Metallurgical Evolution in Ancient China

This elaborate set of ritual bronzes, consisting of an altar table and thirteen wine vessels, illustrates the splendor of China’s Bronze Age at its peak. Shang dynasty–Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 B.C.). / Metropolitan Museum of Art

China witnessed a sudden surge in mining, smelting, refining, and casting after a lengthy period of incipient development.

By Dr. Ralph D. Sawyer
Senior Research Fellow
University of Massachusetts

Metal and Its Emerging Contributions

For reasons both obvious and subtle, the discovery of metals has always been viewed as a turning point in the history of warfare. Whereas naturally occurring materials such as stone must be laboriously worked and impose numerous constraints because of their weight and inherent characteristics, the ductile properties of metallic alloys convey considerable freedom in designing and fabricating weapons.1 Hammering and forging, the first measures, increased productivity, but casting even in simple individual cavities immediately multiplied the quantity and ensured the uniformity critical to combat. (The slightest change in weight or balance can cause fatal awkwardness when a new weapon is first employed, and arrowheads can stray far off target.) Thereafter, multiple casting dramatically increased productive efficiency, particularly for small, expendable arrowheads.

Coincident with increased population, economic prosperity, and centralized administration, China witnessed a sudden surge in mining, smelting, refining, and casting after a lengthy period of incipient development that resulted in industrial-scale production both in dedicated urban workshops and at a few distant fabrication points. This newly organized, “mass scale manufacturing” did not simply augment older methods, but replaced them, enabling warfare to escape the limitations imposed by craft methods that had relied on laborious hammering, chipping, and shaving. Sustained and perhaps stimulated by the increased availability of effective weapons, the scope and intensity of warfare had already begun to escalate in the Hsia, no doubt prompting increased demand for bronze weapons in a self-reinforcing loop.2

An iron sword and two bronze swords from the Chinese Warring States Period / Wikimedia Commons

Although the emergence of metal weapons constituted a monumental step in the evolution of warfare, the impact of copper-based versions in the Hsia and Shang should not be overestimated. Effectively sharp edges can be produced in stone, bone, and surprisingly even bamboo (which can easily be lethal), and deadly spears with stone tips continued to be employed for centuries even after adequate metallic resources had become available.3 Arrowheads were still being fabricated primarily from bone in the early Chou, and bone and stone continued to predominate in economically impoverished cultures and peripheral areas bereft of metallic resources for centuries more, especially for agricultural implements.

The relatively late appearance of fabricated metal objects in China, in comparison with Russia and the West, has prompted irresolvable arguments about indigenous origination versus diffusion or the hybrid known as “stimulus diffusion.” Apart from issues of national pride, the idea that metallurgical insights are so complex as to be discoverable only once rather than being a common experience of mankind, one not just replicable but repeated in different environments and disparate times, has fanned the dispute. Nevertheless, many Chinese scholars believe that the unique, piece-mold bronze-casting techniques extensively employed to fabricate complex ritual cauldrons in the Shang must have evolved out of advanced ceramic methods and pyro-technology and therefore conclude that Chinese metallurgy is the result of independent discoveries.4

Fortunately, in comparison with questions about technological and productive capabilities and within the greater context of Chinese warfare, this intriguing issue may be deemed somewhat irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should still be noted that Xinjiang in the northwest shows considerable external influence in both alloy composition and object style. Conversely, the metallurgical tradition discernible in more central areas seems to have a strongly indigenous character and may have evolved separately despite the inevitable, sometimes extensive cultural interaction known to have occurred. Furthermore, the advanced bronze technology found in the K’a-yao culture that developed in the Huang-shui river valley south of the Yellow River is itself marked by readily identifiable local elements intermixed with many common to the central plains, north China, and even northern Eurasia.5

Local variation stems from several factors, including environment, lifestyle (agriculturally based or seminomadic), and accessible metal resources, though productive specialization is not necessarily limited by the latter’s availability.Copper, the crucial metal in the so-called Bronze Age revolution, is generally found intermixed with other metals, including tin, lead, arsenic, and antimony, resulting in what might be termed naturally occurring alloys when smelted prior to the evolution of more thorough understanding and craft practices.7 Because human resources and fully processed metallic ores were never unlimited, warfare’s importance within society clearly affected the purpose toward which technological capabilities were directed, including the production of daily utensils, decorative items, ritual bronzes, agricultural implements, and weapons.8

Shang Dynasty dagger / Photo by Daderot, San Diego Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons

