Left to right: Ritual wine pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie), dragons, and real animals, Anyang or middle Yangzi region, ca. 1100 B.C., bronze, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer, F1961.33a–b; Ritual wine-pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie) and dragons, middle or late Anyang period, ca. 1100 B.C., bronze, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.279a–b; Ritual wine-pouring vessel (gong) with masks (taotie), dragons, and real animals, middle Anyang period, ca. 1150–1100 B.C., bronze, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1939.53a–b (National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings is the first major exhibition in the United States dedicated to Anyang, the capital of China’s Shang dynasty (occupied ca. 1250 BCE–ca. 1050 BCE). The source of China’s earliest surviving written records and the birthplace of Chinese archaeology, Anyang holds a special connection with the National Museum of Asian Art. In 1929, one year after Academia Sinica began archaeological work at the Bronze Age site, Li Chi assumed leadership of the excavations. At the time, he was also a staff member of the Freer Gallery of Art (1925–30). To promote archaeological practice in China, the Freer supported Li Chi and his first two seasons of work at Anyang. This collaboration, predicated on the advancement of scientific knowledge and the protection of cultural patrimony, marks an important chapter in the history of Sino-American relations.
Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings features over two hundred remarkable artifacts—including jade ornaments, ceremonial weapons, ritual bronze vessels, bells, and chariot fittings—drawn exclusively from the museum’s permanent collection. Explore the early development of Chinese writing, enduring ritual practices, innovations in weaponry and warfare, advances in design and manufacturing, and the highly personal spaces of tombs, including objects chosen for the afterlife. The exhibition includes a series of digital activations developed in partnership with award-winning production studio UNIT9 that allows visitors to dig deeper into the life of the city.
Storage jar (lei), early Anyang period, ca. 1200 BCE, unglazed white pottery, F1939.42
Making the Shang Capital: The Early Kings
Sometime in the thirteenth century BCE, the Shang kings abandoned their settlement north of the Huan River at Anyang and founded a new capital on its southern banks (occupied ca. 1250–1050 BCE). Here, they built palaces and temples in a city that became one of the largest urban centers of the ancient world.
The initial expansion coincided with the long reign of King Wu Ding (fl. 1200 BCE), a period marked by the rapid growth of the bronze industry and other craft production, the arrival of horses and chariotry, and the construction of enormous royal tombs accompanied by large-scale human sacrifice.
Wu Ding is also associated with the earliest surviving body of ancient Chinese writing. The ritual and administrative texts dating to his reign survived because they were inscribed on bone, turtle shell, and bronze—surfaces more durable than the wood and bamboo strips used for everyday writing. These early texts reveal a fully developed writing system ancestral to the modern Chinese script. Its sophistication was necessary to run the complex military, civil, and ritual bureaucracies of what the kings called “Great Settlement Shang.”
Group of early Anyang bronze ritual vessels, ca. 1250–1200 BCE: li (S1987.64), gu (S1987.276), jia (F1923.1a–b), jue (S1987.53), yu (S1987.59)
The Eternal Feast
Eye-catching containers used in ritual banquets are a hallmark of Anyang elite culture. The examples shown here date to the early Anyang period, around the time of King Wu Ding. Cast from bronze, an alloy of copper, tin, and lead, they were created in large, officially run facilities that were organized like factories, with a division of skilled labor. The vessels standing on legs were placed over fires to warm wine and to cook food. Containers with round bases were used for storing wine as well as for serving food and drink.
Both the basic repertoire of shapes and the surface decoration of imaginary animals belong to an artistic tradition that began in the region several hundred years earlier. Texts from Anyang don’t tell us anything about these fantastical beasts, but in later times, they were given names. The paired-eye animal mask, sometimes drawn with a body attached on both sides, is called a taotie. The single-eyed creature shown in profile is conventionally called a dragon. Used by craftspeople throughout the Anyang period, changes in their design help researchers date the objects they ornament.
In the early Anyang period, brief inscriptions that name the individual who commissioned them start to appear on vessels. These texts sometimes indicate that the vessels’ contents were intended as offerings to specific ancestors of these patrons.
Three late Anyang bronze ritual vessels with lengthy inscriptions, ca. 1100–1050 BCE: jiao (F1953.83a–b), fangding (S1987.305), gui (S1987.51)
Honored by the King
The Shang capital grew throughout its occupation to cover over fourteen square miles. Its exact boundaries are still uncertain, as archaeologists continue to discover habitation remains further and further from its center. Beyond the opulent palaces and temples in its royal precinct, the city possessed a complex urban network of roads and canals that ran through neighborhoods filled with dense settlements and enormous workshops. All of this was supervised by a large bureaucracy of the king’s officials who managed the city’s public infrastructure, huge labor force, military, and the nearby agricultural lands that kept everyone fed.
The Shang kings and their top advisors presided over ceremonies that rewarded the outstanding performance of government officials. Records of these occasions begin to appear in inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels near the very end of the Anyang period. These texts recount the royal reward. The three late Anyang bronze vessels seen here have particularly interesting inscriptions that provide insight into the lives of their makers.
Rewarding a Military Official
The inscription on the three-legged wine warmer (upper left) commemorates a reward of cowrie shells given directly from the king.
