performed. The dances imitating animals and employing the so-called “animal movements” have been common in most cultures. In fact, animal movements still form an integral part of many martial art, dance and theater traditions today.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki ]

According to Chinese mythology the cultural hero Fu Xo gave humans the fish net and the Harpoon Dance the god She Nong created agriculture and the Plough Dance and the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ruler from the 26th century B.C., is honored with Dance of the Cloud Gate. Ancient texts also mention hunting dances and a Constellation Dance, which was performed to seek help from the gods for a good harvest.

Shang Dynasty: China’s First Real Bronze Age Culture

The oldest example of bronze yet discovered in China is a 5,000-year-old bronze knife found at a Yellow-River-based Yangshao culture site. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In addition to pottery, amidst the array of wooden, stone, and bone implements found at Yangshao sites is the earliest bronze implement yet found in China. It is a knife, dating to about 3000 B.C. Unless and until an earlier example appears elsewhere,Yangshao culture must be seen as the source of China’s transition into the Bronze Age.” Its seems possible or likely that this this knife was obtained through trade rather than manufactured locally. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Significant bronze metallurgy in China dates back to 2000 B.C., significantly later than southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where it developed around 3600 B.C. to 3000 B.C. The oldest bronze vessels date back to the Hsia (Xia) dynasty (2200 to 1766 B.C.).

Despite all this the Shang Dynasty is regarded as China’s first real Bronze Age culture Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “It was the Shang people who located deposits of copper and tin and learned the art of forging bronze. The Shang is the beginning of the Bronze Age in China. Prior to that time, tools were fashioned from wood and stone. It is customary in speaking about pre-Bronze Age China to distinguish between the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age) periods, a division employed in prehistoric studies worldwide. In China, the Neolithic period, which is the period in which the age of stone tools overlaps the age of agriculture, begins about 7000 B.C. /+/

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The development of metal-working technology represents a significant transition in Chinese history. The first known bronze vessels were found at Erlitou near the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern central China. Most archaeologists now identify this site with the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 B.C.) mentioned in ancient texts as the first of the three ancient dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou). It was during the Shang (1600-1050 B.C.), however, that bronze-casting was perfected. Bronze was used for weapons, chariots, horse trappings, and above all for the ritual vessels with which the ruler would perform sacrifices to the ancestors. The high level of workmanship seen in the bronzes in Shang tombs suggests a stratified and highly organized society, with powerful rulers who were able to mobilize the human and material resources to mine, transport, and refine the ores, to manufacture and tool the clay models, cores, and molds used in the casting process, and to run the foundries. Altogether the bronzes found in Fu Hao's tomb weighed 1.6 metric tons, a sign of the enormous wealth of the royal family. These vessels were not only valuable by virtue of their material, a strong alloy of copper, tin, and lead, but also because of the difficult process of creating them. The piece-mold technique, used exclusively in China, required a great deal of time and skill.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Bronze Age China

According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The long period of the Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C., saw the growth and maturity of a civilization that would be sustained in its essential aspects for another 2,000 years. In the early stages of this development, the process of urbanization went hand in hand with the establishment of a social order. In China, as in other societies, the mechanism that generated social cohesion, and at a later stage statecraft, was ritualization. As most of the paraphernalia for early rituals were made in bronze and as rituals carried such an important social function, it is perhaps possible to read into the forms and decorations of these objects some of the central concerns of the societies (at least the upper sectors of the societies) that produced them. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York:The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.^/]

“There were probably a number of early centers of bronze technology, but the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan Province emerged as the center of the most advanced and literate cultures of the time and became the seat of the political and military power of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history. The Shang dynasty was conquered by the people of Zhou, who came from farther up the Yellow River in the area of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. In the first years of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), known as the Western Zhou (ca. 1046–771 B.C.), the ruling house of Zhou exercised a certain degree of "imperial" power over most of central China. With the move of the capital to Luoyang in 771 B.C., however, the power of the Zhou rulers declined and the country divided into a number of nearly autonomous feudal states with nominal allegiance to the emperor. The second phase of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou (771–256 B.C.), is subdivided into two periods, the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 475 B.C.) and the Warring States period (ca. 475–221 B.C.). During the Warring States period, seven major states contended for supreme control of the country, ending with the unification of China under the Qin in 221 B.C. ^/

“Although there is uncertainty as to when metallurgy began in China, there is reason to believe that early bronzeworking developed autonomously, independent of outside influences. The era of the Shang and the Zhou dynasties is generally known as the Bronze Age of China, because bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, used to fashion weapons, parts of chariots, and ritual vessels, played an important role in the material culture of the time. Iron appeared in China toward the end of the period, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty.” ^/

“The earliest Chinese bronzes were made by the method known as piece-mold casting—as opposed to the lost-wax method, which was used in all other Bronze Age cultures. In piece-mold casting, a model is made of the object to be cast, and a clay mold taken of the model. The mold is then cut in sections to release the model, and the sections are reassembled after firing to form the mold for casting. If the object to be cast is a vessel, a core has to be placed inside the mold to provide the vessel's cavity. The piece-mold method was most likely the only one used in China until at least the end of the Shang dynasty. An advantage of this rather cumbersome way of casting bronze was that the decorative patterns could be carved or stamped directly on the inner surface of the mold before it was fired. This technique enabled the bronzeworker to achieve a high degree of sharpness and definition in even the most intricate designs.” ^/

High Level of Achievement of Shang Bronzes

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “No other Bronze Age culture ever achieved a level of aesthetic perfection in bronze comparable to Shang culture. The imaginative vision and technical expertise that are combined in Shang ritual vessels represent a peak of virtuoso art that is rare in world history. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It should be understood that to achieve such a level of magnificence, the Shang had to invest enormous resources. Copper and tin, the principal components of Shang bronzes, were not easy to come by. Although there are substantial deposits of these minerals within a few hundred kilometers of Xiaotun, given the rudimentary forms of mining and transportation available, quarrying and shipping the ore to the capital would have been a great drain on labor and a major expense to the Shang elite. /+/