Thus, even though Shang production levels quickly escalated, the supply was neither inexpensive nor unlimited, no doubt key factors in the development and use of “semblance” artifacts late in the dynasty. Intended purely for display and for accompanying the dead, these implements never received the usual detailing, sharpening, and polishing associated with Shang dynasty weapons and ritual bronzes. Moreover, being cast from an inferior alloy with a much higher lead content and correspondingly reduced tin portion, they were fundamentally incapable of being perfected to the same degree. (Both rare and expensive, tin provided the essential characteristics of hardness and brittleness, whereas lead facilitated the flow during casting but resulted in a softer product less capable of being sharpened.)9 However, other factors may have contributed to this tendency to inter inferior-quality bronzes, ranging from diminished reverence for the deceased, to growing disdain for spirits of the departed, to an increasingly insatiable demand for copper (especially for weapons), to just outright greed, since semblance bronzes were increasingly seen even in opulent graves.10

Even though other prestige materials such as jade (which played a critical prestige role in Liang-chu culture) might have served equally well, bronze metallurgy soon fulfilled a crucial role in producing ritual objects that could be manipulated by the ruling elite for political purposes. Bronze also became indispensable because it allowed rapid casting of the weapons needed to dominate an increasingly hostile world and critical chariot components. However, although copper smelted with zinc produces brass, a material with especially conducive characteristics for moving components, the fabrication process is far more complex. Despite the recovery of a few (presumably accidental) specimens, it remained far beyond Shang technical capabilities.

Mining activities rapidly expanded, and bronze production soared during the initial reign period at Yen-shih and Cheng-chou. The government established far-flung outposts at Tung-hsia-feng, P’an-lung-ch’eng, and other locales to ensure the security of the raw materials; embarked on predatory campaigns against the Yi to acquire them;11 and apparently refrained from hostile gestures toward Shu so as to ensure an uninterrupted supply of copper from the Sichuan plains and lead from farther afield in Yünnan through Shu’s intermediation.12

The scope of the bronze production facilities at the last capital at Anyang is equally astonishing. Two major, segregated workshops have been excavated, one north of Miao-p’u and the other southeast of Hsiao-min-t’un, which seems to have specialized in casting ritual vessels. Copper-smelting furnaces, molds for bronze casting, and various implements for preparing clay molds and for finishing and polishing the final products have all been found in the 10,000-square-meter work area. A staggering 30,000 molds have also been recovered, many of them composite, as well as numerous cores, including some that produced unusual vessels previously attributed to the early Western Chou.13

The incipient period of Chinese metallurgy ending with the Shang witnessed a progression from small copper decorative items and simple tools such as knives and awls to weapons and large ritual vessels. However, there seems to have been little inclination to divert highly valued metals to agricultural implements despite increasing reliance on agriculture. On the assumption that the Hsia and Shang were slave-based societies, it has been claimed that agricultural implements were never produced because the ruling class feared providing the downtrodden with metal weapons. Although recognizing the essentially convertible nature of agricultural equipment, this explanation amounts to nothing more than an idle projection of envisioned fears and is completely unfounded, because there would be no significant difference in the general effectiveness of stone and metallic variants.

Qin Dynasty bronze swords / Photo by Yprpypg, Wikimedia Commons

Somewhat akin to the controversy over the nonexistence of iron swords, it has also been asserted that bronze’s immense value mandated that broken and worn-out tools be melted down, thereby presumably explaining the absence of bronze agricultural implements at Shang archaeological sites. In contradiction, the recovery of highly decorated, symbolic farm implements presumably employed in ritual performances from a few Shang graves indicates that at least a few molds existed, implying some degree of production. Functional specimens such as plows, adzes, simple spades, shovels, and mattocks have also been found, particularly in peripheral areas where warfare played a lesser role, as well as highly specialized mining tools lying about ancient shafts.14 Accordingly, it would appear that the Shang emphasized weapons of war and the ritual vessels essential to power, resulting in pedestrian agricultural implements continuing to be fabricated from wood, stone, and bone despite more effective shapes, greater sharpness, and greater resilience being possible with metal plows or hoes, but not to the complete exclusion of agricultural needs.

Although disagreement over the origins of Chinese metallurgy and the date of the first identifiable artifacts continues, the Shang clearly benefited from a lengthy heritage of technological development stretching back to the Yangshao (4400 to 2500 BCE) or possibly earlier. A general trend toward achieving a working knowledge of the properties of different metals and mastering the requisite working techniques is apparent from 3000 to 2000 BCE, coincident with the Lungshan period, when the stage of minimal productivity was realized. Nevertheless, arguments about when one or another culture crossed the horizon from the Stone to the Bronze Age and whether to characterize certain centuries as dual use have similarly not abated. However, the question of when the number of bronze implements in circulation became significant enough to label the era “chalcolithic” is largely irrelevant for Chinese military history, because the earliest weapons imitated lethal stone versions, and metal’s ritual role dwarfed its military application, copper and bronze being allocated or diverted to weapons only with warfare’s rising intensity.15

Rather than substantial copper or bronze objects, core evidence for the initial stage of metallurgical development is provided by metal fragments, ore residue, and smelted globules primarily of copper and crudely processed ores. Small items such as small decorative pieces, jewelry, pins, awls, and knives rank next in importance. Again, for the purposes of military history singular appearances are anomalous and irrelevant; only the widespread adoption of new materials in producing weapons has discernible impact. However, in conjunction with the erection of defensive fortifications, early attempts at manufacturing bronze weapons certainly imply a growing concern with external threats and a probable escalation in conflict.

