Times & Places

Shang (c. 1600 BCE - c. 1050 BCE)

Prior to the discovery of archaeological evidence of Shang culture in the 20th century, it was believed by many, especially in the West, to be a mythical rather than factual period of Chinese history. The Shang is divided into three stages: Erlitou (pre-1600 BCE), Erligang (c. 1600-1300 BCE), and Yinxu (c. 1300-1050 BCE), the latter of which is identified as the last Shang 'capital' founded by the king Pangeng.

Information about Shang China has not only been communicated through its material culture but also from excavated archives of oracles. Divination practice used first bone and later tortoise shells for oracles. A hot rod was applied to the bone or shell and the point where the bone or shell cracked indicated the answer to the question asked, which was typically engraved beside the crack, along with the date and the name of the ruler. Oracle questions revolved around hunting, war, and agriculture, as well as the interpretation of the ruler's dreams and visions of supernatural phenomena. The writing system system had a repertoire of more than 2000 characters, which in some cases are the antecedents of modern Chinese characters.

Ceramic production continued throughout the Shang with wheel-finished white pottery, gray pottery for everyday use, as well as glazed pottery. Ceramics were also fundamental in the production of bronzes. Bronzes were made using the piece-mold process, requiring an exact clay model of the object to be made in bronze. Pieces of clay were pressed against the hardened model to form a negative impress of the shape and decoration. These were then fired to become components of the piece-mold. The model was shaved down to form the core of the mold. Bronze was poured into the space between the core and the piece-mold which would be held together by mortises and tenons. Legs, handles, or other appendages were later attached by soldering. Bronzes were primarily ritual vessels with inscriptions, some borrowing their form from pottery vessels. The style became inspiration for archaism in later Chinese art.

Human and animal sacrifice was a significant part of Shang culture, driven by the belief that the spirit of the departed need to be comforted with familiar objects. Sacrifice was both voluntary and forced. The practice was later replaced by the interment of mingqi or spirit objects in tombs.

Drawn from

  • Bamber Gascoigne, The Dynasties of China: A History (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 7-25.

  • Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 13-32.

  • Mary Tregear, Chinese Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 21-37.

  • William Watson, The Arts of China to AD 900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 11-26.

  • Sherman E. Lee, Far Eastern Art, 5th Edition (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994), 29-41.

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