Shang Art

Bronze and jade artifacts from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BCE) reflect the technological and artistic sophistication of Chinese craftsmen.
Bronze Age Shang China was centered in the valley of the Huang He in the Northeast.
There, Chinese monarchs and elites made their offerings of food and wine in massive bronze vessels.
The objects below, according to archeologists, were designed to play a symbolic role in religious and/or funerary ceremonies.
In later Shang times, the use of jade expanded, and it became an element of personal adornment (Hearn 9-10).
All of the examples below were excavated from tomb sites. "Bronze is an alloy composed of copper,
alloyed with tin, to which lead was sometimes added" (Batterberry 12).
The green patina, called "verdigris," on ancient bronzes, results from the
chemical reaction between the bronze, air, and earth.

This jade disk dates from China's neolithic period, in the Shang Dynasty. The disk probably has no particular utilitarian value but was used in burial rites and represented the wealth of the deceased. Ancient Chinese loved jade for its sheen and "its musical quality when struck...." (Hearn 12). The inscriptions were added later. Jade could be "either opaque like marble, or pale and semi-translucent like opal." (Batterberry, 12) Chinese believed that it possessed some kind of "magic virtue," hence the hole in the middle of the pi above; the pi could be worn as a medallion around the neck (Batterberry 12).


Shang artisans mastered the smelting of bronze, producing ritual vessels such as the one above. It is called a ting and its tripod form probably derives from earlier ceramic prototypes. The size and detail of the ting above suggests its ritual rather than utilitarian purpose (Hearn 13).


This charming owl shaped bronze yu, a covered vessel, also dates from the Shang era (NEH 87). Animal themes and motifs recur frequently in Shang (and later) Chinese art and gave powerful symbolic meaning to the vessel. Birds, and particularly the owl, represented the sun, air, and spiritual resurrection. Tigers represented earth and power, while snakes suggested the never-ending renewal of Mother Earth (Batterberry 12). The cricket came to symbolize a spiritual afterlife.

[ Welcome ] [ Shang ] [ Zhou ] [Qin ] [ Han ] [ Tang ] [ Sung ] [ Yuan ] [ Ming ] [ Qing Art ]
[ Qing Dynasty ]

Return to top


Batterberry, Michael. Chinese and Oriental Art. New York, et. al.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.

Hearn, Maxwell. K. Splendors of Imperial China. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1997

National Endowment for the Humanities. The Chinese Exhibition. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1975.