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1.5: Three Bronze Age Imports

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    At the beginning of East Asian history proper, three key imports propelled the Shang people to dominance, both before and at the precise moment when they began to write things down. They were bronze, domesticated horses, and chariots.

    Bronze was a key characteristic of Shang civilization; in fact, the Chinese bronze age involved more bronze than anywhere else in the world. To make bronze, you locate copper ore, separate it from other elements, combine it with some tin and/or lead, and either pour it into a mold or pound it to create weapons, tools, ornaments, and vessels. Copper melts at a lower temperature than iron, so humans used it earlier. Starting in the Middle East, the technology travelled across the steppe highway. We know that because the earliest bronze in what is now China was made in around 2800 BC in Gansu: a knife of copper alloyed with tin. Gansu is in the western part of the mainland (look at the map). Metallurgy travelled eastwards slowly, so that bronze vessels for ritual offerings were made by the Erlitou culture from about 1900 BC to 1600 BC. The large bronze workshops of the Erligang culture, called the Shang dynasty (1554 BC 1045 BC), used coal for fuel. Reflecting the technology’s importation from the steppe zone, Shang bronzes included imported styles, as well. For instance, mirrors – round bronze disks flat and polished on one side – were made in steppe style until about 650 BC. (Remember this: mirrors will come up again.) Bronze vessels and mirrors created awe. Bronze swords and spears enabled the early Shang, from around 1500 BC to 1300 BC, to achieve a loose domination over the many different cultural groups along the Yellow River and down to the Yangzi River.

    We know that the Shang had some kind of pre-eminence among the regional cultures of the interaction sphere partly because, alongside their own local pottery styles, these groups had some bronze vessels, used for ritual sacrifices, that are exactly like those of the Shang. For a century or so Shang dominance slackened, as the local cultures imitated their organizational successes; again, we know this because regional bronze styles appear from about 1300-1200. Innovations include huge bronze bells produced by the cultures along the Yangzi, which added music to make ritual more moving and impressive. By this time, mainland culture already included elements from the Central Asian steppe and from a variety of northern and southern peoples.

    Around 1200 BC, the Shang reasserted their predominance, again through imports: chariots drawn by horses. In the Near East, wheeled carts drawn by oxen were invented by about 4000 BC, and by about 1350 (at the time of Tutankhamen) they had spoked wheels (making them light enough to be fast enough for war). In about 1200 BC, under King Wu Ding, the Shang began to use chariots for warfare. They are almost exactly the same as chariots used earlier in the Caucasus, and they must have been imports, because until that time, there is no evidence in East Asia of wheeled vehicles or of vehicles pulled by animals. Shang relied first on outside equestrian experts, perhaps from Central Asia, who brought domesticated horses (there had been wild horses in North China, which native water buffalo in the south went extinct10) and taught Shang people how to rear and manage them as well as how to build and fight from chariots. Horseback riding came a couple of centuries later.11

    Chariots were made of wood with bronze fittings and with spoked wheels for lightness. They were covered with lacquer ornamentation. The floors were of wood or sometimes (as also in Egypt) of plaited leather to absorb some of the shocks. It is quite clear that the chariot, and the skills to manage its horses, came into China from the Middle East via central Asia. The word for chariot che 車 was *klyag and comes from old Iranian, which came from Indo-European *kwel and also led to Greek-derived words in English like “cycle,” “wheel,” and “vehicle.” (At the same time, Chinese inventions and the words for them were going west: silk, old Chinese *sye(g) serikos and China was known as the land of the Seres, the silk-makers.)

    Archaeologists have even found some of the people who might have served as intermediaries. Naturally mummified corpses dating to 2000-500 BC in the Turfan area have light-colored or even blonde hair, high noses, pale skins, and full beards. A baby buried with blue glass placed over its eyes may have had blue eyes. Some (about 1000 BC) wore plaid. They may have been the ancestors of Central Asian Tokharians, who spoke a language is related to Celtic and other European languages. The theory is that ancestors of Celts and Tokharians started somewhere between China and Europe and travelled in both directions. By 400 BC they were in Ireland.

    The Central Asian experts may also have brought the idea for the fourth new technology: writing. Some Yangshao pottery had incised signs that look a little bit like Shang characters for 五five, 大 big, 井 water-well, 日sun, and 田field, and others. Scholars are still debating whether they gave rise to the full-sentence inscriptions of the reign of the twenty-first Shang King, Wu Ding, in about 1200 BC.12 Probably Shang scribes did write on materials other than bone, such as silk, but no such writings have survived. In any case, it is only with those longer, legible texts on the oracle bones that we can begin to do history, supplementing our study of words with knowledge of material culture drawn from archaeology and art history.

    This page titled 1.5: Three Bronze Age Imports is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.