Book: Ceramics - Art or Science? Author: Dr. Stan Jones

8. Ceramic Development in China

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8.11 Shang Dynasty (1,766-1,046 BC)

The Shang Empire lay on the plains on the lower reaches of the Yellow River. It did not have one capital throughout, but several, possibly more than six, fortified city residences. The court was possibly itinerant and may have moved as copper mines developed. The capital of the Shang Dynasty during the reign of T’ang, the founder of the dynasty, and in its first period up to 1600 BC was originally called Po, and is thought to be the present Shangqiu, which is also in Henan Province. However, dates and places are not certain.

The Shang were particularly noted for further development of bronze artifacts. A major impact ceramics had on the Shang Dynasty was in the ceramic-based heating technology needed to produce bronze objects, and the ceramics needed for bronze smelting (crucibles) and precise moulds for casting – the two trades, potting and smelting worked well together. The excavation of a forge near Zhengzhou unearthed 1,000 pottery moulds and an enormous number of pottery crucibles. The prestige of owning bronze objects was derived in part from the obvious political control one displayed over the whole labour-intensive process of their production (ore miners, fuel providers, ceramists and foundry workers). The possession of bronze was a monopoly of the ruler and his associates – only the small elite that could afford it.

The Shang was a military autocracy, so hereditary monarchs who were supreme head of the army and ritual ruled the State.  Worship of Royal Ancestors was the central ritual. The culture placed a great emphasis on hierarchy, social discipline and central direction in all walks of life. It was very much a “dependant society” with a Patriarchal Ruler who nevertheless could raise an army of several thousand soldiers. It was a warlike and sometimes brutal culture, having bronze weapons and, after 1,200 BC, chariots. These had probably come from Indo-European contacts, as chariots appear to have originated in the Caucasus.

There were two further Shang periods, named after likely capital cities, Erligang, about 100 miles east of Erhlitou, near Zhengzhou, known also as Middle Shang (1,600-1,300 BC), and Anyang or Late Shang (1,300-1,100 BC).

Map of Shang Dynasty - courtesy Thomas Lessman,

Map of Shang Dynasty - courtesy Thomas

The city and palace at Erligang had enormous earth fortifications that took 10,000 men 12 years to build. Here massive Royal Tombs and ordinary cemeteries yielded vast quantities of artefacts including pottery. In the city were workshops for potters as well as bronze forges. During the era of middle Shang, their culture and influence spread North West, North East and South, so that by 1,400 BC a relatively homogenous culture united the Bronze Age elite throughout much of China.

In late Shang the kings ruled from a cluster of sites in Northern Henan. One, now a village called Hsiao-T’un, west of Anyang, is thought to be Yin Hsu, ”the ruins of Yin”, which formed the seat of the last nine or so Shang kings (1,200-1,046 BC). The Yin was the name given to the Shang by their successors, the Zhou Dynasty. At Hsiao-T’un there was a temple/palace and network of surrounding settlements where sophisticated ceramic and bronze vessels were discovered. This era had especially luxurious tombs to reflect higher social level, which contained everything needed for daily existence in the afterlife. In an area near the temple there were royal pit tombs 42 feet deep. Smaller tombs were for the lesser elite and people still lower in the social order were thrown into refuse pits! Sixteen bronze chariots were buried with a member of the royal family around 1,200 BC. Near one grave, for a queen, there were the remains of 1,500 human sacrifices and 20 other animals in sacrificial pits. Also at Hsiao-T’un, Shang divination inscriptions form the earliest body of pictographic Chinese writing yet known

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