Serving a Husband’s Ancestors
The inscription on the interior of the square cauldron (upper right) identifies the patron as the wife of an official. The vessel is dedicated to multiple ancestors, including a Father Gui and two others belonging to earlier generations of the patron’s husband’s lineage.
Recognition from a King’s Advisor
The inscription inside the grain server (bottom) is among the longest known from the Shang. It recounts the award of cowrie shells from one of the king’s top advisors to a military official.
Group of Anyang jade (nephrite) collared disks and objects made from them, ca. 1250–1050 BCE: collared disks (S1987.457, S1987.647, S1987.656), large round axe (F1970.39), small axe (S2012.9.269), bracelet (S2012.9.230), fish pendants (F1979.26–27)
Made in Anyang: The Factories
Anyang’s workshops were remarkable in scale and sophistication. Both their production levels and complex fabrication methods involving divisions of highly specialized labor suggest they functioned as factories and operated at an industrial scale.
Jade, a rare stone first valued thousands of years before the Shang dynasty, continued to be a prestige medium at Anyang, where it was used to make jewelry and ceremonial and ritual objects ranging from small pendants to large symbolic weapons. Output was impressive, and physical evidence suggests techniques were developed to speed production and increase efficiency. The Anyang disks and derivatives shown here are extremely thin, reflect central holes of a consistent size, and often possess a short, raised collar surrounding the perforation.
The standardization and refinement of these forms suggest the use of a lathe. The introduction of the treadle-powered device allowed the object to rotate while workers efficiently directed abrasives, such as ground quartz, against the nephrite surface to make cuts and shape the perimeter. The use of the lathe promoted precision and reduced waste. The standardization of such collared disks suggests that they may have been produced for multiple applications, functioning almost like an industrial blank.
Bronze ritual wine cup (gu) and wine warmer (jue), middle Anyang period, ca. 1150–1100 BCE, S1987.275 and S1994.61; ceramic wine cups (gu) and wine warmers (jue), late Anyang period, ca. 1100–1050 BCE, S2012.9.514, S2012.9.565, S2012.9.557, S2012.9.548
Shang Tombs and Society
The Shang kings stood atop a complex and highly stratified society that was dominated by the extended royal family, other high-ranking lineages, and the rest of the privileged official class. At the lower end of the spectrum were specialist craftspeople, peasants, soldiers, and common laborers. Lowest of all were enemy captives.
The objects placed in Anyang tombs reflect the personal identities and ritual needs of the deceased. The most important tomb objects were banqueting vessels, since they ensured the continuation of offerings in the spirit world. The gu (tall chalice) and jue (tripod) were essential for Shang libation rituals involving wine. The jue warmed the serving of wine destined for the gu, which in turn held the offering for the deceased. Any person of status would have wanted to take at least this pair of objects to the grave, and they are the most common ritual vessels found in Anyang burials. Pottery and bronze examples reflect differences in the social standing of their owners. The inscription inside the foot of this bronze gu names the head of a prominent family who held a high military office, while the pottery pieces must come from more modest burials.
Jade (nephrite) finials in the form of birds, Anyang period, ca. 1250–1050 BCE: S1987.640, S1987.841, S1987.532, S1987.518, S2012.9.320
In addition to the mortuary goods prepared for the funeral and necessities required for the afterlife, families aspired to entomb their deceased with possessions treasured during life. Richly furnished Anyang tombs contained an array of luxuries, including jewelry and small personal objects—their number and type helping to indicate the status and interests of the deceased. Crafted from a variety of valued materials, these precious ornaments for the afterlife also offer insights into the fashion of the living. Carved bone hairpins and jade (nephrite) pendants and fittings were often inspired by the natural world; the depictions on their surfaces range from lifelike to abstract. Most remarkable are designs inspired by the supernatural, including combat between a dragon and bird.
Vessels in the form of elephants produced in Anyang, ca. 1100 BCE (F1936.6a–b) and the middle Yangzi River region in the south, ca. 1150–1100 BCE (S1987.65a–b)
Beyond Anyang: Influence and Exchange
Outside the city, nearby farmlands provided Anyang with livestock and grain. Far to the east, the Shang kings or their allies controlled coastal settlements that produced salt—another precious commodity. Beyond these royally controlled territories lay a host of rival powers that interacted with the Shang capital through war or exchange—both commercial and cultural. The most impressive of these distant neighbors were located in the south, where bronze-using kingdoms, rich in metal ores necessary for bronze casting, spread along the Yangzi River system.
These two pouring vessels contrast the work of a metropolitan Anyang foundry with that of a southern workshop of lesser sophistication. The northern designer of the vessel with the more recognizable creature (left) clearly had some personal experience with elephants and knew how to skillfully adapt standard Anyang taotie and dragon patterns to decorate the vessel’s irregular surface. The provincial southerner who imagined the second piece (right) may never have seen an elephant in real life. In fact, even if its trunk hadn’t broken off, it would be hard for some to identify the inspiration behind the shape.
About the Exhibition
Duration: February 25, 2023–April 28, 2024
Venue: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery | Galleries 23 and 24
Courtesy National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution.