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Chinese History - Shang Dynasty 商 (17th to 11th cent. BC)
arts

Although the early stage of the Shang period (16th to 13th centuries BC) has adapted and perpetuated much of the neolithic art of the Longshan Culture 龍山 and Erlitou Culture 二里頭, the industrialization of bronze casting and the production of ritual tools and objects for daily use for the ruling elite lead to a quick development of new expressions in types and decorations especially in the field of ritual bronze vessels (qingtong liqi 青銅禮器).
The tripod vessel types of ding 鼎, li 鬲, jue 爵 and jia 斝 are direct descendants of neolithic ceramic pottery. These vessels served for ritual purposes during the sacrifices of the ancestor cult to offer wine, water and food, probably also during banquets, and a huge amount of vessels served deceased members of the elite after their death. Shang tombs like that of Queen Fu Hao (Fuhao) 婦好 contained dozens of those bronze vessels, but also pottery and jades. Scholars divide the vessel styles into five different stages. In the oldest pieces, the decoration lines were carved into the mould and thus stand proud on the surface of the vessels. While the lines of the oldest stage were uniformly thin, stage II decorations show thick and thin lines and patterns of stilised flowers, clouds (leiwen 雷文) and dragons. In the next step the decoration covers more and more of the vessel's surface, and within the labyrinth-like patterns the face of a "voracious" animal (later called taotie 饕餮) is hidden. The last two styles are characterized by the accentuation of the animal faces, either by minimizing the size of the surrounding clouds or by rising the face in a high relief. Bronze vessels in the south are different from that in the north, especially in the later phase of the Shang period. Zun and you type vessels of the south are often formed in the shape of animals (elephant, rams, tigers devouring a man). Very exceptional are the bronze tools of Sanxingdui 三星堆 in modern Sichuan. Forms, shapes, motifs and patterns are very different from the bronze vessels and tools from the Central Plain and the Yangtse region.
There are two other kinds of bronze tools that shall be mentioned here: music instruments like bells (nao 鐃, zheng 鉦, ling 鈴) and drums gu 鼓, and ritual axes (yue 鉞) with human faces, mouth and eyes being spared out.
While there are some types of ritual jades that were also inherited from the neolithic age, the cong 琮 tubes and the bi 璧 disks, Shang jades show a great variety of shapes and patterns, nephrite pieces in the shape of animals or persons are very common in Shang finds.
Admiring the impressive bronze vessels, we often forget pottery or ceramics that were also an important part of Shang handicraft industry. Some ceramic vessels with white or grey colour are incised with patterns that are identical with the decorations seen on the bronze vessels. Single pots are covered with a thin glaze - the earliest examples of glazed pottery in China.
Lacquerware is determined to decay easily, and there are only single surviving fragments being discovered in Shang tombs.
Shang buildings and palaces as discovered in Anyang and Erligang were already huge buildings that were entirely made of perishable materials. The basement was pounded earth (hangtu 夯土), and the main pillars were protected from rotting by a stone base. Royal tombs as constructed in the last period of Shang were huge complexes with a deep shaft and longs ramps leading down into the burial chamber.
Shang ritual bronze vessel, jia type
Shang ritual bronze vessel, jia 斝 type
Rubbing of a taotie monster face pattern from a Shang period vessel
Rubbing of a taotie 饕餮 monster face pattern
Examples of animal-shaped nephrite (jade) utensils, Shang period
Examples of animal-shaped
nephrite (jade) utensils
Bronze mask of the Sanxingdui Culture
Bronze mask of the Sanxingdui Culture
Ceramic zun type pot with leiwen 雷文 pattern
Ceramic zun 尊 type pot with leiwen 雷文 pattern

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