Ancient China has long been recognized for the superlative quality of its massive vessels, precisely cast weapons, and other objects fabricated from various bronze alloys. Although silver did not appear until much later, gold was employed for small decorative items as early as the Shang,16 yet it was glistening, highly burnished bronze that formed the very basis of power. The recovery of a broad axe with a meteoric iron blade affixed in a copper mounting clearly shows that Shang metallurgists recognized iron and were cognizant of its superior hardness. (An early Chou dagger-axe of bronze with a meteoric iron point has also been found.) Nevertheless, despite occasional claims based solely on traditional literary sources that the Hsia and Shang had already commenced smelting and employing it to produce weapons, iron would not be produced until well into the Chou.17

Discerning the existence and effects of the various components in China’s bronze alloys is complicated by the impure nature of the minerals in situ, elements such as tin, arsenic, sulfur, antimony, zinc, and even gold and silver often being found intermixed in copper deposits.18 Alloys combining two or more of these elements in apparently functional proportions may have inadvertently resulted from their presence in the ore. These occurrences tend to obscure the “normal” developmental sequence from copper through copper/tin and copper/lead and then ternary variants; deliberate but collateral intermixing of copper with arsenic and accidental brass formulations further add to the complexity. Only with the passage of centuries did a working knowledge of alloys emerge, enabling the Shang to consistently cast large ritual bronzes and weapons with deliberately chosen, varying degrees of hardness and durability.

Ho-hsi Corridor / Image by Joowwww, Wikimedia Commons

Chinese metallurgical practices evolved in several distinct regions: the northwest in the so-called Ho-hsi corridor of eastern Xinjiang and the immediately contiguous area; between the Yellow River and the Huang-shui River; in the central plains, but really centered in the Yen-shih/Cheng-chou corridor; the lowest reaches of the Yellow River in Shandong; and the southwest, emblematized by the dramatic cultural manifestations of San-hsing-tui.19 However, the most numerous and earliest bronze artifacts, some 1,500 in comparison with only about 200 from the middle reaches of the Yellow River in Yü-hsi, have been found in the northwest, encompassing Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, where some small objects strongly resemble external styles.

Early knowledge of metals and metalworking seems to have been widespread but highly limited in actual application during the third millennium BCE. Copper and primitive bronze alloys came into use between 3000 and 2300 BCE, and the Bronze Age seems to have commenced around 2400 to 2000, though assessments vary.20 In terms of identifiable cultures, only a few early knives have been recovered from Ma-chia-yao (3300-2650) and Ma-ch’ang (2650-2000) cultural sites, while the increased number of artifacts, roughly 130, including axes, knives, daggers, and awls from the Ch’i-chia culture (2200-1800), lying in the intermediate region between the core and the northwest, indicates greater but still sporadic interest in metals. However, the more than 300 copper and bronze objects and the first stone molds discovered at Ssu-pa (1950- 1550) cultural sites, said to be the transmission nexus for steppe and thus Western metallurgical knowledge, mark a transition to metal and stone’s coexistence, at least in consciousness if not in quantity.

In the incipient stage the greatest strides and most extensive production occurred in Xinjiang and especially Gansu, where the majority of early artifacts have been recovered. Based on fragments of crucibles, knives, axes, awls, ornaments, mirrors, small copper items, and partially refined metallic globules, it is generally claimed that copper was already being mined and smelted along the upper Yellow River during the Yangshao and that copper and bronze manufacturing was being conducted at more than forty sites in this general area by the end of the Ch’i-chia culture.21

The first metal alloys have long been identified with Lin-t’ung Chiang-chai, a site that was continuously occupied from the Yangshao through Shih-chia-lei, Miao-ti-kou, and late Pan-p’o.22 Two metal plate fragments dated to about 2700 BCE have been recovered, incontrovertible evidence that metals were already known, but their high zinc content (65 percent copper and 25 percent zinc) makes them somewhat problematic because the knowledge and technology for producing brass objects would not exist for another four millennia due to zinc’s volatility, prompting claims that they could not have been produced in China.23 However, they also have a high sulfur content, indicative of the earliest stages of smelting; the region’s copper sources are marked by the presence of high concentrations of other metals, including zinc;24 and experiments have proven it is possible to produce brass bits identical to those from an awl found in Shandong from locally available, comparatively high-zinc-content ore.25 Subsequently, Ch’i-chia culture in Gansu and later the early Hsia had access to this material.26

