Chinese bronze inscriptions

Chinese bronze inscriptions
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Chinese Bronze inscriptions are writing in a variety of Chinese scripts on Chinese bronze artifacts such as zhōng[1] bells and dǐng tripodal cauldrons from the Shāng dynasty to the Zhōu dynasty and even later. Early bronze inscriptions were almost always cast (that is, the writing was done with a stylus in the wet clay of the piece-mold from which the bronze was then cast), while later inscriptions were often engraved after the bronze was cast.[2]



highly pictorial Shāng emblem character (牛 niú ‘ox’)

For the early Western Zhōu to early Warring States period, the bulk of writing which has been unearthed has been in the form of bronze inscriptions.[3] As a result, it is common to refer to the variety of scripts of this period as bronze script, even though there is no single such script. The term usually includes bronze inscriptions of the preceding Shāng dynasty as well.[4]

However, there are great differences between the highly pictorial Shāng emblem (aka ‘identificational’) characters on bronzes (see ‘ox’ clan insignia at left), typical Shāng bronze graphs, writing on bronzes from the middle of the Zhōu dynasty, and that on late Zhōu to Qín, Hàn and subsequent period bronzes. Furthermore, starting in the Spring and Autumn period, the writing in each region gradually evolved in different directions, such that the script styles in the Warring States of Chǔ, Qín and the eastern regions, for instance, were strikingly divergent. In addition, artistic scripts also emerged in the late Spring and Autumn to early Warring States, such as Bird Script (鳥書 niǎoshū), also called Bird Seal Script (鳥篆 niǎozhuàn), and Worm Script (蟲書 chóngshū). The comparison below of one Shāng graph and three Zhōu graphs, all from bronzes but clearly in four different scripts, illustrates why talk of “bronze script” as if it were one entity is meaningless, even when referring only to the Zhōu dynasty period. Such vague references make discussions of etymology particularly problematic:

When precision is needed, bronze may be viewed as a medium, and more specific reference may be made to a script by naming one of the periods, areas, or script styles, e.g.:

  • By period: Western Zhōu bronze script, or even its early, middle or late phases
  • By region or lineage: Qín-lineage Spring and Autumn script; or Warring State of Chǔ script
  • By script style: seal script (broadly meaning the Qín script in the Eastern Zhou to Qín dynasty); or Bird Script, Worm Script, etc.

Inscribed Bronzes Found

Left: Bronze "fāng zūn" ritual wine container, c. 1000 BCE. The inscription commemorates a gift of cowrie shells to its owner. Right: Bronze "fāng yí" ritual container c. 1000 BCE. An inscription of some 180 characters appears twice on it, commenting on state rituals that accompany court ceremony, recorded by an official scribe.

Over ten thousand inscribed bronzes have been uncovered which date to before the Qín dynasty, with roughly a quarter dating to the Shāng and three quarters dating to the Zhōu dynasty.[5] These have been periodically unearthed ever since their creation, and have been systematically collected and studied since at least the Sòng dynasty.[6] The inscriptions tend to grow in length over time, from only one to six or so characters for the earlier Shāng examples, to forty or so characters in the longest, late-Shāng case,[6] and frequently a hundred or more on Zhōu bronzes, with the longest up to around 500[7]

In general, characters on ancient Chinese bronze inscriptions were arranged in vertical columns, written top to bottom, in a fashion thought to have been influenced by bamboo books, which are believed to have been the main medium for writing in the Shāng and Zhōu dynasties.[8][9] The very narrow, vertical bamboo slats of these books were not suitable for writing wide characters, and so a number of graphs were rotated 90 degrees; this style then carried over to the Shāng and Zhōu oracle bones and bronzes. Examples:

Examples of bronze inscription graphs rotated 270°: From left, 馬 mǎ ‘horse’; 虎 hǔ ‘tiger’, 豕 shĭ ‘swine’, 犬 quǎn ‘dog’, 象 xiàng ‘elephant’, 龜 guī ‘turtle’, 為 wèi ‘to lead’ (now ‘do’), 疾 jí ‘illness’.

Shāng bronze inscriptions

Inscriptions on Shāng bronzes are of a fairly uniform style, making it possible to discuss a “Shāng bronze script”, although great differences still exist between typical characters and certain instances of clan names or emblems. Like early period oracle bone script, the structures and orientations of individual graphs varied greatly in the Shāng bronze inscriptions, such that one may find a particular character written differently each time rather than in a standardized way (see the many examples of ‘tiger’ graph to the lower left).

