An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shang Period Science, Technology, Inventions

Feb 9, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

While bronze casting was invented at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, the Shang period with the cultures of Erligang, Panlongcheng, Yin, and others, was the first age when bronze casting was industrialized and bronze tools and ritual bronze vessels were produced in royal workshops.

The royal workshops were staffed with labourers that casted bronze vessels or other bronze tools like musical instruments (drums gu 鼓, many kinds of bells: nao 鐃, zheng 鉦, ling 鈴) and weapons (dagger ge 戈, spear mao 矛, including ritual tools like axes yue 鉞), carved ritual jades, and prepared turle shells for divination.

Surprisingly enough, the labour conscripts did not engage in waterwork. The digging or irrigation canals or the erection of dams seemed not to be within the crucial tasks of the kings of Yin, like it became later one of the most important charges of the Chinese rulers.

Archaeological sites of the Shang period often include workshops - often outside the city - with furnaces, models, molds and rawlings preserved. In two locations, even iron tools have been discovered. Admiring the impressive bronze vessels, we often forget pottery or ceramics that were also an important part of Shang handicraft industry. Some ceramic vessels with white or grey colour are incised with patterns that are identical with the decorations seen on the bronze vessels. Single pots are covered with a thin glaze - the earliest examples of glazed pottery in China. Jade objects show a great variety of shapes and patterns, nephrite pieces in the shape of animals are very common in Shang finds, besides the traditional shapes of tubes (cong 琮), rings (bi 璧, half ring: huang 璜) and tablets (gui 圭, zhang 璋) inherited from the Neolithic age. Lacquerware is determined to decay easily, and there are only single surviving fragments being discovered in Shang tombs. Shang buildings and palaces as discovered in Anyang and Erligang were already huge buildings that were entirely made of perishable materials. The basement was pounded earth (hangtu 夯土), and the main pillars were protected from rotting by a stone base. Royal tombs as constructed in the last period of Shang were huge complexes with a deep shaft and longs ramps leading down into the burial chamber. The construction of the tombs alone must have required huge manpower.

The Chinese Calendar

From Shang times on until the twentieth century, today even sometimes used in art, the cyclic lunar calendar (yueli 月曆) was the instrument to date every event. It is composed of two different cylces, the ten Celestial Stems (tiangan 天干) and the twelve Terrestrial Branches (dizhi 地支). To count the days, a combination of two characters - each being from one of the two cycles - came up to sixty days, divided in two months and six ten-day weeks (xun 旬). Once the 60 unit cycle has ended, it is repeated time after time. Thus, one 360 day year includes six complete stem-branch-cycles.

In later dynasties, the years have been counted in the same manner, resulting in sixty-years-cycles which made it possible to define a year if the name of the ruler was known. Sometimes the ten Stems and Branches just serve as numbers. The Shang rulers used to count their ancestors in this way. Shang astronomers observed the annual cycle and found out the length of a solar year as 365 1/4 days (the old calender this is called sifenli 四分曆 "quarter calendar"). Months were divided into long and short months, the long months counting 30 days, the smaller 29 days. Twelve months made up one lunar year, and to adjust it to the solar year, one intercalary week (runyue 閏月) was added seven years from nineteen ("year" is nian 年, a character that originally meant "harvest"; the character is compound from 禾 "grain" and 千 "thousand"; other words for "year" are sui 歲 and si 祀 "annual sacrifice to the Earth"). The observation of the starry sky and the weather was essential for the performance of a perfect government.
Reports about various diseases of men, animals and crops often occur in the oracle bone inscriptions. They might be first traces of a kind of observal medicine.

The Chinese Script

The appearance of the Chinese script in King Wu Ding's 武丁 reign is no proof that a kind of script was invented and used exclusively in Yin and from this time on. The first Chinese characters appear in oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文) as well as in bronze vessels (jinwen 金文). Yet it must assume that a script was invented and used before on non-durable material like bamboo or wooden slips. The Zhou Dynasty 周 inherited the script and therewith a part of the "construed" Chinese culture.

The language of the oracle bone inscriptions is full of specific terms and makes use of non-standardized characters. It is hardly to understand even if one has learned to read Classical Chinese. Although there are incarved or inscribed characters on pottery of earlier periods like the sites of the Longshan Culture 龍山, these characters might rather be signs or clan insignia than words in a semantic context. Readable texts were only be discovered recently in the remains of he site of Erlitou 二里頭, very early phase of the Shang period.