Chronologically next in importance would be knife remnants from the definitive Ma-chiao-yao (3400-2000 BCE) cultural site in Gansu, variously dated from 3280 to 2740 BCE but more likely closer to the latter. Hardly primitive, the knife was fabricated from an alloy containing about 6-10 percent tin and cast in a two-part mold indicative of a new orientation to quantity production; it remains the earliest bronze implement yet found. A few casting remnants have also been found that reportedly consist of an imperfectly refined intermixture of iron and copper, evidence of smelting and the achievement of both copper and bronze.27 Copper knives dating somewhat later have also been discovered in the Ma-kuang, Juo-mu-hung, and K’a-yao cultures.

Ch’i-chia artifacts / Creative Commons

The forty-five to fifty artifacts recovered from Ch’i-chia (2055-1900 or 2200-1800 BCE) cultural sites in Gansu not only range from pure copper through lead/copper and tin/copper but also show a distinct trend from copper to bronze, prompting the conclusion that both casting and hot forging were being employed by about 2000 BCE.28 Knowledge of metals and alloys was clearly increasing, but still remained at an intermediate stage. Even though a large bronze spearhead and a forged arrowhead dating to about 2000 BCE have been recovered, small items such as copper knives and awls predominate, copper apparently still being too valuable to waste on casting expendable arrowheads. However, alloys containing from 5 or 6 percent up to 10 percent tin had been achieved, with cold hammering, hot forging, and some casting (such as of a copper knife discovered at Min-hsien) in two-part molds all being employed.

Xinjiang, which has received far less analytical coverage, generally reflected developments in nearby Gansu and the contiguous Andronovo and Sintasha-Petrovka cultures. Small copper objects dating to about 3000 BCE are known, and bronze is well attested by 2000 BCE, because alloys marked by a heavy arsenic component ranging from 8 to 20 percent have been found.29 Martial items produced over the fifteen centuries from 2000 to 500 BCE include small knives, short daggers, small axes, and arrowheads. Although metallurgical knowledge and practices generally lagged behind Gansu and even the core cultural area, Xinjiang would develop a basic knowledge of iron somewhat earlier, though only to be subsequently surpassed by other areas.

The numerous bronze objects recovered from Ssu-pa cultural sites in Gansu’s Ho-hsi corridor have prompted the conclusion that Ssu-pa culture was the final metallurgical precursor to Erh-li-t’ou, even though suggested termination dates of 1600 and 1400 BCE place it well within the Shang horizon. This seems to represent the crucial stage at which metal objects become more common, reportedly as a consequence of increasing class distinction.30 Rapidly increasing in number and complexity, the items being fabricated soon encompassed axes, knives, and daggers. Slightly more bronze than pure copper objects were produced, alloy formulations multiplied, casting in stone molds began, two-part molds then developed, and the first cast arrowheads appeared.31 However, production methods were highly varied, ranging from hot forging and casting through cold working and casting with subsequent working.

The three sites that have been extensively excavated show a surprising degree of variation in object preferences and significant differences in alloy composition, the latter no doubt the result of locally available ore. Apart from relatively pure copper, alloys of tin and arsenic predominate, but a few objects were also cast from a combination of copper, tin, and arsenic.32 (The western sites primarily employed tin, the eastern ones arsenic.) Some residual iron, evidence of incomplete refining, has also been discovered intermixed in many metallic fragments.

Half of the 200 pieces so far discovered at Huo-shao-kou are pure copper, the rest being bronze of varying composition, a few more tin than lead based, but six ternary pieces of copper/tin/lead and a couple with arsenic number among them. Many of the cast pieces underwent subsequent heat and cold treating, and a two-piece stone mold for casting arrowheads has been discovered. In contrast, many of the hot-forged artifacts found at Tung-hui-shan have a heavy arsenic component, whereas those at Kan-ku-yai (dating to about 1900-1600 BCE) apparently include every possible variant, arsenic not excepted, some being hot forged and others molded.