虎 hǔ 'tiger' from bronze inscriptions (in green), compared to other script forms

As in the oracle bone script, characters could be written facing left or right, turned 90 degrees, and sometimes even flipped vertically, generally with no change in meaning.[10] For instance, Chinese character xu1 戌 11th Earthly Branch ORACLE BONE 1.jpg and Chinese character xu1 戌 11th Earthly Branch ORACLE BONE 2.jpg both represent the modern character 戌 xū (the 11th Earthly Branch), while Chinese oracle bone script character hou2 侯 marquis.gif and 侯-oracle.gif are both 侯 hóu ‘marquis’. This was true of normal as well as extra complex identificational graphs, such as the 虎 hǔ ‘tiger’ clan emblem at right, which was turned 90 degrees clockwise on its bronze.

Shāng tiger emblem from a bird-shaped zūn vessel (虎丰鳥形尊)

These inscriptions are almost all cast (as opposed to engraved),[11] and are relatively short and simple. Some were mainly to identify the name of a clan or other name,[12] while typical inscriptions include the maker's clan name and the posthumous title of the ancestor who is commemorated by the making and use of the vessel.[13] These inscriptions, especially those late period examples identifying a name,[12] are typically executed in a script of highly pictographic[14] flavor, which preserves[15] the formal, complex Shāng writing as would have primarily been written on bamboo or wood books,[16] as opposed to the concurrent simplified, linearized[17] and more rectilinear form of writing as seen on the oracle bones. A few Shāng inscriptions have been found which were brush-written on pottery, stone, jade or bone artifacts, and there are also some bone engravings on non-divination matters written in a complex, highly pictographic style;[12] the structure and style of the bronze inscriptions is consistent with these.[15] The soft clay of the piece-molds used to produce the Shāng to early Zhōu bronzes was suitable for preserving most of the complexity of the brush-written characters on such books and other media, whereas the hard, bony surface of the oracle bones was difficult to engrave, spurring significant simplification and conversion to rectilinearity. Furthermore, some of the characters on the Shāng bronzes may have been more complex than normal due to particularly conservative[18] usage in this ritual medium, or when recording identificational inscriptions (clan or personal names); some scholars instead attribute this to purely decorative considerations.[19] Shāng bronze script may thus be considered a formal script, similar to but sometimes even more complex than the unattested daily Shāng script on bamboo and wood books and other media, yet far more complex than the Shāng script on the oracle bones.

Western Zhōu script on bronzes

Western Zhōu dynasty characters (as exemplified by bronze inscriptions of that time) basically continue from the Shāng writing system; that is, early W. Zhōu forms resemble Shāng bronze forms (both identificational inscriptions such as clan names,[20] and typical writing), without any clear or sudden distinction. They are, like their Shāng predecessors in all media, often irregular in shape and size, and the structures and details often vary from one piece of writing to the next, and even within the same piece. Although most are not pictographs in function, the early Western Zhōu bronze inscriptions have been described as more pictographic in flavor than those of subsequent periods. During the Western Zhōu, many graphs begin to show signs of simplification and linearization (the changing of rounded elements into squared ones, solid elements into short line segments, and thick, variable-width lines into thin ones of uniform width), with the result being a decrease in pictographic quality, as depicted in the chart below.

Linearization of characters during the Western Zhōu

Some flexibility in orientation of graphs (rotation and reversibility) continues in the Western Zhou, but this becomes increasingly scarce throughout the Zhōu dynasty.[21] The graphs start to become slightly more uniform in structure, size and arrangement by the time of the third Zhou sovereign, King Kāng, and after the ninth, King Yì, this trend becomes more obvious.[22]

Some have used the problematic term large seal’ (大篆 dàzhuàn) to refer to the script of this period. This term dates back to the Hàn dynasty,[23] when (small) seal script and clerical script were both in use. It thus became necessary to distinguish between the two, as well as any earlier script forms which were still accessible in the form of books and inscriptions, so the terms ‘large seal’ (大篆 dàzhuàn) and ‘small seal’ (小篆 xiǎozhuàn, aka 秦篆 Qín zhuàn) came into being. However, since the term ‘large seal’ is variously used to describe zhòuwén (籀文) examples from the ca. 800 BCE Shizhoupian compendium, or inscriptions on both late W. Zhōu bronze inscriptions and the Stone Drums of Qín, or all forms (including oracle bone script) predating small seal, the term is best avoided entirely.[24]

Eastern Zhou scripts on bronzes

Spring & Autumn period scripts on bronzes

Bronze sword of King Gōujiàn of Yuè (late Spring & Autumn), with bird script; detail—part of inscription: "越王自作" Yuè Wáng zì zuò, “Made by the King of Yuè”. Húbĕi Provincial Museum

By the beginning of the Eastern Zhōu, in the Spring and Autumn period, many graphs are fully linearized, as seen in the chart above; additionally, curved lines are straightened, and disconnected lines are often connected, with the result of greater convenience in writing, but a marked decrease in pictographic quality.[17]