“Nor were these ores invested in productive industry. The Shang could have used copper or bronze to strengthen their ploughs, but they did not they could have used them to reinforce their weaponry, but with few exceptions they did not. Bronze was reserved for the near-exclusive use of the ritual industries, and within that, chiefly for the manufacture of sacrificial vessels. It was the ancestors who enjoyed the fruits of the most developed form of manufacturing technology in Shang China. /+/

“Moreover, unlike Mediterranean and Central Asian Bronze Age cultures, the Shang employed bronze in a most resource-intensive way. Elsewhere, bronze objects were generally wrought – that is, thin sheets of bronze were hammered or otherwise shaped to form objects that were relatively light in weight, minimizing the amount of bronze necessary. The Shang, by contrast, cast bronze in molds, pouring large quantities to create thick-walled solid bronze objects. The largest are so heavy that they cannot even be lifted by a single person. Shang ancestors had no reason to complain that their descendants were stingy!” /+/

Development of Bronze Technology in China

Dr. Eno wrote: “The earliest bronze object found in China to date is a neolithic knife dating from approximately 3000 B.C. Slag heaps nearby suggest that the site where it was found was one where bronze manufacture was well known. Nevertheless, it is not until the beginning of the Shang over 1000 years later that we see the birth of a true bronze culture in China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Around the 21th century B.C., China entered the Bronze Age. The Erlitou culture of the late Xia dynasty was the earliest bronze culture so far known in China. Bronze containers, musical instruments, weapons, implements and ornaments, as well as foundry features have been found at the site. Ritual bronze artifacts of this period were thin-walled and cast by skilled technique. Their styles began to display certain standardization. The manufacture of these bronze artifacts symbolized that ancient China stepped into civilization. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei =/ ]

“During the early and middle Shang dynasty, bronze casting technology fully developed. Ritual system represented mainly by wine vessels was established. Many bronze artifacts were decorated by animal image motifs, complex designs and bold, deeply cut linear elements. The mold-casting technique was getting sophisticated. Many vessels with complicated designs were cast separately, which laid a solid foundation for the further development of bronze craftsmanship. =/

“Bronze technology reached its apex during the late Shang and early Western Zhou dynasties. Ritual system characterized by bronze wine vessels became more sophisticated. The entire body of vessels was often covered with both high and low relief, showing marvelous and elegant patterns. They also expressed dignity and mystery by using animal image and deity motifs. Inscriptions first appeared on the late Shang bronzes. Then long inscriptions characterized the Western Zhou bronzes. =/

Development of Bronze Technology in the Shang Period

bronze ritual wine server

Dr. Eno wrote: “A number of Shang cultural sites considerably earlier than the capital at Xiaotun have been excavated. Some are the ruins of substantial cities, and many scholars believe that they include the site of at least one earlier Shang capital – some scholars believe that one of the larger sites was a Xia Dynasty city, though others still do not accept the historicity of the Xia. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The sites of Shang culture that pre-date the capital of Yin, to which the Shang moved about 1300 B.C., have yielded a wide range of early bronzes. When we view these together with those excavated from the royal tombs at Yin – and the thousands that were taken from those graves over the centuries by grave-robbers and sold to private collectors and museums around the world – we can reconstruct a systematic portrait of the evolution of this emblematic art of the Shang.” /+/

“The bronzes were crafted both for use and for display. The Shang people had inherited a highly developed craft of pottery from their neolithic ancestors, a craft that had drawn ideas from many of the distinct agricultural societies that had flourished in China and joined the complex ethnic mix of the Shang. Potters did much more than produce pots, pans, dishes, and cups. A rich repertoire of conventional forms had evolved: tripods for boiling, covered steamers, bowls for hot grains, platters for meat and fish, kettles for hot drink, pitchers and jugs for wine, goblets, beakers, basins – each type with its own conventional variety of ever-evolving forms. The bronzes were based upon these pottery forms, and one of their great aesthetic virtues is the way that they combine the angular potential of cast metal with the plastic suppleness of earthenware. /+/

By around 1200 B.C. artisans were able to cast large bronze pieces, technology that wasn’t achieved in the Mediterranean for another thousand years. The Shang added lead to the mixture of tin and copper and developed a sophisticated casting process that allowed them to cast bigger and bigger bronze objects. The largest Shang vessel ever discovered weighed 1,900 pounds. According the Oxford University scholar Jessica Rawson, "the diversity of decorative motives on the bronzes indicated that influence of or manufacture by neighboring, contemporary societies of some sophistication."

Eno wrote: “The sight of these shining masterworks arrayed in rows upon the altars of the dead would have been a sight to marvel at. Perhaps it was the unparalleled artistry of the bronzes which not only made them sacred to the Shang but which led them to ignore more utilitarian potentials of their new metal craft.” /+/

Manufacturing Bronze Objects in the Shang Dynasty

Dr. Eno wrote: “The way that bronzes were cast in Shang China suggests that it was the potters who first developed the arts of bronze technology. Bronze vessels were cast in clay molds. These molds were, in turn, shaped by clay models. The first step was for the bronze caster to design a model of the eventual bronze vessel in clay. He would shape the clay to the vessel form desired and then, using fine tools, he would inscribe the figure with designs of great complexity. The incision of the model was the great departure from pottery traditions, for pottery was rarely incised, it was generally pressed with patterns or painted. As the art progressed, the forms, as well as the designs, became increasingly elaborate and independent of forms associated with pottery. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Once the clay model was complete and had hardened, the caster would press wet clay around the model until he had shaped it fully and pressed it to absorb all the delicately incised designs. Then, before it was dry, he would cut it off in sections, usually three. This would become the outer mold for the bronze. He would then create a solid core which would rest on small bronze studs laid upon the base of the reassembled mold. This core would create the space of the interior of the vessel – its “useful emptiness,” as Laozi might put it. Sometimes this core was also inscribed, usually with the name of the ancestor to whom the vessel was to be dedicated and perhaps with an elaborate clan mark which would signify its origins. Occasionally, towards the end of the Shang, a longer inscription might be written to record the occasion on which the bronze was cast, but such inscriptions are rare in the Shang (they become very common during the Western Zhou). /+/

