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Part Two: Bronze Age China   Table of Contents | Start Section
More about   Excavations at the Tomb of Fu Hao, The Finds at Sanxingdui, Bronze Vessels, The Western Zhou



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Xia Dynasty
The bronze age in China refers to the period between about 2000 and 771 B.C., when bronze was produced on a massive scale for weapons and ritual objects used by the ruling elite. Traditional Chinese histories, written in later centuries, speak of a series of ancient rulers who invented agriculture, writing, and the arts of government. The last of these legendary rulers, Yu, is credited with controlling floods and founding the Xia dynasty. Yu also cast nine sacred bronze vessels that became symbolic of the right to rule, and these were passed on to subsequent dynasties. While the account in the traditional histories is linear, with states following one another in a logical progression, the archaeological record reveals a more complicated picture of Bronze Age China.

Archaeological investigation has confirmed much of the legendary history of the dynasty following the Xia -- the Shang -- but the existence of Xia itself is still debated. Today, Chinese scholars generally identify Xia with the Erlitou culture, but debate continues on whether Erlitou represents an early stage of the Shang dynasty, or whether it is entirely unique. In any event, new prototypes emerged at Erlitou -- in architecture, bronze vessels, tomb structures, and weapons -- that greatly influenced material culture in the Shang and subsequent Zhou dynasties.

Shang Dynasty
Archaeological evidence about the Shang comes mainly from excavations at Zhengzhou and Anyang, both in Henan province. Zhengzhou (the type site of what is called Erligang culture) is assigned to the period 1500 to 1300 B.C. and Anyang (ancient Yinxu) to the period of roughly 1200 to 1050 B.C.

Remains at Zhengzhou include the foundations of city walls, large buildings, bronze foundries, and bone and pottery workshops, as well as a number of burial sites. By 1500 B.C., Shang burial traditions were becoming well defined. The deceased lay in a wooden coffin at the bottom of a shaft. Below the coffin chamber was a sacrificial pit (yaokeng) containing the body of a sacrificed man or dog (probably a guard). Surrounding the chamber was a platform (ercengtai) that held grave goods and more human sacrifices. Sacrifices of humans and animals were also placed beneath the foundations of buildings at this time. Bronze vessels included in burials were much larger than those created previously, and more varied in shape.

Bronze tiger from Dayangzhou, c. 1200-1050 B.C., Jiangxi Provincial Museum, Nanchang.

Archaeology has now revealed that important regional centers existed alongside the Shang, including those centered around the site of Dayangzhou, south of the Yangzi River basin in Jiangxi province, and the site of Sanxingdui (see More About The Finds at Sanxingdui), just north of the modern city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.

Dayangzhou produced a large burial chamber filled with hundreds of ceramics, bronzes (both weapons and vessels), and jades. Some of the bronzes could be related to types found at Erligang, but others, such as the meat-cooking vessels and bronze bells, were unique to Dayangzhou. Dayangzhou was also distinctive for its use of human heads, ram heads, deer, and especially tigers in design.

Late Prehistoric China | Bronze Age China | Chu and Other Cultures | Early Imperial China

Teaching Activities | Resources | Chronology | Pronunciation Guide/Glossary