|Chinese Bronzes of the Shang and Zhou Periods
No other ancient civilization can rival China in the quantity, decorative variety, and sheer technical sophistication of bronze vessels cast between the 17th and 1st centuries B.C.E. The vessels were used in ritual offerings to the ancestors and other deities performed by the ruling elites of the Shang (ca. 16th century-1050 B.C.E.) and Western Zhou (ca. 1050-771 B.C.E.) dynasties and were thus powerful symbols of political and religious power. The importance of the Shang dynasty in Chinese history rests partly on its writing system, from which the later Chinese script ultimately derives. Inscriptions were recorded both on bones and shells used for divination and also on bronze vessels.
The last Shang capital, occupied between the 13th to 11th centuries B.C.E., was located near the modern city of Anyang in northern Henan Province in north-central China. The excavation of this site over more than sixty years has revealed large palace foundations, bronze-casting workshops, and tombs which have yielded huge quantities of bronzes. The bronzes were cast using a system of ceramic molds unique to China, which allowed both complex shapes and fine decoration. In this technique, multiple molds, carved or impressed with decoration, were assembled around a slightly smaller clay core. Molten bronze was then poured into the space left between the mold and the core, which, on cooling, formed the vessel. During the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.E.), when China was fragmented into numerous states, new techniques were introduced, including inlaying and mercury gilding; the latter was a Chinese invention that spread to the West.