Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • bronze alter set

  • A bronze mirror (left) and a bronze wine vessel (right)

China’s Bronze Age Cultures — an Introduction

With every archaeological discovery of bronze age artifacts throughout China’s vast territory, we gain a more complete and complex picture of this formative period of Chinese civilization. At the heart of these important discoveries are the bronze ware artifacts that lend this age its name. Individual bronze ware artifacts are a marvel in metallurgical design and technology; the decorative motifs that adorn the pieces fire the imagination about early Chinese cultural and aesthetic beliefs and the inscriptions found on many bronze vessels give important historical information as well as document the evolution of the Chinese writing system. Groups of bronze ware vessels give evidence to the rich ritualistic uses these bronze works were intended for, and the tombs and burial sites they are recovered from attest to a highly advanced stratified society that is required for large scale production of so many bronzes. Finally, the distribution of these archaeological sites throughout China and the variations in bronze ware styles found at these sites paint a picture of diverse cultural and geographical centers interacting within one another through commerce as well as warfare.

In conjunction with the spring 2011 China Institute exhibition, Along the Yangzi River: Regional Cultures of the Bronze Age, China Institute’s professional development program for K-12 educators, Teach China, has developed online resources to give audiences a brief introduction for studying bronze ware cultures and to help explore some essential questions:

  • How were bronze ware artifacts made, by whom, and for what purpose?
  • What do the shapes, decorative patterns, and inscriptions on various bronze ware vessels and artifacts reveal about the cultural and social contexts in which they were made and circulated in?
  • How can we identify regional variations in bronze ware artifacts, and what do they tell us about the cultural diversity of ancient China during the bronze age?

Although some textbooks continue to occasionally refer to the Yellow River valley and the northern plain of north China as the “cradle of Chinese civilization,” spectacular archaeological finds in the 20th and 21st centuries have increasingly challenged the way we see early China and the formation of Chinese civilization during the Bronze Age period (ca. 2000 BCE – 221 BCE). These archaeological finds include areas such as the famed Sanxingdui site in the Sichuan basin along the Jian River, as well as a number of archaeological finds in and around modern Hunan Province that are commonly associated with Chu culture and that are featured in China Institute’s spring 2011 exhibition, Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan (see map on the left). These various finds evoke a complex but intriguing story of the cultural diffusion of bronze metallurgy and of local identities evident when comparing individual pieces from specific regional sites and those of other regions. What emerges is a fuller picture of a complex human geography associated with different geographic regions in ancient China.

An example of these distinctive features can be seen in the remarkable bronze standing figure of the Sanxingdui find (see mid-section to the left) and represents a cultural artifact that some scholars associate with the later Shu culture of the Sichuan basin. This large scale human figure stands over eight feet tall (including the pedestal) and its humanoid form is entirely unique from contemporaneous Shang dynasty bronze ware of the 14th-12th centuries BCE, although decorative elements on the garment are similar to Shang motifs indicating some cultural interaction. Its oversized hands clearly were intended to hold something (perhaps a weapon or an elephant tusk?), and it seems to represent some symbolic member of the community (a priest or ancestor perhaps?). While it fires the imagination to speculate on what its cultural significance was, it nevertheless clearly shows a distinct culture of the time period.

Another noteworthy element of this piece is its incorporation of four animal heads with elongated snouts on the base that seem to evoke elephants. Elephants once roamed throughout the ecological systems of the Yangzi River, and we can see this evident in a very lifelike elephant-shaped zun vessel from the Hunan region that dates roughly from the same time as the Sanxingdui example (see bottom left example). The prevalence of vessels in the shape of three dimensional animals is a striking characteristic of southern bronze Chinese culture along the Yangzi river.

While it is virtually impossible to know definitively whether the unique characteristics of southern Chinese bronze ware is informed by entirely unique religious regional customs, knowing the geographic locations of finds and investigating the distinctive decorative motifs lends itself to a greater appreciation of the geographic diversity of early China.

