Bronze vessel from Shang China

About the object

A sophisticated technology

Building on the advanced technology used for firing pottery in the late Neolithic period, the Chinese Bronze Age started around 2000 BC. From the beginning it is characterized by the bronze vessels used in ritual sacrifice to the ancestors. These were made using a unique system of pottery piece-moulds. This enabled bronzesmiths to create vessels of complex shape with intricate low-relief decoration. When they were first cast, these bronze vessels shone brightly, then rapidly turned black in the humid environment of that part of China.

The importance of tombs

Much of our knowledge about the Shang Dynasty comes from the excavation of tombs where objects like this bronze zun were buried with the dead for continued use in the afterlife. The Shang believed there were many gods who had power over different elements and the ability to bring a variety of gifts. They were unable to contact these gods directly. The ancestors, however, were able to ask the gods to bring good fortune to their living successors, so it was important to nourish the spirits of the dead and to protect their graves. Food and drink served in bronze vessels such as this zun was offered to the ancestors at ritual ceremonies.

Sacrifice was also an important way of pleasing and honouring the spirits of the ancestors. The skeletons found in tombs inform us about the practice of sacrifice. Large numbers of oxen, sheep, pigs and dogs were sacrificed during funerals and at regular intervals for dead kings, and sometimes queens. The sacrifice of human servants and soldiers was also common. Although we also have some written evidence from this period – see Object File: Early Chinese writing - we have to use what is found in the tombs to build up a picture of many areas of what life was like - for the ruling class at least.

An insight into the life of the elite

Bronze was the most precious material available at this time and was only used for making very important items such as these elaborate ritual vessels, weapons and fittings for chariots. Their shapes, however, show us that they were ornate versions of everyday items used for cooking and serving food and drink. Archaeologists have excavated large numbers of much cruder vessels made of grey pottery that would have been in more general use.

Bronze vessels from the late Shang period sometimes carry inscriptions cast into their inside. From these it is clear that the vessels were made specifically for ritual use, either for making direct sacrifices or in formal banquets shared in honour of the ancestors. Our knowledge of life in the Shang is very much limited to elite life as the major sites that have been excavated are palaces and tomb complexes. The picture that we have is of a life in which ritual played a very significant part.

More information

Introduction video – part 1
The video provides an overall introduction to the Shang Dynasty for teachers. A sequence about tombs and bronzes runs 3:00-6:54.

Introduction video – part 2
The video continues to provide an overall introduction to the Shang Dynasty for teachers.

Chinese tombs: a history
A useful discussion of the importance of Chinese tombs from different periods.

Shang Dynasty summary
A summary of the Shang Dynasty.

Shang Dynasty timeline
A timeline of the Shang Dynasty.

Bronze Age casting
A diagram of the piece-mould method of making bronze vessels.

Ritual bronze vessels
Information and a video from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The video sequence on bronzes runs 4:45-8:08 and includes information about manufacture.

Next section: A bigger picture

Bronze vessel from Shang China