“Finally, molten bronze would be poured into the fully assembled mold. The bronze studs which supported the core over the base of the vessel would be melted into the vessel’s base. Once the bronze had cooled, the clay mold was shattered, freeing the vessel, which was then polished. Any defects were carefully corrected, yielding the sharply detailed designs still visible after 3 millennia. Although the vessels we see today have all developed the rich green patina of oxidized bronze, the newly cast vessels would have gleamed like gold.” /+/

In other cultures bronze vessels and figures were generally made using the lost wax casting technique, which worked as follows: 1) A form was made of wax molded around a piece of clay. 2) The form was enclosed in a clay mold with pins used to stabilize the form. 3) The mold was fired in a kiln. The mold hardened into a ceramic and the wax burned and melted leaving behind a cavity in the shape of the original form. 4) Metal was poured into the cavity of the mold. A metal sculpture was created and removed by breaking the clay when it was sufficiently cool.

Shang Era Bronze Factories

Yuan Guangkuo wrote in “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology”: “Foundries for bronze casting were found in the cities of Zhengzhou (rank 1) and Panlongcheng (rank 3). Two important bronze foundries were identified at Zhengzhou named Nanguanwai (located in the south, between the smaller, inner enclosure and the outer wall) and Zijingshan (in the north, outside the inner enclosure). At Nanguanwai, the main crafts were bronze vessels and tools. The workers at Zijingshan specialized in the production of bronze knives. [Source: “Discovery and Study of the Early Shang Culture” by Yuan Guangkuo, A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Edited by Anne P. Underhill, Blackwell Publishing, 2013 /

“The clay molds, crucibles, and furnaces from these areas of Zhengzhou reveal that early Shang casting technology was quite developed. Bronze vessels were produced by piece-mold casting, which involved four main steps: shaping the clay model, production of the clay mold, casting, and finishing. In general more tin was used to produce the early Shang bronze vessels than those of the Erlitou period, but overall, the amount of tin still was relatively low. The early Shang bronze objects also contain varying amounts of lead (Zhu 2009 : 689–694).

“With respect to decorative techniques for the production of bronze vessels, an interesting development was the appearance of animal heads in high relief during the early Shang period. This made the decorations more three-dimensional. This type of decorative technique became dominant during the late Shang period, as seen on the bronze vessels at Yinxu. The most complex form of decoration on bronze vessels was found at the city of Xiaoshuangqiao. The earliest Shang bronze construction component found there has a unique shape and is heavily decorated. The “beast face” ( shoumianwen) pattern was applied on the front and on both sides, seemingly indicating a fighting scene between a dragon and tiger. This artifact reveals a high level of bronze-casting technology and artistic expression during the early Shang period (Henan Provincial 1993 : 76).

Shang and Zhou Ritual Bronzes

Some of the oldest works of art from China are bronze vessels. The oldest ones date back to the Xia dynasty (2200 to 1766 B.C), when the legendary Yellow Emperor is said to have cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize the nine provinces in his empire.

Most ritual bronze vessels date back to the Shang Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C). These bronze vessels included elaborately-decorated caldrons, wine jars and water vessels that were used to offer food and drink to spirits, gods and deceased ancestors in political and spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Shang ritual vessels including ding caldrons, used to ritually prepare food for royal ancestors Lei, large elaborately decorated vessels used to store wine and yu basins, which may have been used to boil water or steam food.

Bronze vessels symbolized rank and often contained references to ancient imperial ethos, culture and music. One of the National Palace Museum's most prized bronze pieces is a yu wine container from the 11th century B.C. Another beautiful bronze piece is an 8th century B.C. water vessel, used for ritual offerings, with animal-shaped handles and legs in the form of human figures. Scholars believe the bronze vessels were likely copies of ceramic vessels. A fine white pottery was made during the Shang Dynasty. Many ceramic vessels were similar in size and shape to bronze vessels made during the same period.

Bronze vessels often bore inscriptions that said “This container has been made to commemorate” so and so and were often given as presents to officials from leaders as rewards. Many ancient bronzes were removed from China, especially in the early 20th century, and few have been given back or carefully studied. Shang bronzes fetch high prices at international art auctions and are sought after by looters. A 12th century B.C. Shang owl was sold for around $3 million at an auction in 2000.

Shang Bronze Images and Vessel Types

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “By the time of the early Shang, bronze wine vessels and food containers began to appear in sets. They matured further in the late Shang. For example, sets of food containers ("ting", "yen", "li", "kuei ", and "tou"), wine vessels ("ku", "chüeh", "chi", "chia", "lei", "p'ou", "tsun", and "you"), and water containers ("yü" and "p'an") were commonly seen. These bronze wares were the most representative ritual objects in the system of rites. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei =/ ]

Common motifs for Shang ritual bronze vessels were dragons, birds, bovine creatures, and a variety of geometric patterns. At the bottom of one yu basin is an arrangement of flower stems encircled by dragon heads with holes from which steam escaped from the vessel.

