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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 32

After recently exploring China’s present, today I jump back. Way back to look at some of the earliest archaeological evidence of civilizations that developed in what is now China. In a region that is both large and has thousands of years of recorded history, there is an overwhelming abundance of options from which to choose. For the next two Issues, I selected two Early Bronze Age cultures from the second millennium BC.

  • Early Bronze Age China

  • Yinxu (Anyang in Henan Province)

  • One More Thought (Twenty-First Century Tomb Robbing)


Early Bronze Age China

Luboshez Bronze Gong (Yinxu Ritual Wine Vessel with

Tiger, Owl, and Ram)(

Yinxu (often called Anyang) and Sanxingdui were two independent civilizations that flourished during the same Early Bronze Age circa 1600-1050 BC in two distinct areas of what is now China. They are not the earliest such civilizations that have been discovered, but they are close and are extraordinarily rich sources for study of past culture, society, and history.

Yinxu is located in the eastern Yellow River Valley of North China, the area where Chinese civilization first formed, and was part of the Shang Dynasty (the second of China’s first three – Xia, Shang, and Zhou). Sanxingdui, on the other hand, is located deep in the southwest in what is now Sichuan Province and was then far from the Shang China orbit.

Map of China in Anyang and Sanxingdui: Unveiling the Mysteries

of Ancient Chinese Civilizations, Royal Ontario Museum,

2002, Page 6, Figure 1-1

Both sites were initially re-discovered around the turn of the twentieth century, but their histories since then have again followed independent paths. Yinxu has been studied, documented, and written about extensively for almost a century. Sanxingdui has received substantial attention only since the 1980’s. The former was a royal Chinese city, a late Shang Dynasty capital. The latter was a royal center of a previously unknown culture that had not been on anyone’s Bronze Age radar.

Archaeologists and others are actively engaged in bringing the cities to physical light, studying their political, religious, industrial, artistic, and cultural histories, and analyzing what these say about China’s past and each other. New finds continue to be made. Magnificent and varied bronzes, gold, jades, ivories, and pottery pieces, sacrificial and tomb objects, the first evidence of a written language in China, and sophisticated city ruins offer a fascinating look into this part of the world and early development of the Chinese civilization between 3,000-4,000 years ago.

Yinxu is the focus of this Issue. The next Issue will cover the mysterious Sanxingdui.


Yinxu (Anyang)

Bronze Jia (Yinxu Ritual Wine Vessel)(

The re-discovery and subsequent exploration of Yinxu, in what is now the northwestern suburbs of the city of Anyang in Henan Province, have been momentous for many reasons. The two most important are that it 1) conclusively proved the historical existence of the Shang Dynasty (China’s second) and 2) brought to light the earliest form of Chinese writing and written history, so-called oracle bones.

Yinxu was a large city along the Huan River that served as the royal capital of the late Shang Dynasty for more than 250 years (circa 1350-1046 BC). The ruins of seven foundries, many workshops, dozens of palace foundations, numerous residential compounds, and burial sites galore spread out from the main palace hugging the Huan River. Bronze casting, ceramic production, jade carving, bone preparation, and other activities each had their own respective work areas around the city. While most of Yinxu was located south of the Huan River, the royal cemetery and a former, walled palace temple complex were on the north side of the river.

Bronze Fangding (Yinxu Ritual Food Container)(

Bronze objects served several functions. Politically, they demonstrated the power and prestige of the King. Ritually, they were key elements in the ceremonies of the rulers and elites during, at the end, and after life. Domestically, they were used for cooking and serving food and for drinking and holding wine and water. Round, square, rectangular, funky. Tall, short, squat, thin. Decorated, plain, animal-like. Each shape had a name and function.

Ancient Chinese bronzes were made using a complicated piece-mold technique. Other bronze cultures in the world relied on hammering and the lost wax method, but not the Chinese. Piece-molding involved a sophisticated process of making clay models, sectioned casting molds, and shaved clay cores that were then re-assembled to be filled with molten bronze. It allowed for vessels with varying width walls that accepted a great deal of surface decoration. The results are striking.

Fu Hao Ivory Goblet (

The tombs and sacrificial pits that dominate Yinxu have yielded more than just fantastic bronze vessels. There are also bronze weapons, jades, chariots, pottery shards, ivories, and so much more. 10,000+ graves and more than 2,000 sacrificial pits have been located in the greater area, and thousands of these have been excavated. These tomb sites are both royal and common, ranging in size from small to medium to large. Some of the royal tombs had ramp access.

Fu Hao Kneeling Jade Pei ( commons/2/24/Shang_Jade_Statue_Pendant_Closer.jpg)

Many of the tombs of the royals and wealthy were long ago looted. One that wasn’t is that of Fu Hao. Lady Fu Hao was a consort of King Wu Ding and an important person involved in politics, in battle, and in ritual ceremonies. Her tomb yielded 400+ bronzes, including more than 200 ritual vessels and 130 weapons, as well as several hundred jades, dozens of stone sculptures, almost 500 bone hairpins, and particularly apropos given the recent Chinese Spring Festival celebration, four bronze tigers and tiger heads.

Yinxu Museum Oracle Bone Pit (

Yinxu is also famous for its jiaguwen, its oracle bones. Oracle bones are the earliest, documented form of Chinese writing. Turtle shells and ox scapulae make up most of the oracle bones. More than 100,000 fragments, including many intact samples, have been found to date.

Yinxu Museum Oracle Bone (

Oracle bones were used for divination. Rulers and leading families had questions that needed answering and decisions that needed to be made. These might deal with weather and crops, military and political affairs, the welfare of family members, and more. Diviners would inscribe, carve, incise, chisel, and drill onto the shells and bones, which were then heated and the pattern of cracks read (interpreted). Yes or no were the only correct answers. Divination was how things got done.

Yinxu Museum Oracle Bone (

Oracle bones are an indelible record of the Shang Dynasty. This first Chinese archive documented Shang social, religious, power, and military structures. We learn of the Shang royal lineage, of slaves, and of science, agriculture, economics, and culture. The jiaguwen bring ancient China to life.


One More Thought (Twenty-First Century Tomb Robbing)

As seen at Yinxu, tomb robbing has a long tradition in China. And it is not a thing of the past. Amateur and professional grave robbers are still active in China. The government tries to stop the common, yet dangerous, practice, but it is like trying to catch water with a net. Experts have stated that “[b]etween ancient and modern thieves,…, up to eight out of every 10 tombs in China have been plundered.”


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