Shang Dynasty Develops Writing and Bronzework Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Shang begin writing in the form of oracle-bone inscriptions and engravings on bronze objects, such as ritual vessels and weapons, becoming the first Chinese dynasty that can be archaeologically authenticated.

Summary of Event

In the Neolithic era, several cultures began to develop in China. Chinese histories refer to the oldest dynasties as the Xia (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.) and the Shang (c. 1600-1066 b.c.e.), both of which were considered mythical until the nineteenth century. The finding of characters or buci written on oracle bones in the winter of 1899 in Henan Province on the site of Yinxu (Yin-Hsü), the presumed last capital of the Shang Dynasty, provided early evidence that it had indeed existed. Subsequent findings of more oracle bones along with bronze vessels gave substantial information about that civilization.

The buci are the only inscriptions to have survived from the Shang era (court records were transcribed onto bamboo rolls, which have long gone to dust). They consist of inscriptions added after the bones or turtle shells had been fired, and were apparently intended to serve as the proper interpretation of the crack patterns the heat had created. The inscription of the buci appears to have followed an established practice, and included the date of the divination, the name of the oracle who had performed the ceremony, and two statements with opposite meaning, such as “the king’s hunt will be successful” and “the king’s hunt will yield nothing.” The information stops here. Although the names of at least one hundred oracles have been collated, how they interacted within their caste and how they read the gods’ answer to the two propositions is unclear. While there are drawings or patterns older than the buci, thus far no equivalent form of writing preceding the Shang Dynasty has been discovered.

When Chinese peasants first discovered the oracle bones in the nineteenth century, they thought these were the remains of a mythical dragon, and ground them into powder for sale as elixir ingredients. Nonetheless, some three thousand pieces were sent to Shanghai, where expert Liu E collected them in a book published in 1903. Archaeologists Lo Chenyu, Wang Guowei, and Dong Zobin pioneered their decipherment. Similar characters found on bronze urns were dated back to the thirteenth century b.c.e. The oldest system, though, utilized turtle shells, and included some three thousand to four thousand characters, about half of which have been deciphered to date.

Like the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, the Chinese writing system originated in pictograms. However, the Chinese language structure, which emphasizes monosyllables, allowed the Chinese system to follow and maintain the principle that each syllable had its own character. The writings dating back to the Shang era differ from modern characters, although the principles of writing are the same and their modern script equivalents do exist. There are several groups of characters. Initially, the Shang writings were very close to pictograms. The sun, for example, was a circle with a horizontal bar crossing through it. In addition, there are also some identifiable ideographs—that is, characters that express an idea or a concept rather than an actual thing, such as “one,” “two,” or “three” (one, two, or three horizontal bars atop one another). Some ideographs could use pictographs to represent an idea. For example, the combination of drawings of a woman and a roof meant “safety.” Some pictograms refer to sounds, which is why some Chinese words are homonyms, for they use the same character, are pronounced the same, yet have different meanings. Finally, some characters are used to hint at the phonetic pronunciation of the word, while others form a radical, which allows readers to place the word in a certain category.

The discovery of the buci raised new questions about the appearance of writing in China. One theory alludes to the idea of a set of visual characters inspired from Mesopotamian cuneiform that first appeared around 4000 b.c.e. Although the pictograms themselves did not travel, experts who hold this theory consider that, over the centuries, the notion of such a system could have made its way to the Chinese mainland. This does not, however, explain why it was the Shang, rather than the previous dynasty, who implemented a writing system. A combination of factors, including an increase in territory, a stronger centralized power, and economic stability, may have set the stage for seeking to devise a way to transmit and control information that would ensure survival of the dynasty.

Shang culture is also associated with the beginning of the Bronze Age in China, as evidenced by the discovery of weapons and elaborate ceremonial vessels. The discovery of the metal probably dates back to 2000 b.c.e., but it first began to be worked into artifacts under the Shang. The vessels discovered at Yinxu are often of great size, with relief lines, drawings, and pictograms. Although most surviving Shang writing is found on oracle bones, early bronze vessels also display them, alongside representations of animal faces. The latter pattern departs from other Bronze Age civilizations in that, rather than the animal’s profile, a frontal, angular representation was chosen, making it into a masklike figure.

Some bronzes had a clear influence in Shang pottery. When considering this information in the context of bronze findings in graves, one can compare and contrast Shang influence in specific regions.

Throughout the twentieth century, a series of bronze finds in areas beyond Yinxu allowed scholars to piece together some of the boundaries of the Shang and to show that it came into contact and conflict with predynastic Chou (Ch’ou) cultures along its western borders, as evidenced by the change in style and patterns of later pottery and bronzes. For example, some Shang style bronzes found in 1976 at the Lingzhi (Ling-Shih) site show different clan emblems not associated with the Shang, suggesting that they had become part of the spoils of war of enemies of the Shang.

Shang craftspeople also worked bronze into weapons such as battle axes and knives, though it appears that they had no bronze daggers initially. These weapons were found mostly on both sides of the Yellow River. Ladles and dippers, important in certain Shang rituals, had snake and frog motifs on the handle. The style they used in shaping their tools and weapons, however, had allowed experts to speculate about the influence and counterinfluence of both succeeding and contemporary cultures on the Shang. Such relationships are not always clear, however, as in the case between the Karasuk and the Yinxu Shang: Although both cultures had similar elements in their bronze designs, they displayed little commonality otherwise.

Other kinds of bronze objects include musical instruments. In particular the nao bell, also known, depending on the region of its find, as the cheng or the chung, remained in use throughout the succeeding Western (1066-771 b.c.e.) and Eastern Zhou (Chou; 770-256 b.c.e.) Dynasties. Nao have been found in southern China and include designs with animal masks. These are fairly large, at least 1 to 2 feet (31 to 62 centimeters) in diameter, and weigh anywhere from 30 to 300 pounds (14 to 136 kilograms). Their ceremonial function included military assembly (striking them to call up the troops), sacrifices, and feasts.


The complicated nature of the Chinese script meant that it took an extremely long time to learn (one needs at least two thousand of the sixty thousand or so characters in existence to be able to read texts). Consequently, only very few members of society were able to master it. On the other hand, the complex nature of the script gave it a special aesthetic value, one that evolved from the oracle-bone writings into the recognized art of calligraphy. In addition, its use by later dynasties as a means of administration made possible the centralization of Chinese bureaucratic practices and overcame the dialects in use throughout China.

The written evidence offered in the oracle bones is further complemented through the multiple bronze artifacts to show the deep religiosity of the Shang people. Multiple worship of the winds, the stars, and their immediate surroundings, as well as the cult of the ancestors explain why the Shang required numbers of ceremonial vessels (and sacrificial victims), to construct the social and religious boundaries of their world. Some of their practices, including the working of bronze, the writing, and the cult of the ancestors, would pass onto subsequent dynasties.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. An illustrated book that surveys the myths of Shang China and clarifies some of the foundations of the notion of yin and yang.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chang, K. C., ed. Studies in Shang Archeology. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A collection of essays by specialists in the field of Shang China, based on a conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keightley, David N. The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China c. 1200-1045 b.c. Berkeley, Calif.: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2000. Deepens the investigation of the author’s 1978 work by further discussing the religious social and cultural contexts of the oracle-bone inscriptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keightley, David N. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. A foundational book on the interpretation and use of divination in Shang China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. The standard work for any introduction to the study of ancient China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawson, Jessica, ed. Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties. New York: G. Braziller, 1996. A helpful illustrated guide to artifacts used in the study of early Chinese civilizations.

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