Dr. Eno wrote: “ The forms of the bronzes are outstanding artistic creations, but what particularly captures the imagination are the inscribed designs. The bronzes designs reflect a fantastic animal world, filled with dragons, monsters, regal birds, snakes, cicadas, and other animals, both real and fantastic. These animal images occupy space filled with intricate and pulsating patterns the rarest surface of a Shang bronze is smooth, bare space – except for occasional punctuating regions of relative quiet, the fully evolved bronze conveys a sense of dynamic movement in every part. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Shang Taotie

Most Shang vessels were decorated with taotie, face-like symbols with “eyes” composed of swirling lines. These designs have been used by archeologists to determine the spread of Shang culture. According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The primary attribute of this frontal animal-like mask is a prominent pair of eyes, often protruding in high relief. Between the eyes is a nose, often with nostrils at the base. Taotie can also include jaws and fangs, horns, ears, and eyebrows. Many versions include a split animal-like body with legs and tail, each flank shown in profile on either side of the mask. While following a general form, the appearance and specific components of taotie masks varied by period and place of production.” [Source: Department of Asian Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York:The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.^/]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Although there is a great wealth of animal imagery, a single motif tends to dominate the bronze designs, by its frequency, its size, and its central placement. This is the image of a strange symmetrical monster mask, known by Classical times as a taotie image. The taotie, Classical texts tell us, was a beast of insatiable greed – both of the Chinese characters used to write its name are based on the graphic element of the verb “to eat.” The taotie image that we see on the bronzes, with its staring eyes and ever-gaping jaw, does suggest such a rapacious beast – but why is it there? Nothing we know would permit us to claim that the “taotie” beast Classical imagination drew on the same mythical or symbolic lore that the Shang designers had in mind. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The taotie generally occupies the central bands, or “registers,” of the bronze, and is centered so that its symmetrical form extends to the edge of each side of the vessel. If you look at the entire form, the face of the beast stares at you. But if you look at either side alone, you see instead a full figure of the beast in profile. This double figure of the taotie is more visible in some cases than in others, but generally constitutes a basic feature of the motif. /+/

Theories Behind Shang Taotie

Currently, the significance of the taotie, as well as the other decorative motifs, in Shang society is unknown. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “There may be no issue of Shang culture that has created more controversy than the question of the significance of the eerie animal imagery of the bronzes. The bronzes have been known since antiquity, though not necessarily as artifacts of Shang culture, and traditionally it was widely assumed that these designs had some very direct symbolic function which was mysterious only because we lacked the interpretive key. During the middle part of the 20th century, however, an art historian named Max Loehr, working at the University of Michigan, proposed an entirely different approach. He suggested that it could be possible to see the taotie and other forms as developing solely from an artistic imperative, with no fixed symbolic meaning whatever. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Loehr was writing at a time when Xiaotun was the sole excavated Shang site. Although he was able to view the bronzes in private and museum collections throughout the world, as well as those from Xiaotun, there existed no variety of Shang sites that would allow him to compare the work of earlier casters with those of the later period at Yin. Undaunted by this lack of any chronological control mechanism, Loehr suggested that he could detect which among the known bronzes were early and which were late. The earliest, he said, were those which included a single thin band of decoration on which the sole discernable animated motif were pairs of staring eyes. These, Loehr claimed, were the artistic inspiration for the taotie. As the bronze caster’s artistic imagination evolved, Loehr believed, the band expanded and the eyes were elaborated into the full animal face. At this stage of the developmental process, the artists began to incorporate supplementary imagery into the vessels to complement the central motif. Finally, the latest vessels were engulfed in animal imagery, designs that frequently began to influence the shape of the vessel itself, not only the patterns inscribed on it. /+/

“Altogether, Loehr identified what he believed to be five distinct stages in the evolution of the bronze imagery. The force of his claim was to deny that the imagery on the bronzes possessed any religious significance. Aesthetics alone, Loehr held, could account for the development of the tradition. Loehr’s model gained enormous prestige decades later when other Shang sites were excavated. The results were precisely as Loehr had predicted. The earliest sites yielded exclusively bronzes consistent with Loehr’s “Period I” criteria mid-Shang sites possessed bronzes of the first through the third of Loehr’s periods late Shang sites possessed all five styles. Loehr’s model of the evolution of bronze decor was decisively confirmed. /+/

“Nevertheless, Loehr’s conclusions concerning religious versus aesthetic significance continues to be open to debate. In the 1980s K.C. Chang published an alluring set of essays that portrayed Shang religion very much in terms of shamanism, with the spirit world populated by the angular animals of the bronzes as well as by the ancestral spirits. Animals were, for Chang, the shaman’s vehicle: they were the intermediaries between the human and spiritual worlds in a way resonant with totemic societies elsewhere in the world. /+/

“Chang’s theory resonates very well with much of what we know about early Chinese religion, but it also leaps far beyond the evidence we currently possess. It can be called a “speculative” hypothesis, one not yet subject to a definitive test, much as Loehr’s theory was once considered speculative. Perhaps in the future, additional archaeological finds will allow us to pass as convincing a verdict on Chang’s ideas as we have been able to on some of Loehr’s. /+/

“Other theories concerning the origins and significance of the animal figures on the bronzes have been offered in great profusion. Two theories that bear some relationship to Loehr’s and to Chang’s may offer a middle ground. The first of these develops in more detail the significance of the staring eyes in the earliest bronzes and suggests that while there may have been some animistic significance in inscribing eyes on the sides of the bronzes, the subsequent elaboration of the eyes into animal forms actually follows only aesthetic criteria. Hence there may be a religious significance in the motifs taken as a whole, but not in any individual motif. The other theory suggests that the particular style of the animal motifs was derived from another arena of religious significance: ceremonial animal masks worn for the performance of ritual dances. Evidence that animal masks and costumes were common paraphernalia for religious ceremonies is abundant, and while are not able to know the specific forms that these masks and costumes took during the Shang, it is reasonable to assume that their forms were governed by both religious and aesthetic considerations. /+/

“Max Loehr’s arguments were made over half a century ago in his, “Bronze Styles of the Anyang Period” ( Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America VII [1953], 43-53). K.C. Chang’s ideas concerning Shang shamanism were laid out in many of his publications, but the most engaging presentations are in his Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge, Mass.: 1983). If we mediate between these two theories, we lose some of the direct shamanistic and totemic symbolism predicated by Chang’s theory, but preserve many aspects of it. We could suggest that Loehr was correct in positing that the development of the motifs was driven by aesthetic considerations, but we can link that aesthetic to arenas of religious significance beyond the bronzes themselves, and perhaps to rites associated with shamanism.

