The Bronze Age in China: Civilization, Technology & Art

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll travel in time to the Bronze Age of China to better understand the role of bronze technology in the rise of their civilization. We'll discuss their dynasties, casting methods, culture, and artistic bronze pieces.

A Different Kind of Bronze Age

If you've studied the Bronze Age, you probably have learned quite a bit about Europe and the Middle East, but did you know about China? They too had a Bronze Age, but it was quite different from the Bronze Age in other places. The methods they used, what they made first, and the significance of bronze to their culture meant very different things than we see in other lands. It even coincides with a fascinating period of Chinese history, the Warring States period. Let's travel to the distant past to discover more about a Bronze Age not often mentioned in history class.

The Beginning of Bronze and China's Culture

Sometime around 2000 BCE, along the shores of the Yellow River, people learned to make bronze by combining copper and tin. Some cultures learn to use bronze from other cultures, but a few independently develop the skills; China is one of the few examples. Also, their society had already developed writing, art, government, and urbanization.

Shang Dynasty Bronze Cup
Bronze cup

At the time of China's Bronze Age, the culture was very different from what think of now. The average person drank beer instead of tea and ate bread instead of rice. The ruler's power came from his relationship to the ancestors and his ability to serve the gods for the protection of his people. To learn what these being wanted, priests would write questions on animal bones and heated them until they cracked. Reading the pattern of fractures, they would divine what the ancestors and the gods wanted. Often, pleasing them involved wine and grain sacrifices but in extreme need, the kings of the Shang Dynasty would sacrifice animals and even humans. As the Bronze Age progressed, the Zhou Dynasty kings phased out the practice of human sacrifice.

Shang Dynasty

Only recently have archaeologists found proof that the Shang Dynasty really existed, rather than just being legendary rulers of myth. The story of their origins reveals the value the ancient Chinese placed on bronze. Long ago, the word was covered in the waters of a great primordial flood. King Yu of the Xia Dynasty, a lineage still believed to only be a legend, took control of the waters and separated them from the land. He divided this land into nine provinces and made nine bronze cauldrons to represent them and to perform rituals related to each of these lands. When the Shang rulers took power from the Xia, they also took the nine cauldrons, calling them the Auspicious Bronzes of the State. These ritual cauldrons were passed down from king to king and came into the hands of the Zhou rulers when their dynasty overtook the Shang rulers.

Shang Dynasty King Tang
King Tang

Unique Methods

Because the Chinese developed bronze independently, they created unique techniques for crafting their pieces. Rather than the lost-wax method used by other cultures, they created piece-mold casting. A model of the eventual bronze piece is carved out of some other material then coated in clay. Once the clay hardens, the mold is cut into pieces and removed from the model. The pieces of the mold are then reassembled and the bronze is poured into it. This also allowed craftsmen to carve designs and inscriptions inside the mold which would appear as raised designs on the bronze objects.

Dagger axe with raised pattern
Dagger Axe

Just before the first millennium BCE, the Shang Dynasty fell to invaders from farther upriver who founded the Zhou Dynasty. During this time, bronze became even more common as a tool-making material. One of the most significant developments for bronze objects was affixing bronze plates to leather armor, equipping armies with greater defense against bronze swords and spears. These tools of war because exceedingly common toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty, a time known as the Warring States period lasting from 475 BCE to 221 BCE where seven kingdoms battled for control of China.

Armor with bronze plates
Chinese armor

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