The long period of the Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C., saw the growth and maturity of a civilization that would be sustained in its essential aspects for another 2,000 years. In the early stages of this development, the process of urbanization went hand in hand with the establishment of a social order. In China, as in other societies, the mechanism that generated social cohesion, and at a later stage statecraft, was ritualization. As most of the paraphernalia for early rituals were made in bronze, and as rituals carried such an important social function, it is perhaps possible to read into the forms and decorations of these objects some of the central concerns of the societies (at least the upper sectors of the societies) that produced them.
There were probably a number of early centers of bronze technology, but the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan Province emerged as the center of the most advanced and literate cultures of the time and became the seat of the political and military power of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history. The Shang dynasty was conquered by the people of Zhou, who came from farther up the Yellow River in the area of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. In the first years of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.), known as the Western Zhou (1046–771 B.C.), the ruling house of Zhou exercised a certain degree of “imperial” power over most of central China. With the move of the capital to Luoyang in 770 B.C., however, the power of the Zhou rulers declined and the country divided into a number of nearly autonomous feudal states with nominal allegiance to the emperor. The second phase of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.), is subdivided into two periods, the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 476 B.C.) and the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.). During the Warring States period, seven major states contended for supreme control of the country, ending with the unification of China under the Qin in 221 B.C.
Although there is uncertainty as to when metallurgy began in China, there is reason to believe that early bronzeworking developed autonomously, independent of outside influences. The era of the Shang and the Zhou dynasties is generally known as the Bronze Age of China, because bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, used to fashion weapons, parts of chariots, and ritual vessels, played an important role in the material culture of the time. Iron appeared in China toward the end of the period, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
The earliest Chinese bronzes were made by the method known as piece-mold casting—as opposed to the lost-wax method, which was used in all other Bronze Age cultures. In piece-mold casting, a model is made of the object to be cast, and a clay mold taken of the model. The mold is then cut in sections to release the model, and the sections are reassembled after firing to form the mold for casting. If the object to be cast is a vessel, a core has to be placed inside the mold to provide the vessel’s cavity. The piece-mold method was most likely the only one used in China until at least the end of the Shang dynasty. An advantage of this rather cumbersome way of casting bronze was that the decorative patterns could be carved or stamped directly on the inner surface of the mold before it was fired. This technique enabled the bronzeworker to achieve a high degree of sharpness and definition in even the most intricate designs.
One of the most distinctive and characteristic images decorating Shang-dynasty bronze vessels is the so-called taotie. The primary attribute of this frontal animal-like mask is a prominent pair of eyes, often protruding in high relief. Between the eyes is a nose, often with nostrils at the base. Taotie can also include jaws and fangs, horns, ears, and eyebrows. Many versions include a split animal-like body with legs and tail, each flank shown in profile on either side of the mask. While following a general form, the appearance and specific components of taotie masks varied by period and place of production. Other common motifs for Shang ritual bronze vessels were dragons, birds, bovine creatures, and a variety of geometric patterns. Currently, the significance of the taotie, as well as the other decorative motifs, in Shang society is unknown.
Jade, along with bronze, represents the highest achievement of Bronze Age material culture. In many respects, the Shang dynasty can be regarded as the culmination of 2,000 years of the art of jade carving. Shang craftsmen had full command of the artistic and technical language developed in the diverse late Neolithic cultures that had a jade-working tradition. On the other hand, some developments in Shang and Zhou jade carving can be regarded as evidence of decline. While Bronze Age jade workers no doubt had better tools—if only the advantage of metal ones—the great patience and skill of the earlier period seem to be lacking.
If the precise function of ritual jades in the late Neolithic is indeterminate, such is not the case in the Bronze Age. Written records and archaeological evidence inform us that jades were used in sacrificial offerings to gods and ancestors, in burial rites, for recording treaties between states, and in formal ceremonies at the courts of kings.