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Daily RC Article 117

Echoes of Power: The Shang and Zhou Dynasties in China's Bronze Age


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The Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C., saw the growth of a civilization sustained in its essential aspects for another 2,000 years. The area along the Yellow River became the seat of the political and military power of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.). 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 (1046–256 B.C.), known as the Western Zhou (1046–771 B.C.), the ruling house of Zhou exercised a certain degree of “imperial” power over most of central China. The second phase of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.), is subdivided into two periods, the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 476 B.C.) and the Warring States period (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.

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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 must be placed inside the mold to provide the vessel’s cavity. 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.

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One of the most distinctive and characteristic images decorating Shang-dynasty bronze vessels is the so-called taotie. This frontal animal-like mask has a prominent pair of eyes, often protruding in high relief. Other common motifs for Shang ritual bronze vessels were dragons, birds, bovine creatures, and a variety of geometric patterns. Currently, the significance of the taotie, as well as the other decorative motifs, in Shang society is unknown. Jade, along with bronze, represents the highest achievement of Bronze Age material culture. Shang craftsmen had full command of the artistic and technical language developed in the diverse late Neolithic cultures that had a jade-working tradition. 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.

The article explores China's Bronze Age, spanning over 2,000 years, with the Shang and Zhou dynasties as focal points. It details the political transitions, from Shang's rule along the Yellow River to Zhou's division into Western and Eastern periods. Highlighting the significance of bronze and later iron, it delves into the intricate piece-mold casting technique used in crafting ritual vessels and weapons. Emphasizing the symbolic taotie and other motifs on Shang bronzes, it also underscores the importance of jade, elucidating its roles in religious, burial, and ceremonial contexts during this period.
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