Ancient Shang Dynasty Art

The Shang Dynasty is regarded as the second dynasty to rule in China. It is said to follow the Xia Dynasty; however, historians are uncertain if the Xia was an historical or mythical dynasty. Additionally, conflicting dates are given for the Shang Dynasty, but most historians agree that they likely ruled between 1600 B.C. and 1046 B.C. Art of the Shang Dynasty comes primarily in the form of bronze objects and oracle bones. The art of the Shang Dynasty was also made from stone, ceramics, and precious materials like jade.

According to scholars the people of the Shang Dynasty were likely Huaxia people who lived around the Yellow River where the dynasty was based. Agriculture and animal husbandry were key aspects of their civilization. The dynasty was ruled by hereditary kings who were frequently at war with nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes. The art of the dynasty, particularly its oracle bones (shards of bone or turtle shell containing Shang script used for divination purposes) bear witness to specific aspects of the civilization like its rituals of human sacrifice and ancestor worship.

Objects that date from the Shang period provide many clues about Shang culture. Bronze casting became more sophisticated during this period as did pottery making. Bronze and ceramic items frequently feature the geometric designs that the Shang are known for. Shang artisans also invented musical instruments, wove silk, and created lacquerware. Artistically rendered objects often held religious significance, but many items were simply household in nature like water vessels and wine jugs.

Aside from geometric designs, the artistic relics of the Shang era were also decorated with animal faces known as taotie motifs. Scholars are uncertain about the religious importance of the animal designs or whether they were strictly ornamental. Animals also figured prominently in the jade carvings that were famously produced during the Shang Dynasty. These sophisticated carvings depict dragons, tigers, birds, and other animals. Owning jade discs also indicated an individual’s standing in Shang society.

Archaeologists have learned much about the Shang from their ornate burials that showcased considerable decorating and contained many artistically rendered items like weapons, pottery, and jade objects that were believed to be needed in the afterlife. The calligraphy of the Shang was also extremely well developed for such an ancient civilization and it often decorated tombs and artistic objects. Ritual bronzes that date to the Shang Dynasty are among the most sought after objects of antiquity. Before the twentieth century, historians were uncertain if the Shang was a real dynasty, but archaeologists have uncovered their artistic past which not only proves the existence of the Shang, but it also served to explain this early Chinese people.