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Ancient China

Bronze zun (ritual wine vessel)

Ancient China includes the Neolithic period (10,000 ­­­-2,000 BC), the Shang dynasty (c. 1500-1050 BC) and the Zhou dynasty (1050-221 BC). The Xia dynasty, alleged to precede the Shang, is not fully documented so its existence is still speculative. Each age was distinct, but common to each period were grand burials for the elite from which a wealth of objects have been excavated.

The Neolithic Period, defined as the age before the use of metal, witnessed a transition from a nomadic existence to one of settled farming. People made different pottery and stone tools in their regional communities. Stone workers employed jade to make prestigious, beautifully polished versions of utilitarian stone tools, such as axes, and also to make implements with possible ceremonial or protective functions. The status of jade continues throughout Chinese history. Pottery also reached a high level with the introduction of the potter’s wheel.

The Shang dynasty was notable for casting bronze using ceramic moulds, a system that required advanced technology and control over labour. Bronze vessels enjoyed high status as ritual vessels to offer food and wine to the spirits of ancestors, whose veneration is a keystone of Chinese culture. Writing was first introduced in the Shang dynasty, cast in bronze or engraved in oracle bones used in divination.

The Zhou dynasty was long and divided into the Western Zhou (c. 1050 – 771 BC), with its capital to the west in Xi’an, and the Eastern Zhou (771—221 BC), with its capital to the east in Luoyang. This period witnessed economic expansion, political struggles, and courtly displays of sumptuous material goods.  This is the age when Confucius and Laozi promulgated philosophies (Confucianism and Daoism), which along with Buddhism (arrived in China by the first century AD) were known as the Three Teachings—the cornerstone of Chinese thought and culture.    

Image caption: Bronze zun (ritual wine vessel)
Possibly from Hunan province, southern China. Shang dynasty, 13th-12th century BC