History of Chinese Calligraphy – The Origins of Calligraphy in Ancient China: Bronze Inscriptions in Zhou Dynasty


The Zhou State: Feudalism and Tribute

It is not clear exactly what brought about the decline of the Shang (商) civilization. What is clear is that in approximately 1050 BCE, the Shang was defeated and replaced by the incumbent Zhou (周/Chou) state. By way of comparison with Western history, this was slightly after the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom, and slightly before the assumed birth date of the Biblical King David.

The Zhou Kings took control of a vast tract of modern-day China’s Northeast by installing family Lords in tributary states who all owed allegiance to the new rulers. Political control was maintained through a ranking and taxation system akin to the medieval European feudal system. The highest ruling class in every satellite state was directly related to the ruling Zhou clan, either by blood or intermarriage.

The High Bronze Age in China

Although the Shang elites made use of ritual bronzes, it is not until the Zhou that these artifacts, especially Bronze sacrificial vessels, were directly incorporated into the feudal ranking system. These vessels, often of a massive monumental scale, were used as much as badges of rank as they were directly involved in the conduct of ancestral rites. In particular, Ding (鼎) tripods and Gui (簋) wine vessels were very strictly controlled so that the King would have a largest set: 9 Ding and 8 Gui. Most nobles were allowed only 3 Ding and 2 Gui. So great was the prestige associated with ownership of any bronze sacrificial vessel whatever that they quickly became the site of commemorations and pronouncements of power.

First Bronze Inscriptions in Ancient China

While the Shang writing system was most commonly used for individual rituals that required the inscription of bones, the Zhou aristocracy adapted characters to figure prominently in their monumental bronzes. As the various political relationships between Zhou noble houses increased, it became necessary for these relationships to be recorded and commemorated. Aside from simply acting as objects of wealth, bronze vessels became contracts, records and celebrations of the glory of their owners. It is largely from these bronze inscriptions that the early history of the Zhou period is pieced together. The essential indestructibility of these inscriptions has allowed them to persist for thousands of years.

Zhou Writing: The Emergence of Zhou Seal Script

It is very difficult to determine the precise extent of the Zhou’s literary culture. While it is unlikely that a state of such complexity could be maintained without considerable help from scribes and accounting, the evidence for such materials is thin. However, this is probably at least in part due to the materials that would have used for such accounts. Even in later epochs, daily writing materials would decay without considerable thought put into their preservation. Indeed, the literature and music that is thought to have survived the Zhou is available only because it was likely put down and copied repeatedly at a later date. In the early and mid-Zhou, very few people would have been able to read or write.

Despite these difficulties, the Seal Scripts of the Zhou continue to have an impact on daily life. Most Chinese artworks and legal documents will make use of a seal in red ink. The characters on such seals are often rendered in a style that would not look foreign to a literate person of the Zhou. Indeed, writing in Seal Script is still carried out by calligrapher seeking to create an archaic or reverent feeling in their works.