In the Eastern Zhōu, the various states initially continued using the same forms as in the late Western Zhōu. However, regional forms then began to diverge stylistically as early as the Spring and Autumn period,[25] with the forms in the state of Qín remaining more conservative. At this time, seals and minted coins, both probably primarily of bronze, were already in use, according to traditional documents, but none of the extant seals have yet been indisputably dated to that period.[26]

By the mid to late Spring and Autumn period, artistic derivative scripts with vertically elongated forms appeared on bronzes, especially in the eastern and southern states, and remained in use into the Warring States period (see detail of inscription from the Warring States Tomb of Marquis Yĭ of Zēng below left). In the same areas, in the late Spring and Autumn to early Warring States, scripts which embellished basic structures with decorative forms such as birds or worms also appeared. These are known as Bird Script (鳥書 niǎoshū) and Worm Script (蟲書chóngshū), and collectively as Bird-worm scripts, (鳥蟲書 niǎochóngshū; see Bronze sword of King Gōujiàn to right); however, these were primarily decorative forms for inscriptions on bronzes and other items, and not scripts in daily use.[27] Some bronzes of the period were incised in a rough, casual manner, with graph structures often differing somewhat from typical ones. It is thought that these reflected the popular (vulgar) writing of the time which coexisted with the formal script.[28]

Warring States Period scripts on bronzes

Seals have been found from the Warring States period, mostly cast in bronze,[29] and minted bronze coins from this period are also numerous. These form an additional, valuable resource for the study of Chinese bronze inscriptions. It is also from this period that the first surviving bamboo and silk manuscripts have been uncovered.[30]

In the early Warring States period, typical bronze inscriptions were similar in content and length to those in the late Western Zhōu to Spring and Autumn period.[31] One of the most famous sets of bronzes ever discovered dates to the early Warring States: a large set of biānzhōng'' bells from the tomb of Marquis Yĭ of the state of Zēng, unearthed in 1978. The total length of the inscriptions on this set was almost 2,800 characters.[31]

Bronze biānzhōng bells from the early Warring States Tomb of Marquis Yĭ of Zēng
Detail of inscription from biānzhōng bell, Tomb of Marquis Yĭ of Zēng

In the mid to late Warring States period, the average length of inscriptions decreased greatly.[32] Many, especially on weapons, recorded only the date, maker and so on, in contrast with earlier narrative contents. Beginning at this time, such inscriptions were typically engraved onto the already cast bronzes, rather than being written into the wet clay of piece-molds as had been the earlier practice. The engraving was often roughly and hastily executed.[33]

In Warring States period bronze inscriptions, trends from the late Spring and Autumn period continue, such as the use of artistically embellished scripts (e.g., Bird and Insect Scripts) on decorated bronze items. In daily writing, which was not embellished in this manner, the typical script continued evolving in different directions in various regions, and this divergence was accelerated by both a lack of central political control as well as the spread of writing outside of the nobility.[34] In the state of Qín, which was somewhat culturally isolated from the other states, and which was positioned on the old Zhōu homeland, the script became more uniform and stylistically symmetrical,[35] rather than changing much structurally. Change in the script was slow, so it remained more similar to the typical late Western Zhōu script as found on bronzes of that period and the Shĭ Zhoù Piān (史籀篇) compendium of ca. 800 BCE.[35][36] As a result, it was not until around the middle of the Warring States period that popular (aka common or vulgar) writing gained momentum in Qín, and even then, the vulgar forms remained somewhat similar to traditional forms, changing primarily in terms of becoming more rectilinear. Traditional forms in Qín remained in use as well, so that two forms of writing coexisted. The traditional forms in Qín evolved slowly during the Eastern Zhōu, gradually becoming what is now called (small) seal script during that period, without any clear dividing line (it is not the case, as is commonly believed, that small seal script was a sudden invention by Lĭ Sī in the Qín dynasty[37]). Meanwhile, the Qín vulgar writing evolved into early clerical (or proto-clerical) in the late Warring States to Qín dynasty period,[38] which would then evolve further into the clerical script used in the Hàn through the Wèi-Jìn (晉) periods.[39]

Meanwhile, in the eastern states, vulgar forms had become popular sooner; they also differed more radically from and more completely displaced the traditional forms.[34] These eastern scripts, which also varied somewhat by state or region, were later misunderstood by Xŭ Shèn, author of the Hàn dynasty etymological dictionary Shuōwén Jiézì, who thought they predated the Warring States Qín forms, and thus labeled them gǔwén (古文), or “ancient script”.

