Bronzes, Mortuary Practice and Political Strategies of the Yan during the Early Western Zhou Period

By Sun, Yan | Antiquity, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Bronzes, Mortuary Practice and Political Strategies of the Yan during the Early Western Zhou Period


Sun, Yan, Antiquity


Introduction

After the conquest of the Shang in China around the mid-eleventh century BC, the immediate political challenge the Zhou faced was how to manage its new kingdom. It had a dramatically expanded territory and a culturally and ethnically diverse population. The Zhou developed a feudal network through enfeoffment, and the Zhou king sent out his family members and meritorious officials to establish a series of vassal states in North China. These vassal states not only served as the local delegated authority, but also formed a protection zone for the Zhou central court.

The Zhou waged several major military campaigns against rebellions by Shang clans and those associated with them in the very early stages of the new kingdom. Historical texts and bronze inscriptions of the Zhou record that members of the Shang were assigned to each vassal state as subjects and moved to different regions of the kingdom to further reduce the threat (Hsu & Linduff 1988:153-163). Meanwhile, the Zhou court also encouraged each vassal state to compromise and co-operate with the non-Zhou clans.

The establishment of the Yan state

Yan was an example of an important vassal state established by the Zhou court in the late eleventh century BC, and the enfeoffment of the Yan is well documented in inscriptions on bronze vessels excavated from the capital of the Yan at Liulihe, 43 km south-west of today's Beijing (Figure 1) (Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo & Beijingshi Wenwuyanjiusuo 1990: 20-31). Archaeological excavations at Liulihe over three decades have yielded a cemetery of the Yan with over 200 burials, 26 chariot and horse pits, and the remains of its capital city, including walls, a moat, a drainage system and residential areas, all of which were in use during the entire Western Zhou period (late eleventh century BC to c. early eighth century BC) (Beijing Daxue Kaoguxi & Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo 1996a: 4-15; 1996b: 16-27; Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo 1995; Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo, Beijing Daxue Kaogu Wenboyuan & Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo 2000: 32-38; Liulihe Kaogudui 1984: 405-416, 404; 1997: 4-13; Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo & Beijingshi Wenwuyanjiusuo 1990: 20-31). Finely cast bronze ritual vessels were also unearthed in the burials of the Yan nobles mainly in the early Western Zhou period during the reigns of King Wu, King Cheng, King Kang and King Zhao, roughly from mid-eleventh century to middle-tenth century BC.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The Yan were situated at a strategic location which functioned as a buffer between the Central Plain, the "core of dynastic China", and the Northern Zone, the periphery areas along the Great Wall occupied by non-dynastic groups. During the Shang dynasty (sixteenth century BC to mid-eleventh century BC), interactions between these groups and the Shang were recorded in oracle bone inscriptions mentioning that local elites from this region participated in the Shang divination ceremonies and paid tribute such as horses, ox and boar to the Shang king. Marriages as well as conflicts also took place occasionally between local groups and the Shang (Yang 1997: 97-103; Zheng 324-336). The cultural influence of the Shang in this area was suggested by archaeological materials as well. At Liujiahe north-east of Beijing, for example, typical Shang style bronze ritual vessels were discovered at a tomb of a local elite (Beijingshi Wenwu Guanlichu 1977: 1-8)

The arrival of the Zhou power at Liulihe in the early Western Zhou period fundamentally altered the political and cultural landscape in this area. For the first time, political authority from the dynastic centre attempted to establish a direct control over local populations who had previously enjoyed a different cultural and political tradition. This was a new challenge for all parties involved: the Yan, the Zhou court, and the local groups. As a newly formed state in the northern frontier far from the Zhou capital, how the Yan managed this situation would not only be crucial to its own survival, but would also have a profound impact on the stability of the Zhou, the political future of local populations, and the relationship between the dynastic centre and northern periphery. …

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