Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: March 2016

1 - The Bronze Age economy (1045 to 707 BCE)


China's Bronze Age, beginning c. 2000 BCE, gave birth to the earliest states in East Asia and the technologies and institutions that made possible the mobilization of material and human resources on a large scale. The first state, Shang (c. 1570–1045 BCE), developed political institutions and a ritual order that enabled it to impose its dominion over much of North China's Central Plain, the alluvial floodplain of the Yellow River that became the heartland of early Chinese civilization. From c. 1200 BCE the Shang rulers began to use writing to record the divinations essential to the royal ancestral cult and the conduct of their government. Shang rule was overthrown by the upstart Zhou dynasty in 1045 BCE. The Zhou ecumene, centered in the ancestral Zhou homeland of the Wei River valley in the west, encompassed the entire Central Plain as well. The Zhou retained many features of Shang culture, including its ritual practices, writing system, and bronze metallurgy. But the Zhou also introduced new conceptions of divine authority and political sovereignty and developed a more formalized bureaucratic government to extend the reach of royal power.

If any civilization merits the appellation “Bronze Age” it is surely ancient China. Bronze ritual vessels occupied the central place in the political, social, and cultural order of the earliest Chinese states. The sheer quantity of surviving bronze artifacts from China's Bronze Age is without peer among ancient civilizations: more than 12,000 Zhou bronze ritual vessels exist today, and no doubt many yet remain undiscovered in tombs and caches. The scale of these artifacts also is enormous: one bronze cauldron from c. 1200 BCE weighs 875 kg., and archaeologists recovered more than 10 tons of bronze vessels from a single cache buried in the fifth century BCE. Beginning in the late Shang period, but especially with the onset of the Zhou dynasty, the ruling elite began to inscribe bronze vessels for commemorative purposes. These inscriptions primarily signified the purpose for casting the vessel and commemorated the honors the maker received from the king that brought glory to his lineage and his ancestors. Zhou bronze inscriptions – notably the “appointment inscriptions,” which record the bestowal of offices, rewards, and duties by the king – also contain valuable information about the organization of the Zhou state and the self-conception and cultural practices of its rulers.