Shang Jade

During the Shang dynasty and Zhou dynasties jade objects were important objects in ceremonies and rituals. Shang Dynasty circular jades were generally similar to northwestern circular jades. Late Shang pieces featured raised inner rims and thin outer edges, sets of carved concentric circles and images of curling dragons, fish, tigers and birds. The Shang also made monster-face amulets with turquoise-inlay mosaics of swirls and eyes and part-tiger-part-human marble monsters.

According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Jade, along with bronze, represents the highest achievement of Bronze Age material culture. In many respects, the Shang dynasty can be regarded as the culmination of 2,000 years of the art of jade carving. Shang craftsmen had full command of the artistic and technical language developed in the diverse late Neolithic cultures that had a jade-working tradition. [Source: Department of Asian Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York:The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.^/]

“On the other hand, some developments in Shang and Zhou jade carving can be regarded as evidence of decline. While Bronze Age jade workers no doubt had better tools—if only the advantage of metal ones—the great patience and skill of the earlier period seem to be lacking.If the precise function of ritual jades in the late Neolithic is indeterminate, such is not the case in the Bronze Age. Written records and archaeological evidence inform us that jades were used in sacrificial offerings to gods and ancestors, in burial rites, for recording treaties between states, and in formal ceremonies at the courts of kings.” ^/

Development of Shang Jade Artisanship

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Shang people belonged to the Eastern Yi tribal group. They migrated from the Liao River valley to western Shandong and then west to eastern Henan, where the royal house of Shang was established. The Chou clan, like the Hsia and Chiang clans, was a member of the greater Hua-Hsia tribal group, and lived in the Wei River basin in Shaanxi. Arising from different clans, the Shang and Chou naturally developed unique cultures and ritual jade traditions. Yet these traditions also shared broad similarities due to the prolonged interaction between the two clans and the nature of their relationship as predecessor and successor to the royal house. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei =/ ]

Shang jade ox “From written and archeological evidence, we know that the most highly esteemed ritual objects during the Shang period were those of jade. Unlike bronze vessels, which are widely found in small- to medium-sized tombs of the nobility, jade objects were used exclusively by the highest-ranking members of society. The Shang and Western Chou not only inherited the pi disc and ts'ung ritual tube from Neolithic times, but also elevated the ritual status of the kuei tablet, such that it gradually replaced the ts'ung as the highest ranking ritual jade complementing the pi. The kuei of this time were made in two forms. One, a descendent of the axe, had a flat top edge. The other, representing a ko dagger, had a sharp symmetrical tip. The plain pi discs, plain ts'ung ritual tubes, and ko daggers in this display were all important ritual objects during the Shang and Western Chou periods. A "kuei chuan" was used during sacrificial rites as wine ladles to pour libations upon the ground. The handle-shaped objects in this exhibit are probably the handles of this sacrificial implement. =/

“Jade sculptures or inlays depicting human figures were often mounted as finials on a long staff used by the shaman to summon the spirits of the gods and ancestors during sacrificial rites. Some jade pendants combined human and dragon designs, implying perhaps that the wearer could communicate with the heavens. Many species of animal are depicted as well--from insects, amphibians, fish, and birds to domestic animals, wild beasts, dragons, and fabulous creatures of mythology. Some of the animals are unadorned in their natural state or with simple patterns suggesting wings. Others are carved with whorl patterns signifying the movement of the primal forces of the universe. Some of the figures wear a kuei crest, representing the power of the monarch, and others have horns shaped like the character symbolizing clan ancestors (tsu). On all of the animal jades with symbolic designs or features, the eyes of the creatures are carved similar to the character for eye (mu) as written in the Shang and Chou script. The character mu is also a prominent part of the character meaning virtue (te), the original meaning of which was "heaven-sent endowment." Jades with this motif derive from the ancient belief that the ancestors of tribal clans received the gift of life from Shang-ti, the heavenly deity, through the medium of sacred animals. This is the essence of the saying that the gentleman (chun-tzu), a member of the aristocratic elite, should look to the qualities of jade as a model for human virtue.” =/

“The first part of the late Shang dynasty (also known as the early Yin-hsu Phase) is marked by numerous sculptures of animals, which are mostly covered by various spirit-cloud patterns and designs. Few are undecorated.” Describing a pair of 10-centimeter-long rams, the Palace Museum says: “The original light green jade is visible where one of the horns of the rams was chipped, but even much of it too appears mottled brownish-yellow in color. Traces of textile and cinnabar are also still visible in the details. This pair of stocky rams appears standing with their heads slightly lowered. The compact features, such as the horns and short legs, suggest that they were carved originally from rectangular blocks of jade. The eyes were also rendered simply as round forms, and a coarse line represents the mouth. The bodies are undecorated with only abbreviated descriptions to suggest the torso, limbs, and hooves. Even traces of the carving are still apparent on the undersides.” One ram is 10.5 centimeters long, 3.9 centimeters wide and 5.3 centimeters high. The other is 10.3 centimeters long, 3.8 centimeters wide and 5.15 centimeters tall.

Small Mouth Clay Bottle With Pointed Bottom

(Xiao Kou Jian Di Pin)

TIME: The Neolithic Age (7000-5000 BCE)

PURPOSE: A kind of reservoir used in a water-pumping system.

Running Spiral Design Coloured Pottery (Wo Wen Cai Cao Guan)

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The Shang Dynasty (the earliest dynasty of which there are written records) was founded around 1600 BC (or precisely 1766 BC according to Chinese historians) when the tyrannic King Jie (the 17th King of the Xia) was overthrown by Cheng Tang, who became the first king of the Shang dynasty.

King Tang (Cheng Tang) of the Shang Dynasty as imagined by the Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin

He was succeeded by a series of kings. What is interesting is that the monarchic power as the central institution in this political system wasn't passed on from father to son at the beginning of this historical period. That was due to the low life expectancy of around 30 years at that time. Many rulers would have died before their offspring was old and experienced enough to assume leadership and control. Therefore, the kingship passed within a given generation from the older to the younger brothers. When the youngest of these brothers died it would then move on to the eldest son of the eldest brother and so on.

Cheng Tang established the Shang dynasty’s first capital at a town called Shang (near modern-day Zhengzhou in Henan province).