Area of the Longshan culture (3000–2000 BC) in northern China, based on Liu Li and Chen Xingcan (2012), The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age, Cambridge University Press,, p214. / Wikimedia Commons

The central plains area, where late Lungshan (roughly 2400-1700 BCE) culture flourished—defined as the western part of Henan, southern Shanxi, and perhaps the southern part of Hebei—generally lagged behind the northwest in metallurgical developments.33 Unlike the northwest, which experienced a transition from copper to an arsenic alloy, then bronze with tin, the central area progressed from copper to a tin alloy without any intermediate arsenic stage, though this may simply be because the sources were not contaminated. Copper thus tended to dominate, and only a few small fragments have been recovered that might predate the metal container fragments found at the late Lungshan site of Wang-ch’eng-kang.

In Yü-hsi and Chin-nan pre-Hsia culture and in the earliest stages of Erh-li-t’ou culture (1780-1529 BCE) in Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and northern Hebei, but especially Erh-li-t’ou itself, the quantity and variety of bronze items suddenly multiplied. Significant technological advances were realized in Erh-li-t’ou’s second period, including the introduction and then widespread use of two-part and multiple-cavity molds, explaining the sudden preponderance of metallic objects in the era’s graves; the casting of dagger-axes, axes, and finally arrowheads, reflecting the growing importance of warfare and willingness to employ copper for irrecoverable missiles; and the appearance of extensive decoration.34

The contents of slag heaps and crude metallic fragments discovered at expansive workshops confirm that the limitations of pure copper had long been transcended. The beneficial effects of tin and lead in lowering the melting point, the enhanced pouring characteristics of high-lead-content alloys and lead’s ability to impart flexibility to weapons, and tin’s effect in increasing the overall hardness and thus the sharpness of edged blades had all been fathomed, resulting in a full range of bronze alloys, including the primary formulations of copper/tin, copper/lead, and copper/tin/lead, all being employed by about 2000 BCE.35 These developments in turn depended on earlier advances in smelting and refining technology that had managed to achieve nearly pure (97.86 percent) copper by this time, as shown by evidence on crucible walls and metal remnants discovered at Mei-shan (2290-1900 BCE).36

Under the influence of techniques indigenous to Ch’i-chia culture to the west, two major developments that had begun during the second period came to fruition in Erh-li-t’ou’s florid third period. First, cumbersome stone molds that required tedious working and imposed severe limitations on size and complexity were gradually replaced by clay and then heat-fired ceramic molds that could withstand higher casting temperatures. This not only facilitated the multiple replication of smaller objects and weapons but also made possible greater precision in realizing complex designs, initiating an era of intricate detailing and the production of abstract patterns similar to those subsequently seen on symbolic Shang axes and ritual vessels. Not unexpectedly, many of the objects cast by this process were imitations of preexisting ceramic and stone versions. However, ceramic molds were never adopted at peripheral Hsia production centers such as at Tung-hsia-feng.

The second significant advance was the discovery and adoption of the piece-mold casting process, which made possible the larger, more complex ritual vessels that would proliferate in the Shang. Somewhat surprisingly, early piece molds were apparently used only once, even though one of their great advantages should have been multiple employment.

The Shang Realization

Tonglüshan No.2 Mining Site of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties / Photo by Huanokinhejo, Wikimedia Commons

By the late Shang great progress had been made in recognizing terrain characteristics and plant varieties indicative of likely ore deposits. The development of wood-reinforced shafts and galleries, some of which remain nearly viable today, and techniques to minimize water intrusion and even partially remove pooling water facilitated their increasingly systematic exploitation. Mining efficiency was further improved through specialized tools, both metallic and nonmetallic.

As already noted, China’s naturally occurring ores vary greatly in composition. Despite ongoing advances in knowledge and techniques, even identical processing could yield somewhat different raw materials. Furthermore, an examination of an artifact’s lead isotope ratios often allows probable sources to be identified, such as the copper employed in Hsin-kan (Wu-ch’eng) and San-hsing-tui bronzes.37 Somewhat surprisingly, they also reveal that crude metals produced from several geographically distinct sources were frequently intermixed both in the cultural core area and out on the periphery during the Shang, despite locally available quantities being more than sufficient, such as in the southwest.38 Moreover, changes in Anyang bronze isotope ratios over time indicate a shift in the copper source, whether out of necessity or preference.

Despite being numerous, ancient China’s ore sources were widely scattered and characterized by local concentration. Conscious, dedicated effort therefore had to be expended to discover and exploit them. The larger ones mined early on were generally found in the Gansu region around the Ch’i-lien Mountains, Yünnan in the southwest, and Jiangxi and Anhui along the Yangtze River.39 Somewhat sparser deposits were also accessed in the core Hua-Hsia area of Yen-shih to Cheng-chou and also out in Shandong, explaining how metallurgy could have evolved in both the upper and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Although recoverable copper was frequently found intermixed with other metals such as zinc, iron, lead, and sometimes even silver or gold,40 tin deposits were dispersed and highly limited, requiring production to be undertaken separately.

