A Peek Into Chinese Culture Between 1600 and 221 BC

A bronze square ding (cauldron) with human faces from the Shang dynasty. (Image: Smartneddy via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
A bronze square ding (cauldron) with human faces from the Shang dynasty. (Image: Smartneddy via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

The Chinese have a grand cultural history spanning thousands of years. The period between 1600 B.C. and 221 B.C., ruled by the Shang and Zhou dynasties, was an important time in China’s history as it provided the foundations of the country’s culture.

The dynasties

The Shang Dynasty, also known as the Yin Dynasty, ruled from 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C. Sima Qian, the famous Chinese historian who lived sometime between 206 B.C. and 220 B.C., gave a detailed and sequential record of the dynasty in his work Records of the Grand Historian. The Shang era is known for its focus on keeping pictographic records and multi-year-long construction projects. They sowed the seeds of early Chinese religion, motifs, and philosophy. The Shang people had an affinity for tea and silk, habits that have been passed down through centuries and can be seen even among modern Chinese.

A Shang dynasty bronze vessel to preserve liquids. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

A Shang Dynasty bronze vessel used to preserve liquids. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Following the downfall of Shang Dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty came into prominence in 1046 B.C. and remained in power until 221 B.C. The rulers of Zhou extensively followed the traditions of the previous Shang Dynasty, becoming its true cultural successors. The Zhou Dynasty introduced the concept of “Mandate of Heaven,” the idea that there could only be one legitimate ruler of China at a time. The period also saw the birth and spread of Confucianism and Taoism.

Important aspects of culture

Writing and records

The Shang Dynasty took great care in maintaining all kinds of records. By 1200 B.C., people were writing in pictograms, similar to what modern Chinese characters tend to look like. The influence of the Shang writing style on today’s Chinese characters is easily visible from the “Jiaguwen” characters used during the period, carved onto animal bones. When the Zhou came into power, they continued with the practice of meticulous historical record keeping.

Bronze work

While the casting of bronze was invented around 2000 B.C. in the northwestern region of China, the Shang period saw its widespread industrialization. Craftsmen used clay molds for mass producing bronze artifacts. The Shang produced geometrically intricate, large, and heavy objects out of their mastery over bronze casting. However, their style was very distinct from the nearby Sanxingdui culture. During Zhou Dynasty, the use of bronze tools in agriculture became widespread. They improved the pursuit of creating geometrically balanced bronze objects.

Silk

China is often associated with silk, since they are literally the inventors of the fabric. Though some of the earliest examples of silk in China dates back to 3630 B.C., the manufacture of silk clothing became advanced during the Shang era. Silk clothing began to be traded with cultures far across the world. The influence of Shang era silk can be attested by the fact that it was even discovered in an Egyptian tomb from that period.  

A Silk painting depicting a man riding a dragon, dated to the Zhou dynasty. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

A silk drawing depicting a man riding a dragon dated to the Zhou Dynasty. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Jade

Jade is a trademark of Chinese culture and has been highly valued throughout history. The Shang period oversaw the use of jade to produce all kinds of things, from artworks to ornaments, and objects for religious rituals. The era also saw the widespread use of jade as body armor. Later on, royalties were buried in jade armor. This reverence for jade can be seen even in contemporary China where many people continue to wear jade amulets, since the material is considered to be auspicious.  

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