Shang/Zhou dynasty ca. 1600–256 B.C.
The Shang people arose from diverse Neolithic cultures in north China, and from around 1500 B.C.,
inhabited the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan province. They belonged to a highly
stratified society ruled by an aristocracy where kings were the political, military, and religious
leaders. Although the Shang were an agricultural people who principally cultivated millet, they also
built large cities, had a well-organized government administration, and often engaged in warfare to
ensure territorial boundaries. They practiced human sacrifice, mastered
the horse, and introduced the horse-drawn chariot. They were also the first culture in China to have
a fully developed writing system. Current knowledge about the Shang dynasty derives from later historical
texts, excavations of tombs and other archaeological sites, and Shang divinations inscribed on
Among the artifacts that survive are bronze vessels, tools, and weapons, elaborate jades and hard
stones, as well as high-fired ceramics, carved wood and ivories, and silk textiles. To date, the Shang
dynasty is the earliest period in China for which textual and archaeological evidence both exist,
although early historical Chinese texts identify the
as the first dynasty in China. Art
during the Shang dynasty generally had a functional or ritual purpose and was found primarily within
tomb and burial contexts.
Religion established the underlying framework of Shang society with an emphasis on ancestor worship
and a belief in a pantheon of gods headed by the supreme deity
The Shang used ritual
ceremonies to communicate with their ancestors since the welfare of the living was contingent
on the support and good will of ancestral spirits. Ancestors were consulted before any major
undertaking. Their responses to the living’s questions about war, hunting, or the harvest
were relayed through divinations on oracle bones. Elaborate cast–bronze food and wine
vessels likewise were employed in ceremonial offerings and sacrifices. The masklike
motif often decorates the surface of these bronzes, and as some scholars interpret,
reinforce the bronzes’ ritual function and connections to the spirit world.
Labor-intensive bronze production was as symbolic of ruling authority as they were
representative of Shang ritual ceremonies and burial traditions. As emblems of power
and prestige, Shang bronze objects were interred in the tombs of the elite. The
quantity and variety of finely created ritual vessels from this period attest
to the existence of workshops of bronze production and the Shang people’s
ability in large-scale mobilization of material and human resources. Shang
bronze casting technology distinguished itself with the
method, which differed from the lost-wax process, a procedure that the Chinese did not
master until the fifth–century B.C.
While the Shang people ruled parts of central China, contemporaneous
cultures existed in areas such as Xin’gan in the southeastern province of
Jiangxi and Guanghan in the western province of Sichuan. The use of bronze
technology and the appearance of similar decorative motifs from these cultures
demonstrate contact with the Shang, revealing ancient China to have multiple centers of culture.
The Zhou dynasty is divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (ca. 1100–770 B.C.) with
the capital near present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and the Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.)
when the capital was moved to Luoyang, Henan province. The Eastern Zhou is traditionally
divided into the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 470 B.C.) and the Warring States
period (ca. 470–221 B.C.). After the move of the Zhou court to Luoyang, China was
ruled by many smaller contending states until the rise of the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.
Early on, the Zhou people occupied an area in present-day Shaanxi province to the
west of the Shang territories, but around 1100 B.C. conquered the Shang to
whom they had at times served as a tributary state. Historical documents
demonstrate that the Zhou rulers saw themselves as the cultural and political
successors of the Shang state. The Shang production of
"ritual art" (liqi)
in bronze and jade continued unabated. Many Zhou inscriptions on ritual bronzes
indicate the importance of ancestor worship and veneration. Bronze design
motifs were sometimes created with repetitive stamps, pointing to the nascent
development of mass production techniques. The reduction of human sacrifices
found in tombs is one way Zhou culture departed from its predecessor. This
tendency may demonstrate a shift in perceptions of the afterlife, where
human assistance for the deceased was now embodied by straw, wooden, or
ceramic replicas. Accompanying burial articles placed in tombs also began
taking the form of miniature models and simulacra that, along with the
funerary architecture, may both have been conceived as
"brilliant artifacts" (mingqi).
The Zhou rulers worked to extend their territory and developed a system of
governance that gave hereditary power to local leaders, including relatives
of the royal family, trusted subordinates, and loyal local chiefs. This
decentralization eventually broke down as power and ambition grew in
regional centers. In 770 B.C. the Zhou sovereign was killed by an
alliance of his vassals and enemies. His son was enthroned and the
main capital moved east to Luoyang. This was the beginning of the
Eastern Zhou period, but the Zhou rulers never regained their former supremacy.
Constant warfare dominated the Eastern Zhou period. This led to many
technological advances made in connection with military matters. By the seventh
century B.C., advancements in iron production allowed for new and stronger
weapons and farm tools. More peaceful and artistic advances were also
made. Bronze coinage was introduced and widely circulated. Lost–wax,
inlay, and intricate bronze casting techniques were refined, as seen on
mirrors, bells, lamps, and surviving metalware. During this period,
relationships between designs and motifs of different media,
such as jade and bronze or lacquer and textiles, also raise questions
about the transmission of workshop practices and the cultural
interaction within and beyond China's borders.
The later Zhou period is best remembered as a time of intellectual
adventurism as new philosophical schools, such as Confucianism,
Daoism, and Legalism, flourished in abundance. Perhaps the most
famous of these schools was founded by Confucius (551–479 B.C.),
whose societal vision called for individuals to understand and
accept their position in the social and familial hierarchy.
Confucius' transmitted teachings later became the crux of a political
system that emphasized the proper relationships between different
members of society. Particularly attractive to rulers
were the Confucian precepts calling for loyalty and obedience to
one's ruler, father, and family. This created a strict hierarchy
of ritual and social self-control. As Confucianism spread it became
the overarching ethical code throughout much of East Asia, palpable
Another important native school of thought was Daoism, which
in the Zhou period was an eclectic group of popular beliefs in which
humans were not seen as the dominating entity. Instead they were urged to seek
a balance with the natural world. The Zhou dynasty figure
Laozi (literally, "Old Master") is usually seen as the founder of Daoism.
Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Foundation; Cambridge, Mass.: Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, 1987).
Li Xueqin, Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilizations, translated by K. C. Chang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy, eds., Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Wen C. Fong, ed., The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Knopf, 1980).
Wu Hung, Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).