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Chinese Bronze Age began over 4,000 years ago

Author  :  HAN JIANYE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-11-02

The Bronze Age is an era in human history characterized by the use of bronze. The period was conceptualized by Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in the early 19th century, falling between the ages of stone and iron. The important concept of the Bronze Age has been used since the beginning of Chinese archaeology, but opinions still vary regarding many basic issues, such as when the age started in China and what features it had.

Eurasian perspective

In his 1925 publication Preliminary Report on Archaeological Research in Kansu [Gansu], Swedish geologist and archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson divided the prehistory of Kansu into six stages, adding that the later three stages of Hsin Tien [Xindian], Ssu Wa [Siwa], and Sha Ching [Shajing] saw a transition from the use of copper and stone to the early Bronze Age. In 1945, renowned Chinese scholar Guo Moruo said in his book Bronze Age that the starting point of the Chinese Bronze Age can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) and perhaps further.

In 1963, archaeologist Guo Baojun argued in The Chinese Bronze Age that the Bronze Age in China should begin in the early Shang Dynasty. In 1979, the textbook Archaeology of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, compiled by the archaeology teaching and research department at Peking University’s Department of History, made it clear that the Erlitou Culture (c. 2100–1700 BCE) had entered the Bronze Age. Famed Harvard professor of archaeology Kwang-chih Chang held the same view in his monograph The Chinese Bronze Age. In 1984, archaeologist Li Xiandeng contended that the Bronze Age started in the late Henan Longshan Culture (c. 2600–2000 BCE) period, a type of the broader Longshan Culture (c. 3000–2000 BCE).

Now, academia generally admits that the Bronze Age existed in both China and the western part of the Eurasian continent. Most scholars maintain that the Chinese Bronze Age developed outward from the Erlitou Culture.

Based on extant archaeological materials, West Asia and Southeast Europe were the first regions to use copper and bronze objects. Copperwares made of native copper existed more than 10,000 years ago. Smelting of fine copper started 7,000 years ago, and humans became capable of making bronzes over 6,000 years ago. The Bronze Age in these regions began more than 5,000 years ago.

In China, the earliest copper artifacts, dating more than 6,000 years ago, were discovered at the Jiangzhai site, Lintong, in Shaanxi Province. The earliest bronze knife was unearthed at the Linjia site in Dongxiang County, Linxia, Gansu Province, but it dated less than 5,000 years ago. Both copper and bronze artifacts appeared later in China than in the West and were likely subject to Western influence.

Therefore, the Bronze Age began later in China than in the West. But whether it was as late as more than 3,000 years ago and whether it likely began more than 4,000 years ago, or during the Longshan Culture period, requires factual analysis based on increased archaeological findings.

Archaeological evidence

The eastward transmission of the Western Bronze Age was supposed to reach China’s Xinjiang first, and then reach the Central Plains via locations such as Gansu and Qinghai.

The Chemurchek Culture in northern Xinjiang dated as far back as 4,500 years ago. From burials in Chemurchek and Burjin County in Altay, Xinjiang, copper objects like arrowheads, knives, and swords, alongside stone molds for casting shovels, knives, and awls were unearthed. Archaeologists share the consensus that the Chemurcheck Culture belonged to the Bronze Age.

Around 4,000 years ago, a large number of tin and arsenic bronze artifacts were uncovered from the Tianshanbeilu Culture, which was formed out of the east-west convergence in eastern Xinjiang and was also undoubtedly part of the Bronze Age.

Moreover, many bronze pieces and smelting and casting remains of the late Longshan Culture period were found in the Yellow River Basin, dated as early as 4,200 years before the present, but Xinjiang entered the Bronze Age earlier.

Periodization and technology

The Chinese Bronze Age ran roughly from 4,500 to 3,000 year ago, and can be divided into the early, middle, and late periods. The early period started from approximately 4,500 to 3,800 years ago, including the Chemurcheck, Tianshanbeilu, and Gumugou–Xiaohe cultures in Xinjiang, and the Machan type of the Majiayao Culture, the middle Qijia Culture period, the late Taosi Culture, and other cultural periods in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins. Tin and arsenic bronze pieces were found in these cultures, along with red bronzes. The Yellow River and Yangtze River basins ushered in the Bronze Age around 4,200 years ago, basically when the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE) was founded.