The earliest pieces in the exhibition, Along the Yangzi River: Regional Cultures of the Bronze Age from Hunan, date from the Shang Dynasty and mark the beginnings of a recognizable Chinese civilization, but also indicate the existence of a diversity of cultures in ancient China. These bronzes provide an invaluable glimpse into ancient Chinese history, both as a testament to the technological advancement of the Shang dynasty as the region emerged from the Neolithic age, and as important clues to the cultures that created these works of art.

Ancient Chinese histories list the Xia Dynasty, founded by the legendary Yu the Great, as the first Chinese dynasty. While some scholars believe the Erlitou culture in the middle and western regions of modern-day Henan and Shanxi Provinces to be the Xia, the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 – ca. 1050 BCE) remains the earliest archaeologically verifiable dynasty. It was during the Shang that the first recognizable Chinese script developed and that an increase in specialized occupations indicative of a complexly organized society emerges. The earliest extant written records are the oracle bones found in Yinxu at Anyang and date to the middle of the Shang Dynasty. Earlier examples of characters exist, but these typically consist of clan names and short dedicatory phrases and do not represent a fully-developed writing system. The content of the written material suggests that the ability to write was limited to a small elite class, specifically the shamans who conducted the rituals of divination that were vital to the function and legitimacy of the state.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the late Erlitou had entered the Bronze Age, but the scale of production and quality of work increased significantly during the Shang. The stratification of society and the creation of cities were crucial to the Shang’s ability to support the bronze production process, which required expeditions to locate the copper, tin and lead found in Shang bronzes, the ability to mine these materials, and the military might to protect the workers and goods throughout the process. After the extraction of the ore, the bronze metallurgy process required foundries capable of reaching the required temperatures to smelt these metals, and artisans to create the piece -molds from which the bronzes were cast (see Material Culture). The developments of a stronger state structure exemplified by a code of punishments, an official class, an increased focus on rituals, and an organized military were therefore necessary elements for the successful production of bronzeware under the Shang.

Unlike many Bronze Age cultures elsewhere in the world, the primary use of bronze casting in China was for the creation of elaborate ritual vessels rather than agricultural tools or weaponry. The existence of an elite with expendable resources and a devotion to ancestor worship and funerary rituals drove the production of the intricate bronze drinking vessels and food containers, such as the ‘Square Bronze Zun with Beast Mask Pattern’ and the ‘Rectangular Bronze Ding Decorated with Human Mask Design’ featured in the exhibition (see People and Culture). The expense and technical expertise required for the production of bronzeware demonstrates the value of these pieces to the ruling elite. Bronzes became an integral part of the ritual process by the Shang Dynasty, and Kings depended on them as a symbol of their legitimacy and ability to communicate with and appease the ancestors.

The relation between bronzes, the divine, and the mandate to rule on earth is referenced in a variety of ancient legends and texts. In one, King Yu the Great had nine ding (food cauldrons) cast to symbolize the nine territories of his realm. According to legend, when the Xia Dynasty fell, these cauldrons were passed to the Shang Dynasty and then to the Zhou in the 11th century BCE, linking the symbolic importance of bronze vessels to the legitimacy of rule. While the form and style of bronze vessels varied over time and place, their primary use in ritual ceremonies by members of the elite and ruling families remained a defining characteristic. For example, the Shang preferred offerings of wine during rituals, and therefore produced a variety of wine vessels, whereas the later Zhou Dynasty believed that Shang overindulgence in wine had caused them to lose legitimacy in the eyes of heaven and shifted the focus of production to food cauldrons.

The Shang exerted a powerful force from their core power center in the western region of the north China plain, but they were not the only major civilization in China at the time. Typical examples of Shang bronze vessels are pieces like the ‘Bronze Zun in the Shape of an Elephant’ inspired from animals that lived in the region. Neighboring states existed that were contemporary to the Shang and interdependent, but arose from separate cultural origins and assumed a different path of development. Examples of these cultures include the Ba and Shu people of Sichuan and the incredible bronze works they produced at sites like Sanxingdui. Stylistically, the works vary considerably from Shang works at Yinxu, but some vessels retain the form of Shang vessels and therefore suggest a degree of interaction. Wucheng culture in the southeast is another example of a regional style unique from the Shang. Even within the Shang, stylistic differences existed, with the northern areas tending to prefer more fanciful representations of mythical animals, and the south preferring to depict existing animals on their bronze works.

