Shang Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Yin Arts and Culture.

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Bronze Head with Gold Foil Mask
Sanxingdui Sculpture (1100-1000 BCE)
Sanxingdui Museum, Guanghan.

Shang Dynasty Art (1700-1050 BCE)
History and Characteristics


Shang Arts and Culture
Shang Bronzes
The Shang Taotie
Evolution of Shang Bronze Decoration
Other Shang Excavations and Artifacts
Later Chinese Dynasties

Late Shang, bronze wine vessel.
11th Century BCE. Freer & Sackler Galleries, Washington DC.
Known as a "zun", it is fashioned
in the shape of an owl with a head
for its lid.

For important dates, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For specific art periods,
movements and genres, see:
History of Art.

Shang Arts and Culture

Although the legendary Xia Dynasty culture (c.2100-1700) centered on Erlitou, is being closely investigated by Chinese archeologists, the Shang Dynasty (sometimes called the Yin Dynasty) remains the first archeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history. Based in northern China, in the area along the Yellow River in Henan Province, during the second millennium BCE, it became the most advanced and literate culture of the period. A major contributor to Chinese art, the Shang Dynasty is famous above all for its bronzes - mostly ceremonial vessels - and the workmanship of its sculptors and craftsmen testifies to a high level of civilization. During its 700-year existence, Shang culture was also responsible for important developments in Chinese pottery and jade carving, as well as Chinese lacquerware and ivory carving - see for instance the Shang ivory and turqoise goblets in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. All this is clear from archeological discoveries at Anyang (formerly Yin), the Shang capital (1350–1046 BCE), which have unearthed eleven royal tombs, the remains of numerous palaces and sacred sites of both animal and human sacrifice, together with thousands of artifacts in bronze, jade, stone, ivory and bone, and ceramic clay. In addition, other discoveries at Anyang, dating to the later period 1200-1000 BCE, indicate that Shang culture had developed its own highly sophisticated system of writing. Evidence of this comes mostly from writings found on oracle bones, but it also includes inscriptions on bronze artifactsas well as writings on pottery, jade, ivory and other materials. Shang culture was developed further during the period of Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221) and Qin Dynasty Art (221-206 BCE), as well as Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE).


Shang Bronzes

Bronze Age art (as opposed to weaponry) began in China around 1700-1500 BCE, as bronze became a widespread substitute for jade, horn, ivory, and stone, in the crafting of high-status objects like ceremonial, ritualistic and feasting vessels. Shang rulers and nobles, for instance, required a vast quantity of vessels for various ceremonies associated with religious divination and other sacred rituals, including the worship of ancestors, whose names are often inscribed on the bronzes. Other ritual vessels were specially cast to celebrate important events in the lives of their owners, and were used in sacrificial offerings of wine, meat and grain, to the spirits of clan ancestors. In any event, these bronzes represent one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of metalwork, prior to the modern age.

Note: To see how ancient Chinese arts and crafts influenced its closest East Asian neighbour, see: Korean Art (3,000 BCE onwards).

Furthermore, this large-scale production of bronze objects needed a suitably large and structured labour force that could mine, refine, and transport the necessary tin, copper, and lead ores. In this way, ritualization and ceremony helped to foster social cohesion, and artistic craftsmanship. Additional demand for bronze came from the army, who used it for weapons and chariots. Shang artists also produced numerous examples of figurative bronze sculpture for tombs: see, for instance, the Human Figure (c.1150 BCE, Institute of Archeology and Cultural Relics Bureau, Sichuan Province) discovered in Burial Pit 2 at Sanxingdui, Sichuan Province.

Note: In 1986, archeologists discovered two sacrificial pits on the site of the Lanxing Brick Factory at Sanxingdui. The first contained thousands of artifacts made from gold, bronze, jade, and clay. The second pit contained a wide variety of bronze sculpture, including figurative sculptures, animal-faced castings, bells, decorative animal figures of dragons, snakes and birds. Other finds included a large number of ivory carvings and clamshells. Amazingly, the style of the objects discovered was completely unknown in the history of Chinese art, whose "cradle" was assumed to be the cultures of the Yellow River valley. For more, see: Sanxingdui Bronzes (1200-1000 BCE)

Interestingly, it was Chinese expertise in jade carving, acquired during the late period of Chinese Neolithic Art, that proved of most value in the development of bronze metallurgy.

