Shang Dynasty Chinese Art - Ancient China
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Shang Dynasty Art

Shang bronze pitcher
Shang bronze pitcher, about 1300 BC
(Musee Guimet, Paris)

By about 2000 BC, people in China had learned from the people of West Asia how to make bronze out of copper and tin. People began to make many jars and plaques (flat pieces) out of bronze to give to their gods.

Right from the beginning, these jars were of very high quality. Some people have thought that Chinese bronze-smiths must have been practicing a long time to make such good bronze pieces, but this is really normal with any new technology: people are very interested in it at first and do a very good job, and it is only later that they try to do it cheaper and faster and not as well.

These bronze jars and boxes were cast in molds using the lost-wax technique. Usually they were cast in several different pieces and then soldered (SOD-erd) together with melted bronze or tin.

shang elephant

Some of the jars are plain with just a few lines cut (incised) into them. Other jars and goblets have lots of fancy decoration sticking out all over them. Some are abstract designs, others show plants or animals or mythical monsters like dragons. Some show demons, or human faces.

Shang bird stand

Towards the end of the Shang Dynasty, about 1200 BC, people began to write messages on these bronze jars and cups using the earliest Chinese pictograms.

Chinese woman using a pottery wheel

It was probably sometime during the Shang Dynasty that nomadic Indo-Europeans brought the potter's wheel to China.

The potter's wheel let artists make pots much more quickly, so that they became cheaper and more widely used.

Learn by Doing - Shang Dynasty art

Bibliography and further reading about Shang Dynasty art:

The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, by Jessica Rawson and others (1996). Rawson is a curator at the British Museum, and she uses the collection of the British Museum to illustrate this book. Library Journal calls it "easily the best introductory overview of Chinese art to appear in years".

Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically , but a good introduction to the spirit of Chinese art. Warning: this one is not arranged in chronological order. Instead, it has chapters on sculpture, calligraphy, and so on.

Next period of Chinese art (the Zhou dynasty)
More about the Shang Dynasty
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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