The Iron Age in China

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Few things in history have forced man to create and to innovate like warfare. To understand more about how warfare increases technology, look no further than the Iron Age in China.

Iron Age China

Other alloys like bronze became popular in China long before the use of iron, so the Chinese had a working knowledge of how to smelt metals using high temperatures and hammering to create tools and weapons. Early forms of iron date back to the Shang Dynasty that ruled China from 1600 through 1100 BC. However, bronze was still the predominant metal in use in China at the time for weaponry, tools, and for artistic expression.

Bronze Vessel Zhou Dynasty

Original uses for iron were in the making of knives, as blades of iron were frequently set into hilts made from bronze. As in other civilizations of the period iron use in China began in crude forms during their Bronze Age, as meteoric iron or iron found from meteors that crashed into Earth long ago. Early casts of iron have been found in China that date back to their Bronze Age.

As the Shang Dynasty lost its grip on power to the Zhou Dynasty (1046 through 256 BC), iron use became more advanced.

The Development of Iron in China

The Zhou came into power by way of force, and after establishing their dominance brought China into a period of advanced technology that included using more iron to create better and stronger weapons. These years were the beginning of the Iron Age in China, which officially began around 600 CE.

The Zhou Dynasty was able to hold absolute power until 776 BC when the Warring States Period began in China. As the name of the period describes, this period was exceptionally bloody as the Zhou struggled to hold on to power.

Illustration of early Chinese iron work

Iron working became a highly coveted skill during these centuries, and as weaponry advanced so did the Chinese's knowledge of smelting iron. The centuries-long period of war (776 through 221 BC), saw feudal lords seek to oust the Zhou through advanced weaponry and warfare. The lord who had the best weapons had the best chance at ruling.

A new form of iron replaced meteoric iron during the Chinese Iron Age called pig iron, which was easier to work with and malleable. It was also easier to cast, or set into shape. The Chinese would have used huge fire pits that would have heated pig iron into a melted form, and then hammered it into form allowing it to cool and set using water.

Pig Iron
Pig Iron

When the Warring States Period ended, the new Qin Dynasty (221 through 206 BC) had to unify China. Again, and their Iron Age entered a new phase. One of their early attempts to increase iron production was to appoint bureaucrats to oversee areas of China where iron was predominant.

As the rule of the Qin was short-lived, further innovations made during the Iron Age were made under later dynasties. Scholars note that under the Qin Dynasty the Iron Age entered its last years. Other alloys like gold, silver, and even tin were entering the Chinese landscape. However, there were some extremely important aspects about iron working that took place after the period's end.

Later Chinese Innovations in Iron

Iron production had been a free industry in China before the Han Dynasty came to power in 206 BC. The southwestern provinces of China had controlled most of the production of iron where those with the ability to smelt iron did so without prohibition.

The Han Dynasty sought to nationalize the Chinese industry as it would be theirs to control, and thus allow them to have the greatest advantage in weaponry controlling over 30 iron production centers in the southwest. As iron production and technology became an endeavor of the imperial government, experimentation in iron working achieved new heights.

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