Over the course of its long history, China has undergone numerous social changes. One of the earliest occurred during the Bronze Age, when people in the north learned how to make a stronger metal by smelting tin and copper. This transition began sometime around 2,000 B.C. and was the catalyst for several important developments, including the establishment of large scale agriculture and the specialization of labor. Like every other culture, the Chinese found multiple uses for this new alloy. They produced bronze weapons, containers, decorative items and even musical instruments.
The Bronze Age saw the rise of China's first dynasties. The most powerful of these was the Shang, that rose to prominence around 1600 B.C. Ruling from fortifications along the Yellow River, the Shang gained control of northern China by virtue of new weaponry crafted from bronze. Indeed, the Shang's first use of bronze was for military purposes. Aided by superior swords, spears and daggers, the Shang established China's first organized military. They then took control of bronze production to ensure that these new weapons did not fall into enemy hands.
With the Shang in control of production, bronze was difficult to come by. To possess it in any form was a sign of great wealth and power. The Shang were deeply religious and believed their authority derived from Heaven. To appease the deities, the Shang developed complex rituals in which they offered the gods food and drink in elaborate bronze containers. They used bowls, cups, goblets and cauldrons featuring finely detailed animal scenes. One favorite motif was the taotie, an intricately carved monster face with perfectly symmetrical features.
The Shang rulers used bronze for decorative purposes as well. They adorned their living environments with small bronze animals, including dragons, tigers, snakes and birds. Jade had been in use since the late neolithic, and now it was combined with bronze to create even finer implements. The wealthy often possessed jade tools and daggers with bronze handles, for instance. In the late Shang era, craftsmen began constructing bronze face masks, which were used to decorate chariots, full-length mirrors, cauldrons and other large items.
Chimes and Bells
Bells and chimes bore great cultural significance in Shang era China. Used for religious and political purposes, they reflected a degree of technical mastery that later generations have been unable to replicate. Craftsmen knew how to cast bells that could produce two separate tones. This was no small feat, considering that they were the first in the ancient world to even make chimes and bells. These bells lacked interior clappers and had to be struck with a special mallet. They were sounded in gratitude to the gods after important political events, such as victory in battle or the successful completion of a treaty.
The End of the Bronze Age
In 1046 B.C., the Shang dynasty fell to the Zhou. Zhou rule ushered in a turbulent era for China, one in which bronze craftsmanship actually declined. No longer were ornate bowls and goblets set out for the gods. The Zhou believed the Shang's excessive displays had offended the deities. Yet by 246 B.C., when the Zhou dynasty collapsed, China had begun moving forward again. New technologies had allowed for increased agricultural output and economic growth. China had now entered the Iron Age.
- Columbia University: The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Smithsonian Institution: Ancient Chinese Bronzes
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Shang and Zhou Dynasties: The Bronze Age of China
- The British Museum: China: Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-221 BC)
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images