The town of Shang remained the ancestral capital throughout the dynasty where the most important ancestral temples were located and the most valuable tablets and regalia were kept. However, the political capital (where the kings were based) was moved repeatedly until it eventually remained based at the town of Yin (present day Anyang in the north of Henan province) for the last 200 years or so of the Shang dynasty's existence.

Yin Ruins Museum (Yin Xu)

The Yin Ruins Museum is located north of Anyang (Henan province). This is the famous site of the ancient Shang dynasty capital Yin Xu where archeological digs have so far unearthed 150,000 oracle bones.

King Jie, last ruler of the Xia dynasty, sitting on two women and wearing a halberd on his shoulder. Rubbing of relief from the Wu-family Shrines, Jiaxiang, Shandong, around 150 CE

Most of our knowledge of the Shang comes from the discovery of oracle bones, since the original Shang documents that were written on silk and strips of bamboo didn't survive until the present era. Inscriptions on bronze objects were also found but they were generally very short, so that not much information could be learned from them. The oracle bone inscriptions represent the first appearance of a fully developed written Chinese script. There are no intermediate stages known on the path to a fully developed writing system. As soon as such a system appears, it is already fully developed. The staggering number of the discovered oracle bones (tens of thousands of them were excavated in pits near present-day Anyang in the north of Henan province) now constitute a kind of archeological record of the Shang dynasty.

Oracle bones were the shoulder bones of oxen or the underside shells of turtles (called plastrons).

These bones were dried out until they were very brittle and then hot pokers (of bronze or thorn branches) were then pushed into small carved indentations on their surface. The direction of the resulting cracks was then interpreted as the voice of the ancestors.

Tortoise plastron with divination inscription (Shang Dynasty, reign of King Wu Ding), National Museum of China, Beijing.

The official diviners asked very specific ancestors very specific questions in a ritual setting, usually in the presence of the king and officials in the early mornings. These diviners could read and write and they marked the questions (for example: "Will there be a good harvest this year?"), answers ("Yes, there will be a good harvest.") as well as the actual occurring events ("But it wasn't a good harvest.") on the bones at a later time. They didn't just ask the questions once but over and over again to sort of find a predominant answer, which was assumed to be the true answer.

Some of these questions were banal and/or private in nature ("Will it rain tomorrow?") whereas others were of prime political importance ("When will be an auspicious time to go to war?"). This process of divination also served as a way of legitimisation of the present rulers. Whereas rulers in other parts of the world kept their power through military feats, intrigues, access to riches etc., the Shang rulers kept their power because they were the only ones considered to have access to the knowledge of their ancestors through this process of divination.

Pit of oracle bones found at the ruins of the last Shang dynasty capital near Anyang

Even though the process of divination remained the predominant way in which the ancestors were worshipped, other ways emerged as well. Ritual bronze objects were produced for particular sacrificial ceremonies (for example: wine cups to offer liquid nourishment to the ancestors by pouring the wine on the ground, cooking vessels for cooking grains or meat that was then ritually offered to the ancestors) that were usually performed in large halls. After making these ritual sacrifices to the ghosts of the ancestors, who would consume the non-material essence of them, the remaining food and drink was then consumed in sumptuous feasts. In this way, the royal family displayed its affluence as well as influence (over the ancestors) and thereby legitimised its rule.

The ruling family of the Shang and the people who were related to them by blood (or at least belonged to the same clan or tribal group) settled in the central area of the Shang empire (in the center of which was their capital) whereas other peoples settled in the periphery. Therefore, the Shang empire can be considered a federation of different peoples, all of which participated in the royal cult ceremonies and sent in written reports from their various territories. All communication from the king to his subordinate rulers was written down, so written communication about the regular operations of government was the basis of the Shang state and not only the oracle bone divination records.

Bronze ritual wine container (zun) from the Shang Dynasty, dated 12th to 11th century BC. This creature was meant to be an elephant but the tusks broke off.

The writing system hints at a fairly sophisticated system of governance during the Shang dynasty. This sophistication can be clearly seen in the development of the Shang dynasty's metallurgical industry which is amply documented in divination records as well as other inscriptions. These beautiful and elaborately crafted ritual objects were produced in a multi-stage process. The mining and smelting (the blending of different metals to create bronze) took place outside the centers of Shang civilization and often far away from the workshops where large numbers of artisans crafted the moulds into which the molten bronze was then poured. The Shang government organized the large numbers of people who were involved in this production process fairly efficiently. That required managerial skill as well as an abundant capacity to feed and house people.

Entrance area of the Yin ruins museum in Anyang, Henan.

The monetary surplus to pay for all this was provided by a tributary system (or taxation system) that drew the necessary wealth in the form of tributes from subordinate peoples who lived in peripheral settlements to where it was needed to provide for the military as well as metallurgical industry. Both were important for the Shang dynasty to maintain its political legitimacy.

The Shang's military was sufficient for a long time to suppress unrest and enforce tributary payments among its peripheral people and fight off incursions from other unaffiliated tribes all around their territory. Conflict with these surrounding 'barbarians' was a constant concern though, that is evidenced by frequent inscriptions on oracle bones about military incursions, punitive raids etc. by and against these outsiders. The oracle bone records frequently mention raids into settled areas by these non-Chinese peoples that resulted in a loss of agricultural products that were destroyed or carried off and the enslavement of the people who lived in these unsafe areas. As those security problems became more and more severe due to the Shang's growing problems with the mobilization and deployment of its military, subordinate peoples began to question the necessity and legitimacy of making tributary payments to the Shang rulers. Tributary payments were also meant to guarantee peace and security for those people who lived on the periphery of the Shang empire.

Location of the Shang dynasty state

At about the 11th century BC, the Shang became increasingly unable to provide this security, which led to unrest among its tributary people. Eventually, some of these people tried to overthrow the Shang and to establish their own dynasty (just like the Shang had replaced the Xia).

