Bronze and the Shang Dynasty

Bronze and the Shang Dynasty

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Bronze and the Shang Dynasty


A societies use of the materials surrounding them is imperative to their success as a prominent civilization. The reign of the Shang dynasty roughly began around c1600- c1050bc, during this time the middle class artisans devoted much of their time to perfecting bronze work for ritualistic purposes as well as military basis; while the Shang kings and nobles held positions of high power and prestige over the common day labourer. The kings were thought as having a special connection with the ancestors of the past and were highly respected. The common Shang dynasty labourer lived a very hard and tedious life, like the common Egyptian, everything was done to please the king. Unfortunately, the Shang kings were very harsh on the people and some even referred to the Shang dynasty as 'the Slave dynasty' because the nobility had so much control over the common day workers, they had no shame in sacrificing other humans for ritualistic practices. As well, the Shang people were also occupied with every day tasks such as hunting for food and an early form of farming. Evidence of the Shang peoples everyday life were found at An yang, the Shang capital city, inscribed oracle bones presented a picture of constant bickering with other groups around and even war. Modern day archaeologists have come to the conclusion that the bronze work of the Shang was very well crafted and elite at its time, thousands of Shang bronzes survives today. The influence of bronze on the Shang people's everyday life, weaponry and art established a reputation of leadership among this group of people.

The Shang people's everyday life was very religious and trying. The rulers had a great amount of power over the people and controlled much of what they did in their day-to-day chores. The Shang elites and artisans devoted much of their time to perfecting bronze work. The elites "organization was apparent because Shang rulers had to mobilize men and material to mine, transport, and refine the ores, to manufacture and tool the clay models, cores and moulds used in the casting process and to run the foundries." (Buckley 129) The mining of ore used to make bronze was done by the poorer classes and looked after by the noble class. The Shang people were able to organize themselves and get to the resources that they needed. Through study, it is evident that the lower class of the Shang people worked very hard "mining required labourers on hands and knees to drag their heavy ore sleds out through cramped and unventilated tunnels.

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" (Morton 98) Without much complaint, the Shang people worked hard at getting the needed materials for bronze making, the Shang people made beautiful ritual vessels and religious masks for the king to use in ceremonies that communicated with dead ancestors. Communication with the ancestors was very important to the Shang because if the proper respects were not paid, the spirits of the ancestors would haunt the living. Rituals were extremely important to the Shang, they were a part of their every day life, "when a priest or ruler communicated with the spirits of the ancestors to secure their help and guidance he often wore a taotie mask of bronze" (Morton 155) Many Taotie masks have been uncovered and are still in magnificent condition. The Shang people would do anything for religious purposes; artifacts of bronze were most likely crafted for their religious rituals.

Bronze aided the Shang in crafting leading bronze military instruments. One of these was a very effective chariot which the "late Shang, about 1200bc used a 2 horse bronze war chariot, bronze fittings made the chariot motile." (Watson 235) The Shang manipulation of Bronze helped them to take a basic war chariot and improve it to benefit their needs. With this advancement in making the chariot more useful to them, they over came enemies in battle who had inferior transport, because they could transfer their warriors faster and with ease to the battle. The Shang also crafted "spears with bronze blades and the great axes used also for ceremonial decapitation of victims, but characters on bronze vessels hint that Shang bows were of the reflex or compound type, which deliver great power for a shorter bow length than the simple longbow." (Morton 56) The Shang, with the use of bronze, the Shang people shaped advanced weapons of great destruction which were used in combat against their enemies, since the Shang people could use bronze to their advantage, they maintained themselves as a prominent society at the time. One weapon that was found in great abundance was the Ge, or halberd. "This pole weapon has a blade of bronze blended with another material mounted at the right angles to the shaft, with a tang at the rear passing through the shaft, with a tang at the rear passing through the shaft." (Watson 298) The Ge was a very popular weapon and was found throughout the Shang region, it was mainly used for ceremonial purposes rather than being a weapon of devastation, it was a weapon of beauty. The Shang superior use of bronze aided The Shang in defending themselves.

The principle glories of the Shang dynasty were their art made of bronze. The most famous Shang bronze artifacts are "the magnificent vessels of bronze. These vessels, in a number of carefully prescribed shapes, were designed primarily for use in sacrifice to ancestors and gods." (Schafer 78) The Shang crafted beautiful, elite bronze vessels for use in their everyday rituals. The Shang respected their gods and felt that their gods deserved the best, which is most likely why Shang artisans took so much time and effort to create these wonderful vessels. Additionally, the Shang nobles lived in great luxury over the average day labourers, so "they (bronze) were also used to mark occasions of royal favour, such as the granting of a fief or an honor to another noble. Possession of anything bronze was a conspicuous sign of wealth and a means of preserving it in the family." (Schafer 22) Bronze, at the time was probably the most precious metal available to the Shang people, all the nobles had many bronze artifacts and the labourers often longed for them. As more bronze objects were crafted a cultural change became evident, people were now more interested in art. The Shang dynasty clearly had the upper hand on the rest of the world at this time in their bronze crafting, "not even the superb artisans of the Italian Renaissance could match the shang dynasty's technique of Casting bronze with its patterns and lines formed by square- not rounded grooves, perfect trenches with perpendicular sides and flat bottoms." (Watson 79) During the Shang age, bronze working attained an extremely high standard, while in other parts of the world the progress of bronze casting scarcely excelled. The Shang people refined bronze making to an art making them leading craftsmen of the time.

The Shang dynasty's manipulation of bronze through their daily life, weaponry and art made them an elite group of people in their time. In their daily ritualistic lives, they employed bronze in ways that no one else in the world would have thought to use it, in battles, the Shang crafted weapons that worked very effectively and definitely aided them in their plight, as well, Shang art was and is today among the most elite in the world because of their ability to find new methods making improvements upon improvements. Success in this civilization was obtained through hard work and lots of patience.

Works Cited

Buckley, Ebrey, Patricia. The Cambridge Illustrated History Of China. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. London: Belknap Harvard, 1992.
Morton, W. Scott. China: Its History And Culture. New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980.
Schafer, Edward H. Ancient China. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.
Shang [http://www.china-contact.com/www/history/shang.html] December 2000.
Watson, William. Early Civilization In China. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
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