The Chinese Bronze Age
The country known today as China first saw the formation of states—complex societies ruling over large territories—during its Bronze Age (c. 2000–c. 500 BCE). The ruling families of the dynasties known as the Shang (c. 1600–c. 1050 BCE) and the Zhou (c. 1050–256 BCE) dominated this era. The Shang is the earliest Chinese state mentioned in historical texts and substantiated by archaeological finds. The Zhou dynasty, on the other hand, is remembered as the beginning of China’s classical period, idealized as the model state for the next two thousand years.
Both the Shang and the Zhou relied heavily on bronze objects for their ritual practices. Bronze vessels were wares for sacrificial offerings to ancestors, as well as grave goods buried in funerary rites. From the Zhou period onward, bronze vessels also began to bear inscriptions commemorating battle victories or official appointments by the king.
The fangyi wine container displayed here is an exquisite specimen of a ritual bronze made during the late Shang period. The close study of this fangyi vessel offers a window into the Harvard Art Museums’ collection of Shang and Zhou bronzes—one of the finest in North America—and in turn, into the cultures of the Chinese Bronze Age.
Learn more about the Ancient Chinese Ritual Bronzes at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum here.