Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels

Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels

Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels

Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels

Synopsis

The thousands of ritual bronze vessels discovered by China's archaeologists serve as the major documentary source for the Western Zhou dynasty (1045-771 B.C.). These vessels contain long inscriptions full of detail on subjects as diverse as the military history of the period, the bureaucratic structure of the royal court, and lawsuits among the gentry. Moreover, being cast in bronze, the inscriptions preserve exactly the contemporary script and language.

Shaughnessy has written a meticulous and detailed work on the historiography and interpretation of these objects. By demonstrating how the inscriptions are read and interpreted, Shaughnessy makes accessible in English some of the most important evidence about life in ancient China.

Excerpt

Several years ago, having just completed a doctoral dissertation on how the Zhouyi Book of Changes, came to be composed during the Western Zhou dynasty, I decided that before I could move on to the next stage in my study of that classic text—a consideration of why it was written and what it meant to the people of the time—I would first have to become more familiar with the the full range of the contemporary historical and literary context, including especially the inscriptions on bronze vessels cast at that time. Chinese thinkers have traditionally regarded the Western Zhou dynasty as a paradigm for all of Chinese history, their understanding of the period being based primarily on the received literature of the period: in addition to the Book of Changes, the Shangshu or Book of Documents and the Shijing or Book of Poetry. sources provide considerable information about certain aspects of the dynasty, particularly about events at its beginning and end. However, they suffer from two important historiographical liabilities. First, they are overwhelmingly concerned with portraying history as a moral imperative. the rise of the Zhou people is ascribed primarily to the virtue of kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Zhou and their eventual fall to the depravity of the late kings Li and You. External forces, whether military, economic, or social, are poorly represented in these traditional sources, having been of little interest to their traditional readers. Second—and doubtless related, since both the classic texts and the later histories focus so heavily on the phenomena of rise and fall—they arc virtually silent on developments throughout most of the rest of the dynasty, a period of some two hundred years. If these were the only historical sources available for the Western Zhou, even the most materialist of modern historians would be hard pressed to suggest other than moral causes and effects for these phenomena.

Given these twin liabilities of the traditional historical record, it is fortunate that we now have available a significant (and ever increasing) corpus of inscribed bronze vessels that were produced during the Western Zhou. Because these vessels commemorate events of many different con-

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