The middle Bronze Age was between about 3,800 and 3,400 years ago, roughly aligning with the late Xia Dynasty, including the Andronovo Culture and the late periods of the Chemurcheck, Tianshanbeilu, and Gumugou–Xiaohe cultures in Xinjiang as well as the late Qijia Culture period and Siba Culture in the Gansu-Qinghai area, the Zhukaigou Culture in northern China, and the Erlitou Culture in the Central Plains. Bronzes replaced copper objects as the predominant wares during this period.

The late stage of the Bronze Age was from approximately 3,400 to 3,000 years ago, generally equivalent to the Shang Dynasty, including the Jirentaigoukou Culture, the early Yanbulak Culture, and the early Subeishi Culture. Bronze culture peaked in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins in this stage.

Although the Chinese Bronze Age includes a myriad of archaeological cultures, it can roughly be divided into two technical systems in terms of smelting and casting techniques and artifact styles. The first system was marked by bronze objects like tools, weapons, and ornaments cast from molds made of two parts, which directly originated from the West. Such bronzes were distributed in the vast area of northwestern China and in the Eurasian Steppe.

In the second system, bronze vessels were made through the composite piece mold technique. This technique was invented around the establishment of the Xia Dynasty in the Central Plains and extended to the vast area of the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and western Liaohe River basins starting from the Shang Dynasty.

Legend goes that King Yu of the Xia Dynasty, or his son Qi, cast nine ding (food cauldrons) to represent the nine provinces that Yu divided the land into after he brought the primordial floods under control around 2200 BCE. The discovery of bronze vessels dating to the later Longshan Culture period in archaeological sites like Taosi and Wangchenggang indicate that the legend is probably linked to historical facts.

Imported from the West, techniques of casting bronze weapons and tools were developed into crafting ritual vessels in the Central Plains of China to objectify the social order, which was a salient feature of the Chinese Bronze Age.

Drastic changes on many fronts

As a major era in the archaeological sense, the Bronze Age was certainly not only about bronzewares. More importantly, it witnessed notable cultural and social changes at that time. More than 5,000 years ago, West Asia entered the Bronze Age, meanwhile the Sumerian civilization was brought into being, entering the early state stage.

However, also more than 5,000 years ago, before the Bronze Age began in China, the Chinese civilization, as represented by two super-large central settlements of Nanzuo and Liangzhu, were already in existence, so the Bronze Age and the formation of civilization were not synchronous.

Nonetheless, when China entered the Bronze Age, particularly when the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins entered the Bronze Age around 4,000 years ago, drastic changes took place in technology, the economy, cultural patterns, and social formation. I used to dub these remarkable changes as the Chinese “Bronze Age Revolution.”

Technically, as bronze-casting techniques were quickly popularized, pottery-making craftsmanship was on the wane after its zenith, probably because the focus of handicrafts was shifting following the introduction of bronze-casting techniques. People in the upper class of society were more willing to use bronze artifacts, instead of pottery, to distinguish themselves.

In terms of economic changes, animal husbandry emerged and developed rapidly. The Bronze Age in Xinjiang was basically characterized by an animal husbandry economy, or semi-agricultural and semi-pastoral economy. Even the eastern Hexi Corridor as well as areas to the corridor’s east, which previously relied on agriculture, partly turned to animal husbandry at this moment. At the Huangchengtai site of the Shimao ruins in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, skeletons from about 300,000 sheep were unearthed, suggesting the great supporting role of animal husbandry in the developed Shimao society. In addition, dryland farming extended southward; especially, the scope of planting wheat from the West was evidently widened.

Regarding the cultural landscape, many cultures headed southward, such as the Laohushan Culture of northern China, the Wangwan III Culture of the Central Plains, and the Zaolyutai Culture of eastern Henan and northern Anhui provinces. The movements were accompanied by southward population migrations and big wars, resulting in the reshaping of Chinese cultural and demographic structures more than 4,000 years ago.

Changes in social formation refer to the establishment of the Xia Dynasty with the Central Plains at the core and the emergence of a paramount kingship commanding “Tianxia” (All under Heaven) over 4,000 years ago, as China had transitioned from a proto-state to a kingdom, and from an early civilized society to a mature one.

More than 4,000 years ago, the world also saw a global “Little Ice Age.” The climate in the East Asia monsoon region was significantly dry and cold. The formation of the Bronze Age in China should be inseparable from this climatic background.


Han Jianye is a professor from the School of History at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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