In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art and Archaeology of the Bronze Age in China

  • Introduction

Art History Art and Archaeology of the Bronze Age in China
Robert Thorp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0167


“China” here designates much but not all of China Proper or Inner China, terrain controlled during the Imperial era (221 BCE to CE 1912) by historic dynastic states. Vast regions to the northeast, north, and west—Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet—are excluded even though they are now integral to the modern-day nation-state. Similarly, we slight areas of the south, for example the modern-day Lingnan and Yun-Gui macroregions, that only gradually were absorbed after the Bronze Age. In Chinese scholarship, “Bronze Age” (qingtong shidai 青铜时代) serves as an alternate for the “Three Dynasties” (san dai 三代) of traditional historiography: Xia (Hsia), Shang, and Zhou (Chou). Bracketing dates of c. 2000–221 BCE are now widely used, the first an approximation, the latter firm. Bronze alloy, however, was just one ingredient of material cultures of the Three Dynasties. Other features include the appearance of states, social stratification, urbanization, warfare, and the appearance of iron (the Iron Age), in addition to achievements in literature, music, and philosophy during the latter centuries, a kind of “Classical Age.” Today, “arts” may encompass many forms of crafting materials for a variety of purposes and audiences. This bibliography specifically addresses architecture, bronze, jade, lacquer, and silk as well as music, pictorial representation, and writing. A term from the Bronze Age—“Six Arts” (or “skills,” liu yi 六艺)—defined expertise for an elite male as ritual, music, archery, chariot driving, writing, and calculation. While the overlap between the ancient and modern categories is at best partial, these concepts do intersect in terms of makers and consumers and in social and religious purposes. The elite’s luxury lifestyle was sustained by the “arts.” Ritual required bronze vessels, and the requisite music was performed on instruments of bronze, stone, lacquer, etc. Chariots were outfitted with bronze; writing and picturing employed silk. This bibliography emphasizes Chinese archaeology, both as a discipline and as a realm of knowledge that have burgeoned since the late 20th century. Archaeology creates fresh evidence, which then becomes the stuff of excavation reports, investigative scholarship, exhibitions and museum displays, and reference works. Only some of this bounty can be cited here, and readers are directed to Oxford Bibliographies for Chinese Studies (e.g., Chinese Architecture, Calligraphy, Ceramics, Paleography, Ancient Chinese Religion) for further advice. This essay is limited to publications from 1980 and, when possible, favors English-language sources.

General Overviews

These volumes straddle history and archaeology with some attention to arts. Chang 1980, Hsu and Linduff 1988, and Li 1985 comprise a Yale University Press series entitled “Early Chinese Civilization”; while their data are dated, each has continuing value. Thorp 2006 and Falkenhausen 2006, less tied to historical narratives, are driven by more recent archaeological data through the turn of the century; both explicitly address topics in art history.

  • Chang, K. C. Shang Civilization. Early Chinese Civilization Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

    A major contribution, many of Chang’s insights are now widely embraced. Primary focus on the “Shang Society from An-yang” (chapters 1–4), complemented by chapters on “Shang History beyond An-yang” (chapters 5–7), e.g., the Erligang Culture and developments in other regions.

  • Falkenhausen, Lothar von. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000250 BC): The Archaeological Evidence. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 2006.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvdmwwt6

    A thorough synthesis of archaeological evidence—predominately tombs, their furnishings, and inscriptional data—with which the author engages social archaeology. Falkenhausen also interrogates the theory and practice of archaeology as a discipline and Chinese archaeology as a regional archaeological tradition.

  • Hsu, Cho-yun, and Kathryn Linduff. Western Zhou Civilization. Early Chinese Civilization Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt211qv1d

    Largely a traditional narrative derived from received sources and bronze inscriptions. Coverage of archaeology and the arts is limited to several architectural sites and a chapter on “arts and crafts,” presumably by coauthor Linduff.

  • Li, Xueqin. Eastern Zhou and Qin Civilization. Early Chinese Civilization Series. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Part 1 surveys the archaeology of the various Eastern Zhou states moving clockwise from Royal Zhou at center (modern Luoyang, Henan) to north-east-south-west ending with Qin, while Part 2 is devoted to thirteen media and related topics, an especially useful set of essays deploying traditional antiquarianism and recent archaeology.

  • Thorp, Robert L. China in the Early Bronze Age. Encounters with Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812203615

    An update of Shang studies since Chang 1980, with coverage of the Erlitou Culture (short-changed in that work); discussions throughout of elite crafts as well as bronze ritual vessels. Bibliographic essay.

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