See also


  1. ^ For overviews of the shapes, names and functions of such Chinese bronze artifacts, see Deydier pp.197-205, & Rawson Ancient China p.63
  2. ^ Qiú 2000 p.60
  3. ^ There are also extremely small numbers of inscriptions from the Zhōuyuán (周原) oracle bones dating to the start of the Zhōu dynasty (Qiú 2000, pp.68-9), as well as the Shĭ Zhoù Piān (史籀篇) compendium of ca. 800 BCE, a tiny fraction of which has been preserved as the zhòuwén (籀文) examples in Shuōwén, and finally, the Stone Drums of Qín of the late Spring & Autumn period.
  4. ^ Bronze inscriptions also exist for the periods preceding and following this; but the bulk of earlier (Shāng dynasty) writing is in oracle bone script, while later writings are also available on bamboo books, silk books, and stone monuments (stelae) in significant quantities.
  5. ^ Qiū 2000, p.62
  6. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.62
  7. ^ Qiú 2000, p.68 cites 291 on the Dà Yú Dĭng (大盂鼎) , about 400 on the Xiǎo Yú Dĭng (小盂鼎), 350 on the Sǎn Shì Pán (散氏盤), 498 on the Máo Gōng Dĭng (毛公鼎), and 493 on a large bó bell cast by Shū Gōng (叔弓 (sic)) in the Spring and Autumn period.
  8. ^ Xu Yahui, p.12
  9. ^ Qiu 2000, p.63
  10. ^ Qiu 2000, p.67
  11. ^ Qiú 2000, p.60
  12. ^ a b c Qiú 2000, p.64
  13. ^ Qiú 2000 p.62
  14. ^ However, although pictographic in origin, many of these characters are no longer pictographic in function, after undergoing semantic extension or phonetic loan, so that they no longer represent the object originally depicted.
  15. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.63
  16. ^ The main writing medium of the time is believed to have been the writing brush and bamboo or wood books; although they have not survived, the character for such books, Ce4 book from Shang1 dynasty bronze.png 冊 cè, showing their vertical slats bound with a horizontal string, is found on Shāng and Zhōu bronzes, as is the graph for the writing brush (see Qiú 2000, p.63, and Xǔ Yǎhuì, p.12). Historical references to use by the Shāng of such books also exist, e.g., in the Duōshì chapter of the Shàngshū (Qiú pp.62-3)
  17. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.70
  18. ^ Qiú 2000, p.65
  19. ^ Insert Shāng identificational bronze graphs compared to typical bronze or oracle bone script form of the same characters here
  20. ^ Qiú 2000, p.69; p.65 footnote 5 also mentions that highly pictographic clan emblems and other identificational forms are still found in the Zhōu period, especially the beginning of the W. Zhōu
  21. ^ Qiú 2000, p.67
  22. ^ Qiú 2000, pp.69-70
  23. ^ Qiú 2000, p.100
  24. ^ Qiú 2000, p.77
  25. ^ Qiú 2000, p. 71 & 76
  26. ^ Qiú 2000, p.80
  27. ^ Qiú 2000, pp.71-72
  28. ^ Qiu 2000, p.72
  29. ^ Qiú 2000, p.80 notes that some were also silver or jade
  30. ^ Qiú 2000, p.81
  31. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.79
  32. ^ Qiú 2000, p. 79
  33. ^ Qiú 2000, p.79-80 & 93
  34. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.78
  35. ^ a b Qiú 2000, p.97
  36. ^ 陳昭容 Chén Zhāoróng 2003
  37. ^ Qiú 2000, p.107
  38. ^ Qiú 2000, p.78, 104 & 107
  39. ^ Although popularly associated only with the Hàn dynasty, clerical actually remained in use alongside cursive, neo-clerical and semi-cursive scripts until after the Wèi-Jìn period, when the modern standard script became dominant; see Qiu 2000, p.113


  • 陳昭容 Chén Zhāoróng (2003) 秦系文字研究 ﹕从漢字史的角度考察 Research on the Qín (Ch'in) Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing. 中央研究院歷史語言研究所專刊 Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology Monograph. ISBN 957-671-995-X (in Chinese).
  • Deydier, Christian (1980). Chinese Bronzes. New York: Rizzoli NK7904.D49, SA
  • Qiú Xīguī (2000). Chinese Writing. Translation of 文字學概論 by Mattos and Norman. Early China Special Monograph Series No. 4. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. ISBN 1-55729-071-7.
  • Rawson, Jessica (1980) Ancient China: Art and Archaeology. London: British Museum Publications.
  • Rawson, Jessica (1987) Chinese Bronzes: Art and Ritual. London.
  • Rawson, Jessica (1983) The Chinese Bronzes of Yunnan. London and Beijing: Sidgwick and Jackson.
  • Shaughnessy, Edward L. (1991). Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels. University of California Press, Berekeley, Los Angeles, Oxford. ISBN 0-520-07028-3.
  • Wáng Huī (王輝, 2006). “商周金文” (Shāng and Zhōu bronze inscriptions). 北京 : 文物出版社 Bĕijīng, Wénwù Publishing.

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