The evolution of Chinese calligraphy | Part 4 - Bronze script

The people who lived during the Shang dynasty (商朝 shāngcháo), from 1600 to 1046 BCE, primarily lived an agricultural existence, working the land and raising livestock. Except during times of war, life was generally slow-paced and local. However, trade routes did allow merchants to trade with nearby towns or coastal cities; the most famous example being the Silk Road.    

An artist's depiction of daily life during the Shang dynasty.

An artist's depiction of daily life during the Shang dynasty.

From an archaeological perspective, the Shang dynasty is important because it is the first period of time for which modern archaeologists can find vast amounts of physical evidence that give us clues as to the nature of people’s daily lives.  This abundance of this material is partly due to the development of bronze casting that occurred during the Shang dynasty. Whilst examples of oracle bone script carved into bone or tortoise shells were easily damaged or destroyed in pyromantic divination ceremonies, bronze artefacts were much more durable and the large-scale production of bronze-ware during the Shang dynasty has preserved many examples of the bronze script.   

Some of the oldest specimens of bronze script (金文 jīnwé) were found at the ceremonial site for the last nine kings; which featured in our previous blog post The evolution of Chinese calligraphy - Part 2. Compelling evidence from this site indicates that oracle bone script and bronze script were both used in divination ceremonies. It’s no surprise that bronze items were found at the last nine kinds site, as bronze items of the Shang dynasty were usually reserved for people of stature and weren’t common household items. 

A beautiful example of a bronze-ware ceremonial item from the Shang dynasty.

A beautiful example of a bronze-ware ceremonial item from the Shang dynasty.

Early bronze script was initially written into wet clay; which was then cast in bronze. Later, as bronze casting technology developed, engraving directly onto bronze-ware became the primary writing technique. This technological development not only revolutionized warfare, but also provided better, more durable tools, leading to an overall improvement of day-to-day life. 

One of the most interesting features of the bronze script is that we can accurately trace the changes of its form through time. For instance, early Bronze script examples were often long pieces of text written in a narrative style. Whereas later pieces became much shorter and factual, perhaps as a result of the proliferation of reading and writing in daily life

Close-up of bronze script on a ceremonial 'ding' vessel.

Close-up of bronze script on a ceremonial 'ding' vessel.

Strictly speaking, the bronze script is not one set writing style, but rather a collection of similar styles with their own variations that occurred throughout the Shang dynasty. Interestingly, as with the Oracle bone script, characters written in the Bronze script would be written backwards, upside-down and at different angles and still communicate the same meaning. These differences in style are especially apparent when you look at examples of writing on bamboo strips; which during this time, was the most common way of writing and recording information. Some fascinating examples of these form variations within the Bronze script will be covered in our next blog post, stay tuned! 

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