Chinese bronze ding, Western Zhou, (1045–771 BCE). PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Thousands of one-of-a-kind ritual bronzes have been excavated in China, all artifacts of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). The sophisticated construction and often stylized designs indicate that the Shang used an advanced technology to create some of the greatest treasures of the Bronze Age in China.

The alloy of copper (usually around 80 to 85 percent), tin, and lead produces a tough and durable metal—bronze—that the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) used to develop a unique culture during Bronze Age China. Instead of making only utilitarian items from bronze, the Shang chose to cast ritual vessels as offerings to their gods and ancestors. The largest number of bronzes has been excavated at the Shang dynasty’s last royal center, Anyang, “the Yin Ruin,” in Henan Province. Many other regions within the Shang domain, or under its cultural influences, also produced bronzes with or without regional styles.

The Shang bronzes were piece-mold cast wherein the mold was made of carefully selected clay that was sculpted, incised, and polished to form inner and outer molds. After the melted alloy was poured into the mold and allowed to cool down, the molds were removed to reveal the newly designed pieces. Because the process of removing the molds destroyed them, each set could be used only once to make a single object, therefore every artifact was individually designed and cast, and no two were identical, even the ones designed as pairs.

Some of the bronzes were cast with inscriptions of their owners or symbols of a family or tribe. Often particular patterns were cast on certain parts of the vessels. The double-eyed image, which was called a mask or taotie, was commonly used; other motifs consisted of mythical animals (such as dragons and imaginary birds) and real animals including elephants, tigers, bison, cattle, fish, snakes, and owls. Geometrical patterns were also common. The combination and location of these motifs and designs suggest some cultural significance, since their patterns were used for hundreds and thousands of years; if they were not related to beliefs or customs of the Shang, the designs might have changed through the years. But their meaning is still a mystery.

Typology and Ritual Functions

Most bronzes have been excavated from large tombs of royalty and the elite; some are from sacrificial pits, and very few are from architectural remains. Museums and private collections have preserved a great number of bronzes, although many of the bronzes were originally taken from excavation sites by looters.

The earliest ritual bronze discovered so far was a type of vessel called a jue, which was used for holding liquor and might have also worked as a cup; it was excavated in 1959 from the Erlitou site in Henan Province, which was the center of the late Xia (2100–1766 BCE) and early Shang dynasties. This vessel shows a sophisticated casting technique and is elegant in design, indicating that it was not from the early stages of bronze casting. Learning about the beginnings of China’s Bronze Age therefore depends on finding older artifacts in future excavations.

The ritual bronzes can be catalogued according to their functions: containers for cooking food, for eating, and for holding liquor and water; weapons and tools, musical instruments, and other uses. Some pieces were used as sets and in various combinations for different occasions.

There are about thirty types of ritual bronze vessels for food and drink, and many thousands of examples have been excavated. The most important vessel is a ding—both round ding and fangding (square vessels) with three or four legs have been unearthed. Fire could be lit underneath the vessels for cooking. The remains of a whole cow were found in a large-sized ding, yet the small ones functioned as bowls. Only the highly ranked elite could use ding.

Large-sized weapons have been found in the tombs of kings, queens, and military leaders. Most bronze weapons were ritual objects that were never used but only symbolized the power and position of their owners. Sets of bells and drums have been excavated as well, indicating that music was important in ritual practice.

Anyang and Regional Cultures

In the central plains—the center of the Shang culture—a clearly advancing chronology of development in techniques, styles, types, and numbers is evident from bronzes excavated at the sites of Erlitou, Erligang, and Anyang. In Anyang, the most important and the largest site of the Shang dynasty, scholars have established four periods of bronzes, along with pottery and oracle bone inscriptions. A revolution in casting technique occurred during the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE: A rich style of three layers of high and low reliefs was invented. Many bronzes from this time and place were fully covered with designs. In 1976 the tomb of one of King Wuding’s consorts, Lady Hao (often referred to as General Hao, since apparently she led several battles), was excavated to much excitement: It had never been looted in antiquity and contained approximately 900 ritual bronzes with nine kinds of inscriptions. Some types of artifacts were seen for the first time during the excavation. Daggers and axes found in her tomb indicate her high position in the Shang army.

Locally made bronze vessels display significant regional character. In Xingan Dayangzhou in Jiangxi Province, ritual pits with a large number of bronzes were found. These bronzes show a clear similarity to the Shang bronzes, yet they are different in proportion, motif combination, and casting techniques.

In the southwest, at Sanxingdui in Sichuan Province, more ritual pits and altars were excavated, and large-sized bronze human figurines and human masks were found. Elongated bronze vessels that are unique to this area were unearthed also. In the northwest, small groups lived in the mountains of Shanxi, and their bronzes exhibited a strong local character also; yet the bronzes found in the far northeast regions of today’s Liaoning Province show no local distinction but are similar to what was found in Anyang. The bronzes prove that the Shang culture spread throughout China, and that the Shang had lived together with many other peoples who also made bronze ritual artifacts but retained their unique lifestyles. The ritual bronzes are the highest achievement of the Shang dynasty and exhibit the beliefs and social systems of the Shang as well as their private lives.

Further Reading

Bagley, R. (1995). Shang ritual bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler collections (Ancient Chinese bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler collections), (Vol. 1). New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Bagley, R. (2001). Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a lost civilization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bunker, E. C., & So, Jenny. (1995). Traders and raiders on China’s northern frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Chang, K. C. (1980). Shang civilization. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chang, K. C. (1981). Foo
d in Chinese culture: Anthropological and historical perspectives.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wen Fong. (Ed.). (1980). The great bronze age of China: An exhibition from the People’s Republic of China. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yang Liu, Capon, E., & the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (2001). Masks of mystery: Ancient Chinese bronzes from Sanxingdui. Sydney: Art Media Resources.

Source: Wang, Ying. (2009). Bronzes of the Shang Dynasty. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 214–216. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Chinese bronze, Han dynasty, (206 BCE–220 CE). PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Bronzes of the Shang Dynasty (Sh?ngcháo de q?ngtóng yìshù ???????)|Sh?ngcháo de q?ngtóng yìshù ??????? (Bronzes of the Shang Dynasty)

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