The copper mines in Yünnan and the lower Yangtze River area were particularly productive. Their distance from Hsia and Shang administrative centers quickly stimulated the development of several major transport routes that took advantage of China’s many interconnected rivers and lakes wherever possible, as well as the dispersion of martial forces, emplacement of strongpoints, and construction of bastions such as P’an-lung-ch’eng. In the lower Yangtze area where both copper and iron are found, the copper content in highly productive mines that operated from the middle Shang through the Warring States period was generally 5-6 percent, with local concentrations sometimes reaching 10 to 20 percent.41 Massive slag heaps estimated at a staggering 500,000 tons total indicate 100,000 tons of copper may have been extracted over the centuries.42 Partially processed ore, slag heaps, and other evidence of extensive processing activities have also been found at two smelting sites discovered at Anyang and Wu-ch’eng.

This immense quantity of copper was primarily employed to fabricate crucial emblems of Shang power, ranging from precisely incised drinking vessels to great axes and massive cauldrons designed for ostentatious use, commemorative employment, and ritual performance. The technological achievements embodied in these opulent vessels, being well documented and widely known, need no further elaboration. However, weapons also consumed increasingly large quantities of metal as their types and numbers multiplied in response to warfare’s escalating needs, though ming ch’i or semblance weapons interred with the deceased soon began proliferating in an obvious effort to conserve expensive, limited resources.43 Metal was employed for prestige first, then important weapons, and finally expendable weapons.