When the Western Zhou replaced the Shang around ca. 1050 BCE, they retained the Shang emphasis on ritual but shifted the emphasis of worship to tian (‘Heaven’), and justified the takeover by accusing the Shang of losing tianming (‘the Mandate of Heaven’). The Zhou initially exerted a great degree of control over central China, facilitating the exchange of bronze stylistic motifs and trade in metal ore. During this period, designs became more abstracted and bronzes became valued as an indicator of prestige as well as tools for ritual. The inscriptions reflect the shift taking place during this time, as bronzes began to carry lengthier inscriptions indicating the wealth and importance of the owner. By the end of the Western Zhou (ca. 1045-771 BCE) bronzes lost their inscriptions altogether and were replaced with inlays of precious metals and stones. The Zhou Dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang in 771 BCE and its power subsequently declined significantly. Although there was a trend towards consolidation of wealth and power in ancient China, the absence of a strong central state power during the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE) resulted in increased warfare and struggle for dominance until the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. Bronze production remained important following the collapse of the Zhou, but is generally considered to have reached its height during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. These pieces provide invaluable evidence of early China’s history, writing system, and cultures.

The discovery in 1976 of Lady [Fu] Hao’s burial tombs near Anyang, in China’s northern Henan Province, presented scholars and archaeologists with an amazing find: the first tomb of the Ruins of Yin burial ground to be discovered undisturbed by looters since the tomb was sealed from the light of day around 1250 BCE. Besides the lacquered coffin of the venerated lady-general Fu Hao there were around two thousand items found inside, including over seven hundred jade objects, 1.6 metric tons of bronze-ware and the sacrificial remains of six dogs and sixteen human beings. This was indeed the most important archaeological find in the Ruins of Yin (殷墟), which marks the site of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty. A dynastic state that lorded over the people of the North China Plain two millennia before the common era and oversaw the first known development of Chinese script, the Shang had long been widely discussed throughout the vast tradition of Chinese historical writings, including in those of the great Han Dynasty eunuch-scribe Sima Qian, the standard-bearer of ancient Chinese historiography; however, archaeological evidence confirming the existence of this ancient civilization was missing until the rediscovery of the Ruins of Yin in 1899. Due to complicating factors, including periods of warfare, archaeologists did not locate the tomb of Lady Hao for nearly eighty years, but this single discovery provided them with unparalleled opportunities for studying the Shang civilization and its remarkable culture.

Fu Hao (妇好), chief consort to the King Wu Ding (武丁), was an extraordinary individual, and the riches arranged beside her body illustrate her enormous wealth and the great respect paid to her when she died. Similar to the other tombs in the Ruins of Yin necropolis, Fu Hao’s is actually a burial pit 7.5 meters deep, and its size and large collection of artifacts prove that she was a figure of great importance. The array of bronze weapons, unusual for a woman’s tomb, is an indicator of Fu Hao’s experience as a military leader in charge of several campaigns against other tribes. King Wu Ding also entrusted her to carry out ritual ceremonies, to communicate with the Shang ancestors on behalf of the king, a matter of enormous respect and vital importance to the state. Shang diviners communicated with the ancestors in one of two principal ways: through interpretation of the cracks on large animal bones and turtle plastrons that had been heated and pierced, or through offerings of food and wine. The animal bones and turtle plastrons that underwent this process of divination are known today as ‘oracle bones.’ Inscribed on these ‘bones’ are questions proposed to the ancestor spirits, interpreted responses, followed by commentary. There are 170-180 surviving specimens that refer specifically to Lady Hao, providing evidence of her military exploits and her ritual responsibilities to the state.