Chinese History Digest's summary of China's history continues with the story of the Zhou dynasty in the next section. It was the longest lasting of all of China's imperial dynasties.

Chinese Archaic Bronze Forms Part I Beginner’s Guide

Chinese Bronzes range from simple, almost utilitarian to whimsical pieces whose decoration far surpasses their use. The rhinoceros-shaped Han Dynasty gold-and-silver-wire inlaid bronze zun-form vessel is one such fantastic object. At their time of creation, these were owned and used by the elite of China’s ruling classes. Now these fantastic works are open to viewing by all who revel in the fantastic nature of this archaic Chinese art form.

The first bronze articles were produced in China around 2000 BC. China’s Bronze Age is generally associated with the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BC) and the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). Since that time these same forms have been repeated finding new life in various media.

Ancient bronzes served many purposes in rituals, court life, and daily life. Their form was generally speaking decided by their function and there were specific forms for specific purposes. These forms had various characteristics and decorative elements, some were incredibly finely cast and others more roughly so. Outlined here are a few of those forms.

Gu are slender vessels, used as to drink wine or as ritual wine vessels. With a slightly flared base and wide top, they are commonly seen in square form as well as round. At the center of the body there is often a bulb that protrudes slightly.

These three-legged vessels were used to hold wine for ritual purposes. They have a distinctive shape, with an elongated spout and generally also with a handle. One example in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum is thought to be manufactured from sheet metal. Most often Jue is not thin but of a similar thickness to that exhibited here from the Shanghai Museum of Art. This example dates to the early Western Zhou Dynasty.

With a wide flared mouth, and a bulbous midsection, the Zun was used as a wine vessel for ritual purposes. Similar in general shape to the gu, the dimensions differ greatly.

These tripod vessels were cooking cauldrons. Some of massive proportions, others of a smaller size. There are either produced in a round form with three legs, or in a rectangular shape with four legs. The example illustrated is inscribed on the interior with the character “good” 好 written in an ancient script. Chinese ritual cooking vessels from this period were often inscribed.

A bowl-shaped ritual bronze, the gui was used to hold food offerings at tomb sites. Typically with a ring base, a fine bowl-shaped body, and a wide mouth.

Not all bronzes were ornately decorated. Looking at the example from the National Museum of China in Beijing we see a piece of a similar date and the same form, but of a substantially simpler design than that of the other sold on iGavel. The Yan was a steamer and the example sold on iGavel retains its original steam tray. The carbon built up on the underside is what you would expect to see from a vessel such as this that had been used.


Highly polished on one side and often cast with intricate decorations on the other, Chinese bronze mirrors have intrigued collectors for more than 4,000 years. Bronze mirrors were in the height of their production in the Han, Tang, and Song Dynasties. Decorated with a variety of themes, it is important to examine these with a slightly more critical eye. Lark Mason Associates sale April 3-19, 2018 contains 12 such mirrors dating from the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty. This mirror is one of these 12 and will be offered with an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000 on iGavel.


Bianzhong is a musical instrument consisting of a set of bells to be played when struck by a mallet. There are bells of various shapes and sizes. An interesting set was discovered in China in the tomb of Marquis Yi (433 BC). This set was subsequently studied for its acoustic characteristics. A set of replicas was created and are currently housed in the Wuhan Museum where they are on occasion played.

The set illustrated here is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum and is the bells of Marquis Su of Jin, who lived during the reign of King Li in the Western Zhou Dynasty.

While these forms serve as a rough guide to the identification of archaic Chinese bronzes, these shapes were repeated throughout the last 4,000 years and are still being repeated today. There are many pieces that look to these forms for inspiration, such as the below 18th-century Chinese cloisonne vase. This piece was not created to deceive, rather, to be its own work of artistry. However, there are many fantastic fakes in the market today and it is best to be cautious.

Shang Dynasty Bronze Zun - History

The development of metal-working technology represents a significant transition in Chinese history. The first known bronze vessels were found at Erlitou near the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern central China. Most archaeologists now identify this site with the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) mentioned in ancient texts as the first of the three ancient dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou). It was during the Shang (1600-1050 BC), however, that bronze-casting was perfected. Bronze was used for weapons, chariots, horse trappings, and above all for the ritual vessels with which the ruler would perform sacrifices to the ancestors. The high level of workmanship seen in the bronzes in Shang tombs suggests a stratified and highly organized society, with powerful rulers who were able to mobilize the human and material resources to mine, transport, and refine the ores, to manufacture and tool the clay models, cores, and molds used in the casting process, and to run the foundries.

Altogether the bronzes found in Fu Hao's tomb weighed 1.6 metric tons, a sign of the enormous wealth of the royal family. These vessels were not only valuable by virtue of their material, a strong alloy of copper, tin, and lead, but also because of the difficult process of creating them. The piece-mold technique, used exclusively in China, required a great deal of time and skill.

The vessel below is a ding, used for food.

Think about the piece-mold process. How do you think the technique affected the shapes and decoration on vessels such as this ding?

Many of the vessels were inscribed with Fu Hao's posthumous title, "Si Mu Xin." The rubbing of her title from the ding at left can be seen below.

To the left is one of a pair of zun vessels used for wine. The creature stands on two legs a down-turned tail forms the third leg. The back of the head is a removable lid with a miniature bird and dragon as knobs.

Click to see a drawing of its decoration.

What creature is this zun supposed to represent?

Can you make out what the decoration on this ax shows?

Think about the contents of Fu Hao's tomb.

Click to see a drawing of the decoration on the bronze at left.

Why do you think zoomorphic images play such a large role in Shang art?

The Cultural and Political Landscape outside of Anyang

Wucheng 吳城

The apogee of Wucheng was the transitional period in the 14th and early 13th centuries. The site was 60ha in size and was surrounded by an irregular earthen wall of non-stamped earth. Wucheng included workshops for bronze casting, stonewares and proto-porcelain. The local culture thus might be the source of the stamped and glazed stoneware and proto-porcelain found in Central Plains sites like Erligang and Yuanqu, Shanxi. During the Anyang period, Wuchang pottery showed increasingly local characteristics, for instance, in the widespread use of yan 甗-type vessels. Moreover, artifacts are incribed with what appears to be an unkown script (Campbell 2014: 92-93, 104n22, 120).

