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Shang bronze pitcher standing on three legs

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

When did the Bronze Age start in China?

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

History of bronze
Shang Dynasty China
China’s art history
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The first jars were the best made

Right from the beginning, these bronze jars were super well made. You might think 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. Artists are very interested in the new tech at first and do a very good job. It’s only later that they try to do it cheaper and faster and not as well.

How did artists in China make bronze jars?

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.

Lost-wax casting
History of wax

bronze elephant

A Shang Dynasty bronze elephant (Musee Guimet, Paris)

What kind of decoration do Shang bronzes have?

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.

bronze pitcher in the shape of a bird, standing on three points

Shang Dynasty bronze pitcher in the shape of a bird (Musee Guimet, Paris)

More about Chinese religion

The beginning of writing

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.

Writing in early China

How did the pottery wheel get to China?

Probably sometime during the Shang Dynasty, nomadic Indo-Europeans also 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

More about the Shang Dynasty

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
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