Considered quite modest in size compared to other tombs nearby belonging to kings and other nobility, the huge deposit of bronze, jade, ivory and pottery artifacts found inside Fu Hao’s tomb testifies to the craftsmanship of the Shang artisans, and it demonstrates the importance and value of these material objects to the nobility. Due to the time and labor involved in producing bronze and jade artifacts, these items were extremely valuable and were prized possessions (see Material Culture). Bronze ware alone involved the collaborative efforts of a large network of skilled individuals who could mine the elements, smelt and combine the alloy and then construct the ornate, detailed molds into which the alloy would be poured. Besides having a great deal of aesthetic value, these magnificent bronze vessels were highly prized by their owners and were intended to be used in ritual practices of ancestor worship, bestowing honor and wealth on the deceased, currying favor and entreating advice in a dangerous, unpredictable world.

Ancestor worship was a crucial practice to the Shang and later Zhou peoples, and it became a central element of Chinese culture with traditions carried on to this day. The belief held that deceased ancestors inhabited a spiritual realm that existed together with the physical world. Ancestors possessed the power to influence events in the physical world and could act as intermediaries, carrying prayers to the divine forces that ultimately controlled the fearful patterns of the world, from the devastating floods of the Yellow River to the fortunes, good and bad, dealt every person. Ancestors were likewise an otherworldly resource for information on matters both mundane and extraordinary alike. Oracle bones, with their detailed questions and commentary etched directly onto them, provide us with physical evidence of these spiritual interrogations. Meanwhile, the bronze ritual vessels, laid out in the tomb of the deceased, not only symbolized the great wealth and status of the tomb’s owner, but also provided the corpse the means to continue making offerings to the ancestors in the afterlife.

The act of offering food and wine to the ancestors, it was believed, put the physical world in direct contact with the realm of the ancestors. The Shang held a special veneration for wine, believing that the intoxicating effects could induce a psychic link with the ancestor spirit invoked in a ritual offering. Relatives acted as personators, representing the ancestor in physical form and playing the part during the ceremonial banquet, consuming the food and wine offerings until, drunk, he or she would be able to vocalize messages from the spiritual world. Today in China, people still provide food and wine at the graves of their deceased relatives, and often burn paper effigies of money and other prized possessions at gravesites as offerings. The Qingming festival (清明节), celebrated in China and Southeast Asia and known in English a ‘Tomb-Sweeping Day,’ is an especially important day for this ancient practice.

Lady Hao would have acted as this kind of diviner for the Shang king Wu Ding, performing oracle bone ceremonies and acting as personator for ritual banquets. Her importance to the Shang court was clearly significant; but to contemporary archaeologists and historians of China, she has played a momentous role, in so far that her tomb, fortunate among others for remaining away from the prying hands of thieves, has allowed us uncommon access to the ancient world of the Shang.

The invention of bronze metallurgy heralded a new era for the civilizations that wielded the technology, and the various applications for this amazingly versatile material spread across multiple sectors of society and became deeply ingrained into their culture and economy. Bronze items, whether for military, ceremonial or mundane purposes, were praised for their durability and luster, and bronze technology, most likely first developed in Mesopotamia, eventually moved far and wide once it became a valued commodity. Evidence of bronze ware has been discovered across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and East Asia, where it emerged sometime in the third millennia BCE. The earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of bronze in China was found to be in the Majiayao (马家窑 ) culture that inhabited the upper Yellow River valley in the northwest of China around 3100—2700 BCE, even though the metallurgical craft did not reach the high form of artistry that we associate with ancient Chinese bronze-ware until the time of the Shang Dynasty, roughly one thousand years later.

Bronze is an alloy of copper with other materials, ordinarily tin – both abundant in many parts of East Asia. The bronze craftsmen of the Shang Dynasty preferred to include a small percentage of lead to the composite, which made pouring the molten bronze less difficult. (Tin counteracted copper’s brittleness, producing a material of adequate strength for use in chariots and military equipment, where it provided a decisive military advantage over earlier forms of weaponry.) Chinese craftsmen, unique among other bronze producing cultures, employed a technique known as the piece-mold process, wherein the mold was divided into removable sections, which would combine around a solid core, leaving enough empty space in between for the molten bronze to form the vessel. While bronze was useful for military purposes, ritual vessels were undoubtedly the most prevalent application, and these extraordinary objects became the very symbol of power for the Shang kings, as well as potent symbols of status for the elite.

