China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization

China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization

China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization

China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization


One of the great breakthroughs in Chinese studies in the early twentieth century was the archaeological identification of the earliest, fully historical dynasty of kings, the Shang (ca. 1300-1050 B.C.E.). The last fifty years have seen major advances in all areas of Chinese archaeology, but recent studies of the Shang, their ancestors, and their contemporaries have been especially rich. Since the last English-language overview of Shang civilization appeared in 1980, the pace of discovery has quickened. China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization is the first work in twenty-five years to synthesize current knowledge of the Shang for everyone interested in the origins of Chinese civilization.

China in the Early Bronze Age traces the development of early Bronze Age cultures in North and Northwestern China from about 2000 B.C.E., including the Erlitou culture (often identified with the Xia) and the Erligang culture. Robert L. Thorp introduces major sites, their architectural remains, burials, and material culture, with special attention to jades and bronze. He reviews the many discoveries near Anyang, site of two capitals of the Shang kings. In addition to the topography of these sites, Thorp discusses elite crafts and devotes a chapter to the Shang cult, its divination practices, and its rituals. The volume concludes with a survey of the late Shang world, cultures contemporary with Anyang during the late second millennium B.C.E. Fully documented with references to Chinese archaeological sources and illustrated with more than one hundred line drawings, China in the Early Bronze Age also includes informative sidebars on related topics and suggested readings.

Students of the history and archaeology of early civilizations will find China in the Early Bronze Age the most up-to-date and wide-ranging introduction to its topic now in print. Scholars in Chinese studies will use this work as a handbook and research guide. This volume makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the formative stages of Chinese culture.


For anyone interested in ancient China, the last three decades have been a proverbial golden age. This era began in 1972, even before the chaos of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (wenhua da geming) had subsided. Two actions taken by the government introduced the world to contemporary Chinese archaeology. First, the three national journals of archaeology and “cultural relics” work (Box 1) resumed publication after a hiatus since 1966. Month by month in 1972 reports and photographs of extraordinary discoveries appeared. Although archaeologists had

Box 1 What Are “Cultural Relics”?

Throughout this book, readers will encounter references to the
phrase “cultural relics” (wenwu). For example, the organs of the
state that manage archaeology include the Cultural Relics Bureau
(recently renamed the Cultural Heritage Administration). Excava
tion teams are a part of provincial “institutes of cultural relics and
archaeology” (wenwu kaogu yanjiu suo). And the leading press in
China for many of the subjects discussed is Cultural Relics Publish
ing House (Wenwu chubanshe). What does this phrase designate?
As used since 1949, wenwu has been roughly akin to the English
usages “material culture” and “cultural heritage.” “Cultural relics
work” embraces archaeological surveys and excavations, restora
tions of historic architecture, the conservation, display, and publi
cation of any of the foregoing, and more. By law, a cultural relic is
any man-made thing that has putative historical, scientific, or aes
thetic value. In contrast with the established categories of Euro
American practice, artifacts, works of art, crafts, and documents
are all subsumed within this same category. Thus a Chinese

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