Wucheng was the place of a copper mine in Tongling, Ruichang District 瑞昌. It was in operation from the Anyang period on (Campbell 2014: 160). The most spectacular find of the Wucheng culture was the tomb of Niutoucheng 牛頭城 in the district of Xingan. The assemblage of bronzes found in the tomb encompasses pieces from the Erligang to the Anyang phase. The mix of styles gives evidence of a large network embracing the lower and middle Yangtze regions and extending to the Central Plain (Campbell 2014: 115, 164).

Subutun 蘇埠屯

In Shandong in Subutun 蘇埠屯, the largest tomb outside of Anyang was discovered, abundantly supplied with human sacrifices. Subutun had close relationships with Anyang or was perhaps a kind of colony. Some of the tombs resemble the royal tombs of Anyang. Scholars interpret these tombs as those political rivals to the Shang or as those of high and privileged dignitaries (Campbell 2014: 144). Nearby in Daxinzhuang, a few inscribed oracle bones were discovered. Nearly all sites in that region and from the late Anyang period include bronze vessels inscribed with clan insignia, part of them known from Anyang.

Sanxingdui 三星堆

The site of Sanxingdui in the district of Guanghan north of Chengdu 成都, Sichuan, was discovered in the late 1920s. Local persons discovered several stone and jade tools and pottery dating from the Neolithic age. Scholarly excavations began in 1933 and were resumed after the war, in 1953. During the early 1980s, a city wall was discovered, and in 1986 two sacrificial pits (jisikeng 祭祀坑) that included spectacular objects with features very different from the culture of the Central Plain.

The cultural difference was seen in motifs and decorations, utensils, and the intensive use of gold. Whereas the cultural world of Erligang and Anyang made sparely use of human figures or human faces as motifs, masks and statues, or depictions of persons on jade and stone objects made out a substantial part of the bronze items found in Sanxingdui. Even if Anyang-style spiral patterns were found on some bronze vessels, they were only part of a much wider range of large bronze objects. Moreover, the shape of bronze vessels of Sanxingdui differed somewhat from those of Anyang. Several of the masks found in Sanxingdui were covered by gold leaves. Gold foil was also cut into the shape of dragons or long slips. A wooden staff was covered with gold and decorated with fish patterns.

Bronze masks were either used separately, like the huge mask with a size of 82*78cm, another one with a dimension of 138×66 cm, or to serve as head covers of wooden beams. The figures of cocks or other birds were likewise used to crown ceremonial (?) staffs. Another type of object not known in the Central Plain was a so-called "spirit tree" (shenshu 神樹) totally made of bronze. Birds were sitting on the branches of the tree. The construction of a so-called "spirit altar" (shentan 神壇) consisted of an assemblage of three different sets, the base consisting of a beast, the second storey of a group of persons, and the highest of a decorated bronze chest. The object was damaged by fire, yet there are several attempts at reconstruction (Sun 2012), and explanation. Laoban Salong (2012) uses religious objects used by the Yi nationality to interpret these sacral objects: The beast at the bottom signifies the underworld, the group of persons the human world, and the chest at the top the world of spirits.

One pit included a rich collection of elephant tusks.

Quite outstanding is the large number of objects made of green jade, used for bi disks and as beads or tubes for necklaces. More yellowish or whitish jade was used for zhang-type 璋 "scepters". Some of the zhang scepters were decorated with carved scenes of standing persons.

The Sanxingdui site also included cowries that must have been traded from the Indian Ocean via Yunnan, and perhaps on to the Central Plain.

Weapons are scarce, and look different from those of the Central Plain, particularly the ge 戈-style dagger axes that had sharply toothed blades.

The history of Sanxingdui is usually divided into four periods, the first corresponding to the Baodun Culture of the late Neolithic age, the second and third to the early Shang or Erligang period, while the long fourth Sanxingdui period ranges from the late Shang or Anyang period to the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE).

The art of bronze casting as seen in the finds of Sanxingdui is considerably high and leads to the conclusion that it was directly imported from the northwest, and spread from Sichuan to the Yangtze River region, where it influenced local cultures (Jiang 2006).

Even if the bronzes vessels of Sanxingdui show contact with the cultural sphere of Erligang or Anyang, they take form of ritual or status artifacts rather than those of daily use (Campbell 2014: 56). Other scholars claim that bronzes at Sanxingdui show no Erligang influences, but similarity to vessels from the Middle Yangtze Region (Campbell 2014: 96, 121). Sanxingdui tombs do not contain human sacrifices like in the Central Plain. Of great interest is the function of polities in the Sichuan Basin for the trade of cowry shells from the Indian Ocean via Yunnan to the Central Plain. Chinese scholars found out that lead used for Central Plain bronze vessels originated in Yunnan (Campbell 2014: 167). Also for the trade of metal, thus, Sichuan seems to have been a trade pivot.

The West

The Wei River valley, the region of the Zhou conquestors, shows no sophisticated culture but instead seems to be an eager recipient of Erligang, Anyang, southern and northern-Siberian cultures. Although archaeologists tried to find a trace of a proto-Zhou culture this task seems not to be solvable because of the abundancy of archaeological relics of different cultures. The Zhou people thus might have been a mixture of different cultural cradles, including nomad warriors from the west. Like the state of Qin 秦 later, the Zhou rulers might have obtained an excellent training in military techniques by the permanent challenge of nomad raiders within their territory.

The North

In China's north that was inhabited by nomad tribes, casting of ritual bronze vessels was not as important as that of weapons and other tools for daily use. There seems to be no deep influence of Erligang bronze casting techniques, and some historians assume the arrival of foreign populations at the end of the Erligang period that made use of gold rather than bronze. Around 1200, the chariot came in use in the Anyang region, perhaps brought to the Shang by such immigrants.

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