  1. More than a dozen stones, including limestone, quartz, sandstone, and jade, were employed for edged weapons in the Hsia and Shang. (For examples recovered from Anyang, see Li Chi, BIHP 23 (1952): 523-526 and 534-535. Wang Chi-huai discusses an early axe fabrication site in KKWW 2000:6, 36-41.)
  2. Note that in making a distinction between metalworking (defined as limited-scale hammering, forging, etc.) and metal production, Ursula Franklin (“On Bronze and Other Metals in Early China,” 279-296), among others, has emphasized the importance of scale in metallurgy’s role in civilization.
  3. See, for example, Yen Wen-ming, 1989, 110-112. In Yünnan, a region of vast copper resources, stone weapons continued to be employed during the early Bronze Age even after primitive axe shapes had appeared, forging and molding were being practiced, and basic alloys were already known. (Yün-nan-sheng Po-wu-kuan, KK 1995:9, 775-787.)
  4. Cheng Te-k’un, the chief proponent for indigenous development in his books and articles such as “Metallurgy in Shang China,” was seconded by Noel Barnard in an important early review that still retains currency. (In “Review of Prehistoric ChinaShang ChinaChina,” Barnard argues that piece-mold casting techniques were almost unique to China as metals were worked in the West; smithy practices were few; the lost wax process that predominated in the West did not appear until the end of the Warring States period; binary and then ternary alloys were employed early on; and there is essential continuity with the ceramic tradition. In contrast, An Chih-min, KK 1993:12, 1110-1119, has speculated that ancient trade routes could have played an important but unspecified role. For further discussion see Shang Chih-t’an, WW 1990:9, 48- 55; Li Shui-ch’eng, KKHP 2005:3, 239-278; and Ch’en Hsü, HSLWC, 171-175.) It has also long been held that bronze molding techniques evolved to allow the casting of metallic versions of ceramic precursors and that this continuity from ceramic to bronze realizations provides substantial evidence of the indigenous development of metallurgy in China, particularly in the absence of hammering and other smithy techniques. However, a dissenting voice has been raised by John La Plante, EC 13 (1988): 247-273, who claims Chinese molding techniques evolved to facilitate the production of vessels originally fabricated by the hammering and joining of sheet metal. Finally, it was originally believed (and is still sometimes claimed) that Shang bronze casting relied on the lost wax method, but more recent evidence has clearly shown that it didn’t appear until sometime in the Warring States period. Furthermore, in his classic article “Yin-tai T’ungch’i,” Ch’en Meng-chia (KKHP 1954:7, 36-41) provided an analysis of the evolution of Shang molding techniques that effectively argued that they never employed the lost wax process. His viewpoint was seconded a decade later by Noel Barnard in “Review of Prehistoric ChinaShang ChinaChina” and more recently updated by T’an Te-jui, KKHP 1999:2, 211-250, who similarly concluded that the lost wax process didn’t evolve until well into the Warring States period. The process was also employed in later times out on the periphery of Chinese civilization. (For example, see Chiang Yü, KK 2008:6, 85-90.)
  5. For a discussion of these differences, see Miyake Toshihiko, KK 2005:5, 73-88. Metallurgical traditions also evolved in peripheral cultures such as Hsia-chia-tien in Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, and northern Hebei (1700-1200 BCE); Yüeh-shih (1600-1300); and of course San-hsing-tui, whose technological advances and stylistic elements were the result of complex interactions with the core cultural area coupled with indigenous cultural factors and ore characteristics. (For an analysis of metal developments in Hungshan culture in the northeast that date to about 3000 BCE, see Chu Yung-kang, KKHP 1998:2, 133-152.)
  6. For example, in the middle Neolithic some areas seem to have specialized in the production of stone implements despite lacking immediately available resources. (For an example, see Li Hsin-wei, KK 2008:6, 58-68.)
  7. In recent years several excavations have been carried out at ancient mining sites, leading to a new appreciation not only of their extensiveness and sophistication, but also of the widely varying ore profile. (For example, see Mei Chien-chün et al., KK 2005:4, 78 ff.) Wu Ju-tso, CKKTS 1995:8, 12-20, notes that copper is found naturally intermixed with zinc or lead at numerous small mines around places like Chiao-chou, Kao-mi, An-ch’iu, and Ch’ang-le. Tuan Yü, WW 1996:3, 36-47, describes the low level of tin used in Pa/Shu ritual vessels in comparison with the Shang.
  8. An interesting example of a late Shang and early Chou culture that clearly de-emphasized warfare (as evidenced by tools and hunting implements rather than ritual vessels and weapons predominating) is seen on Yü-huan Island, located 1,000 meters off the Zhejiang coast. (See T’ai-chou-shih Wen-kuan-hui, KK 1996:5, 14-20.) The intervening sea not only physically isolated them but also provided a formidable geostrategic barrier.
  9. For example, the analysis of bronze containers from a fourth period Shang tomb (1046 BCE) shows that a high proportion of lead (24-27 percent, in comparison with 55-65 percent copper and only 4-6 percent tin) was employed to allow easier casting of more complex shapes (Chao Ch’un-yen et al., WW 2008:1, 92-94).
