The appearance of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin/lead) in ancient China was significantly concurrent with the emergence of urbanism, writing, and state society. According to China's own textual history, the period during which this occurred is referred to as the Three Dynasties period. This period, comprised of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, began toward the end of the third millennium B.C. Interestingly, this traditional textual time frame coincides almost exactly with the Chinese Bronze Age, which ended abruptly during the last phase of the Zhou dynasty with the emergence and extensive use of iron.

Bronzes dating to the Three Dynasties period mostly serve ritual and military functions. They consist mainly of vessels for food and drink as well as musical instruments, and weapons. This tells us that in ancient China bronze was cast to fulfill the principal affairs of the state: ritual and war. The control of bronze objects not only meant control of instruments of war and oppresive power but also control over access to heaven.

Recently, the discovery of a bronze-producing culture at Sanxingdui in Sichuan, a region beyond Shang dynasty political control, has revealed the existence of a civilization with its own unique characteristics. Sanxingdui cultural artifacts possess characteristics which appear to be utterly distinct from basic Shang aesthetic style. This discovery gives us new insights into regional variance and cultural exchange during bronze age China.

What follows is a slide show of bronzes from different periods.

map of bronze age sites

index of images in the slide show