Ancient ritual vessels, multitudinous in size and shape, were used in ceremonial banquets as containers of offerings to the ancestors and, as such, were traditionally divided into two major categories: containers for food and those for wine. They were usually inscribed with ornate decorations and some bore inscriptions referring to either the clan or the craftsmen who manufactured the pieces. Some vessels were made to commemorate a significant event, and may contain inscriptions, for example, detailing the success of a certain general’s military campaign or bestowing honor on a revered relative, friend, or ruler.

The craftsmen of these vessels would take meticulous care creating the designs, which, on some of the more complex pieces, are often an incredibly intricate assemblage of animal motifs, faces and abstract patterns. These designs would be worked into the molds and, once the molten bronze was poured in, would produce the reverse of the design on the final product. Although the craftsmen were rarely at liberty to experiment with new forms of vessels, they would, however, tweak design elements, making certain bronzes more detailed, more expensive, and including design elements favored by different cultures included in the Shang trade networks.

Bronze vessels represent an amazing advancement for ancient Chinese civilization. Only a highly developed, stable society could possess the social and economic structure to produce bronze vessels of such craftsmanship and purpose for centuries on end. Thousands of bronzes have been discovered in China so far, and many more are unearthed each day. Each new find contributes to the field of understanding about ancient China and continues to bring to light the colorful beliefs and ritual practices of the ancient Chinese.

Antiquarians have been collecting individual ancient Chinese bronze pieces for centuries, admiring the craftsmanship each piece exhibits as well as savoring the classical respect for ritualism so highly prized by the Confucian tradition. Indeed, to look at an individual piece of Chinese bronze ware is to wonder at the metallurgical skill and imaginative design that often went into the creation of that particular piece. For much of China’s Bronze Age the technique used for casting bronze ware was a laborious and complex process where artisans had to first fashion a clay model of the object, then pack an additional layer of clay around this mold that would dry and then be cut into sections and fired. The model sections were then shaved down becoming the core of the mold and the sections were reassembled around the core so that molten metal could be poured between the sections; once the bronze cooled, the mold was destroyed and the surface could be burnished smooth. This process meant that each piece had to be individually crafted each time and the mold then destroyed, making each piece unique – a truly astonishing fact when one considers the unparalleled quantity of bronze ware being cast in Ancient China! This bronze ware casting technique continued until the Eastern Zhou dynasty (c. 771 – 221 BCE), when the lost wax method of bronze casting was introduced allowing for a single mold to make multiple replica pieces.

While it is easy to admire the inherent artistry in individual pieces, it is important to realize that bronze ware in Ancient China was not merely a luxury item made for vain consumption. Bronze vessels were an important part of elite ancestor worship and state ritual; therefore, in order to appreciate the intended uses bronze ware vessels had in ancient China, one must not just look at pieces individually but must consider how they were grouped together and used in ceremonial sets. The various shapes of bronze ware pieces are rigidly classified according to their function as either food or drinking vessels as well as musical instruments that contributed to ritualistic practices. Inscriptions in pieces denote important events and contributions to the state that would bring honor and prestige to family ancestors as well as descendents “for generations without end.” These sets are frequently found in tomb settings demonstrating the ritualistic importance bronze ware sets had for ancient Chinese peoples.

With rapid economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, increased commercial land development has resulted in more discoveries being made of buried bronze artifacts. This has created a situation where Chinese archaeologists have to engage in salvage archaeology – archaeological survey and excavation must be rapidly carried out in conditions that are threatened by construction and development. While this means that more artifacts have contributed to our overall knowledge of this critical time period in the formation of Chinese civilization, the pieces are often ripped too early from their in situ context thus depriving researchers from doing important research into the relationship of individual pieces to one another at a particular site as well as what the significance of the location might have for our historical understanding. Many of these pieces subsequently enter the black market and are sold to individual collectors, thus complicating the ways in which researchers and students of the era can further benefit our general knowledge of ancient China’s Bronze Age.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.