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The Early Bronze Age

Ritual food vessel (ding)

Ritual food vessel (ding), approx. 1300-1050. Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BCE). China. Bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection.

As it pertains to China, the designation “Bronze Age” refers to the period beginning around 2000 to 1750 BCE and continuing until around 500 BCE. What were the primary uses for bronze during China’s early Bronze Age? How did the use of bronze in China differ from that of other cultures? What has been learned about early Chinese culture by studying bronzes and other Bronze Age archeological materials?

  • At least among the ruling clans, early Bronze Age culture was highly organized and stratified.
  • The earliest Bronze Age kings claimed direct descent from the highest being of their religion and, therefore, a divine right to rule.
  • Bronze was used almost exclusively by or for the ruling clans. Its major applications included ritual vessels used in sacrifices to the ancestors of the ruling clans; symbols of power such as chariot fittings, which were used exclusively by these ruling clans; and weapons used to maintain the status of these same clans.
  • Because it was used almost exclusively by or for the ruling clans, bronze came to represent power and authority. The larger the vessel and the more bronze it contained, the greater the symbolic value.
  • Religious practices during the early Bronze Age were led largely by ritual specialists, who consulted with the divine ancestors to find answers to the questions ranging from the everyday (such as what caused or might cure a toothache) to matters of the state (such as how to influence or get information about the outcome of an intended military action).