  10. For reports on the phenomenon (but little speculation on the causes), see Kuo Yen-li, KKWW 2006:6, 66-73; Tuan Yü, CKKTS 1994:1, 63-70; and Liu Yi-man, KKHP 1995:4, 395- 412. Liu claims that the trend to high-lead-content funerary items and even the use of ceramic versions, reflecting a diminishment in respect for the spirits, is mirrored in a similar shift from sacrificing a large number of victims, up to 1,000 at one time (together with 1,000 cattle and 500 sheep) under Wu Ting to lower amounts under K’ang Ting (200 human victims, 100 cattle, and 100 sheep) and eventually a maximum of 30 human victims under Ti Hsin. (Other explanations are of course possible, including economizing on resources.) More broadly, Yang Chü-hua, HCCHS 1999:4, 28-43, envisions a total reorientation in values, with the Shang esteeming spirits, the Chou valuing ritual, and the Warring States seeing a new human orientation that allowed bronze artifacts to become commodities.
  11. Chiu Shih-ching, CKSYC 1992:4, 3-10.
  12. Tuan Yü, HCCHS 2008:6, 3-9. For a general discussion of the techniques at Anyang, see Liu Yü et al., KK 2008:12, 80-90.
  13. For reports see SHYCS An-yang Kung-tso-tui, KKHP 2006:3, 351-384; Yin-hsü Hsiao-mint’un K’ao-ku-tui, KK 2007:1, 14-25; Wang Hsüeh-jung and Ho Yü-ling, KK 2007:1, 54-63; and Li Yung-ti et al., KK 2007:3, 52-63.
  14. For some of these discoveries see P’eng Ming-han, HCCHS 1996:2, 47-52; Chan K’ai-sun and Liu Lin, WW 1995:7, 18, 27-32; and, for a general discussion, Ch’en Liang-tso, HHYC 2:1 (1984): 135-166 and 2:2 (1984): 363-402.
  15. For a discussion of this question see Yen Wen-ming, SCYC 1984:1, 35-44.
  16. Huang Sheng-chang, KKHP 1996:2, 143-164.
  17. For example, T’ang Yün-ming claims that China was already producing wrought iron in the early Shang. (See WW 1975:3, 57-59, and for further discussion Hsia Mai-ling, HCCHS 1986:6, 68-72. For the history of iron in China, see Donald Wagner, Ferrous Metallurgy, or his earlier Iron and Steel in China.)
  18. See note 7.
  19. In addition to any specific references, the discussion that follows is primarily based on Li Shui-ch’eng, KKHP 2005:3, 239-278; Pei-ching Kang-t’ieh Hsüeh-yüan Yeh-chin Shih-tsu, KKHP 1981:3, 287-302; Yen Wen-ming, SCYC 1984:1, 35-44; and An Chih-min, KK 1993:12, 1110- 1119.
  20. Pei-ching Kang-t’ieh Hsüeh-yüan Yeh-chin Shih-tsu, KKHP 1981:3, 287-302. To date, the most complete overviews of techniques and products are Lu Ti-min and Wang Ta-yeh, 1998, and Hua Chüeh-ming’s massive and highly technical Chung-kuo Ku-tai Chin-shu Chi-shu, 1999.
  21. Shao Wangping, JEAA 2, nos. 1-2 (2000): 195-226.
  22. Yen Wen-ming, SCYC 1984:1, 35-44, and WW 1990:12, 21-26.
  23. Li Hsüeh-ch’in, CKKTS 1995:12, 6-12, and An Chih-min, KK 1993:12, 1110-1119.
  24. Yen Wen-ming, WW 1990:12, 26.
  25. Pei-ching Kang-t’ieh Hsüeh-yüan Yeh-chin Shih-tsu, KKHP 1981:3, 287-302.
  26. This was pointed out by Sun Shuyun and Han Rubin, EC 9-10 (1983-1985): 260-289.
  27. Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84; Li Hsüeh-ch’in, CKKTS 1995:12, 6-12; and Chang Chih-heng, 1996, 109-112.
  28. Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84; An Chih-min, KKHP 1981:3, 269-285; An Chih-min, KK 1993:12, 1113. (Ch’i-chia culture is more broadly dated as 2200 to 1600 BCE.)
  29. Li Shui-ch’eng, 251-254; An Chih-min, KKHP 1981:3, 269-285; An Chih-min, KK 1996:12, 70-78; and Kung Kuo-ch’iang, KK 1997:9, 7-20. (Arsenic alloys are also known in nearby Russia.)
  30. Li Shui-ch’eng, 244-245.
  31. For critical reports on which this discussion is based, see Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84; Li Shui-ch’eng, 241-245; and Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84.
  32. Li Shui-ch’eng and Shui T’ao, WW 2000:3, 36-44; Sun Shu-yün et al., WW 2003:8, 86- 96; and Li Shui-ch’eng, KKHP 2005:3, 239-278. Copper/arsenic alloys similarly characterize ten of the eleven items found at Tung-hui-shan even though they date to about 1770 BCE. (See Kan-su-sheng Wen-wu K’ao-ku Yen-chiu-suo, KK 1995:12, 1055-1063. Some were forged, some heat treated or cold quenched after forging.)
  33. Li Shui-ch’eng, 256-257.
  34. Li Shui-ch’eng, 263; Li Hsüeh-ch’in, CKKTS 1995:12, 6-12. Wang Hsün, KKWW 1997:3, 61-68, has suggested that the growing Shang threat prompted the Hsia to develop better bronze weapons.
  35. Chin Cheng-yao, WW 2000:1, 56-64, 69. Recognition of lead’s properties apparently came last. (Chin also notes a shift in sourcing to Shandong late in the era. Although recognizing that Seima-Turbino and Andronovo developments may have been transmitted through ongoing trade, Chin still argues for radical differentiation.)
  36. Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84.
  37. Chin Cheng-yao et al., KK 1994:8, 744-747, 735.
  38. Ching Cheng-yao et al., WW 2004:7, 76-88.
  39. For Yünnan see Li Shao-ts’en, KKWW 2002:2, 61-67; for the middle Yangtze, Liu Shih-chung et al., KKWW 1994:1, 82-88; for the lower Yangtze, Liu Shih-chung and Lu Pen-shan, KKHP 1998:4, 465-496 and illustrations (discussing a mine that was operated continuously from the middle of the Shang to around the start of the Warring States period); and for Gansu, see Sun Shu-yün and Han Ju-pin, WW 1997:7, 75-84.
  40. See note 7.
  41. Lu Pen-shan and Liu Shih-chung, WW 1997:3, 33-38.
  42. These are the estimates for the mines at Wan-nan down in southern Anhui, where copper, iron, sulfur, and gold are all found. (See Ch’in Ying et al., WW 2002:5, 78-82.) According to Liu Shih-chung et al., KKWW 1994:1, 82-88, the middle and the lower Yangtze were prolific production areas that fed smelters located at Anyang and Wu-ch’eng. The extant slag heap around T’unglü-shan amounts to 40,000 tons, and 80,000 tons have been found in the middle Yangtze area.
  43. In addition to references in the discussion about the dagger-axe that follows, see Chao Ch’un-yen et al., WW 2008:1, 92-94.


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Click here for entire bibliography.

From Ancient Chinese Warfare, by Ralph D. Sawyer (Basic Books, 03.01.2011), published by Erenow, public open access.



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