Bronzes of exceptional quality and complexity were made at production centres in Erlitou, Anyang and Zhengzhou. Shang metallurgists developed a refined process of piece-mould casting - as opposed to the lost-wax method (cire perdue), which was used in all other Bronze Age cultures. (In so-called piece-mold casting, a model is created of the item to be cast, and a clay mold is then made of the model. After this, the mold is cut into sections - releasing the model - which are then reassembled after firing. This then forms the mold for casting in bronze.) Although somewhat convoluted, piece-mould casting allowed decorative patterns to be carved or stamped onto the inner surface of the mold before firing in a kiln. This method enabled the craftsman to achieve a high degree of definition in even the most elaborate motifs. Compare Irish Bronze Age art with Minoan art, one of the most advanced forms of Aegean culture of the time. For ancient Iraqi Bronze Age cultures, see Mesopotamian art of the 2nd millennium - in particular: Assyrian art (c.1500-612 BCE) and Hittite art (c.1600-1180 BCE).

Note: To see how Shang Dynasty art fits into the overall history of culture in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). Please see also: Asian art (from 38,000 BCE).

The Shang Taotie

One of the most distinctive decorative images on Shang-dynasty ritual bronze vessels was the "taotie", a zoomorphic mask, with a pair of protruding eyes but typically no lower jaw, although some versions also include fangs, horns, as well as ears and eyebrows. The taotie design may have borrowed elements from the mysterious jade "cong" - a cylindrical tube encased in a rectangular block - produced by the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (3400-2250). Other popular motifs included tigers, gui, snakes, cicadas, rams, dragons, birds, owls, ox-like creatures, and a range of geometric patterns. The exact significance of the taotie - or indeed many other decorative motifs in Shang Dynasty art - is unknown, although some of the symbolism used is now understood. The tiger, for instance, represented the power of nature, while the cicada and snake symbolized rebirth, and the owl was the carrier of the soul.

Evolution of Shang Bronze Decoration

During the 1950s, the art historian Max Loehr (1903-88), Professor of Chinese art at Harvard University (1960-74), identified five stages in the evolution of bronze methodology during the Shang Dynasty. In Stage I, thin-walled vessels are decorated with a narrow band of abstract or semi-abstract zoomorphic motifs. In Stage II, zoomorphic shapes consist of flat bands engraved on the object, typically on a raised register of ceramic appliqué. In Stage III, we see intricate curvilinear designs which cover most of the surface of what is becoming a relatively thick-walled vessel. In Stage IV, the predominant zoomorphic motifs, are clearly distinguished against a dense spiral background. In Stage V the major motifs are laid out in much greater sculptural plastic relief by using ceramic appliqué. Stages I and II appear at Zhengzhou; Stage III has been discovered at both Zhengzhou and early Anyang; while Stages IV and V appear only at Anyang.

Other Shang Excavations and Artifacts

In assessing Shang culture, and its types of art, we are exclusively dependent on its elaborate burial sites. In 1976, archeologists at Yinxu stumbled upon the undisturbed and richly furnished royal tomb of Lady Fu Hao, consort to the Shang King Wu Ding. Along with a host of bronze weapons, more than 440 bronze vessels, 590 jade figures and other objects, ancient pottery vessels, and bone hairpins were found. In 1986, over 4,000 objects, including cowrie shells, bronze face masks, jades and life-size bronze statues encased in gold sheet, were discovered at the walled city of Sanxingdui in Sichuan, southern China. Of particular interest were the burial masks, distinguished by their large ears and bulging eyes, and lips painted red with cinnabar, a mineral widely used to colour lacquerware. (See also Colour Pigments.) Also found at Sanxingdui were tiny bronze fragments of tree sculpture, along with bronze leaves and perching birds. Although traces of fresco murals have been found, Chinese painting had yet to become established as an artform. As a result, most Chinese painters were employed in the pottery industry or in other types of decorative art.

Later Chinese Dynasties

Later visual arts are traditionally divided into the following periods:

- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)
- Song Dynasty art (960-1279)
- Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368)
- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

See also: Japanese Art.


• For more about bronzes and jade carving in ancient China, see: Homepage.

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