Week II: Part 1


Key Works:

  • The City of Anyang
  • Bronze Fang Ding from Anyang


    READING: La Plante, Asian Art, pp. 84-99.

    HISTORY: Historic Period: The Three Dynasties


    TIME LINE: (c. 1300-1000 B.C.)

    NOTES: Ask yourself how art produced by the aristocracy in ancient China relates to political practice and spiritual beliefs about nature and family.

    FURTHER READING: Chang, K.C., Shang Civilization, New Haven, l980.

    NOTES on Orthodox History:

    When human beings became aware of themselves as a cultural community, they formulated ideas of the past, to explain how they became what they were. What relation have their ideas of the past to the ideas of modern outsiders? The following notions are important in the stories of antiquity and recount some of the most cherished values of Chinese civilization:

    The sage-kings of the legends are nothing less than symbols of the most typical acrtivities and cherished values of Chinese aristocratic civilization. Why they became typical and why they became cherished are questions that moderns ask.

    Adapted from: Levenson, J. R., and F. Schurmann, China: An Interpretive History, Berkeley, 1975, pp. 5-7.


    The fang ding pictured here is a bronze ritual vessel excavated from the tomb of Lady Hao in 1976 at Anyang, Henan Province, in north China. It was a tomb of modest scale by comparison to the great royal tombs opened there in the late 1920's and 1930's. Its undisturbed chamber yielded a tremendous amount of magnificent tomb furniture, however, making it the bestpreserved of any tomb ever excavated at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1300-1050 BCE).

    The pit is an oblong shaft with a measurement of 5.6 by 4 meters. Along both the eastern and western walls at a depth of about 6.2 meters was an elongated niche with several sacrifices: sixteen humans beings and six dogs. Tomb furniture was placed in eight layers both above and on the chamber top, in the chamber between its walls and the coffin, and inside the coffin itself. Altogether there were 1900 pieces of which about 460 were sacral bronze vessels, tools and weapons, almost 750 were jade, and about 560 were bone objects, plus some sculptures and ivory carvings. In addition, there were five pottery vessels and nearly 6,900 cowrie shells, presumably used as currency. The immense wealth of this tomb and others at Anyang indicates that the Shang had control of and created great resources.

    The Shang elite are considered the rulers of the first archaeologically identifiable state (dynasty) in East Asia--in the central Yellow river Basin in north China. Knowledge about these people can be gleaned from the inscriptions found on some of the bronze vessels, from writing on animal bones or turtle shells which were used for taking oracles (the questions and answers asked of the ancestors and other spirits inscribed on the surface of the bones), and from the archaeological record. Examples of all these documents were found at Anyang, occupied by the Shang kings from about 1350-1050 BCE.

    The bronzes uncovered in the Tomb of Lady Hao constitute the largest and most complete, intact group of their kind ever discovered at Anyang. Over 190 bear inscriptions which refer to "Lady Hao" and suggest her status and death date. She was a well-known consort of King Wu Ding (c. 1200 BCE) and a general when she died somewhat before the King. The consistency of materials found in her tomb and other materials excavated at the site confirm her acceptance into the Shang elite--she used the clan emblem, the taotie--and yet probably retained cultural affiliation with her non-Shang parent culture as marked by the jade hawk, frontier-style bronze knives, horse gear and mirrors found in the tomb in association with her personal effects.

    Anyang was a ceremonial center which included the royal burial grounds as well as official temples and palaces built on pounded earth platforms. The Shang faith was shamanism which required offerings of food and entertainment to the ancestors; to deceased great men, and to deities of rain, water, rivers, wind and stars who lived in the cosmos and could be appealed to, but also had to be appeased. The wu--seers, medicine men, and/or sorcerers--and their associates--the diviners who predicted the future--were mediums between the supernatural and human worlds. These ritual leaders could write and keep accounts as well as served as archivists and historians.

    Rituals and burial at Anyang paid homage to ancestors and to spirits of the natural world, and the materials used at these ceremonies were specially decorated with the two-eyed mask called a tao-tie, probably the emblem of the ruling clan. Presumably by claiming that communication with the spirit world including ancestors was possible only through use of precious sumptuary bronzes, the elite were able to create and maintain their status separate from the masses. Because they controlled the production of bronze as well as the ceremonies which made use of bronze vessels and weapons, they demonstrated their dual power--access to the spirit world and military domination.

    Archaeological finds at Anyang reveal ceremonial functions rather than administrative ones such as witnessed at other ancient centers such as those in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and at Mohenjo-daro. Not only were royalty and their retinue buried there, the artifacts necessary to legitimate ritual were produced there. Bronze foundries, bone, stone and ivory workshops were excavated in the center.


    The industries used to make the sacral vessels and implements of ritual were located in Anyang itself. Bronze production was a highly sophisticated activity requiring a large team of specialists coordinated by some central authority: miners; persons to refine the copper, tin and lead ores for the alloy; designers; metallurgists who advised on the percentages of metals desirable to produce the complicated shapes with intricate designs on their surfaces. The process used was a sophisticated piece-mould method of casting which depended on very intimate knowledge of the properties of different clays. The designer produced an exact model of the desired final product in fine clay, complete with the incised designs on the surface. Heavy clay was packed around a core forming a mould. Space between the two was created by pinning the model and mould apart. That entire assemblage was packed in sand, heated and the molten bronze was poured into the opening to form the sacred vessel. After cooling, relief designs details on the surface of the bronze were filed and polished to produce a clean-lined design and shiny surface.

    From: K. Linduff,"Ancient China," in Art Past / Art Present , by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 4th ed., 2000.