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The Bronze Age is a period characterized by the use of bronze, proto-writing, and other early features of urban civilization. The Bronze Age is the second principal period of the three-age Stone-Bronze-Iron system, as proposed in modern times by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, for classifying and studying ancient societies.



Historians disagree about the dates of a "Bronze Age" in China. The difficulty lies in the term "Bronze Age", as it has been applied to signify a period in history when bronze tools replaced stone tools, and, later, were themselves replaced by iron ones. The medium of the new "Age" made that of the old obsolete. In China, however, any attempt to establish a definite set of dates for a Bronze Age is complicated by two factors:



arrival of iron smelting technology, and persistence of bronze objects.The earliest bronze artifacts have been found in the Majiayao culture site (between 3100 and 2700 BC), and from then on, the society gradually grew into the Bronze Age.



Bronze metallurgy in China originated in what is referred to as the Erlitou (Wade–Giles: Erh-li-t'ou) period, which some historians argue places it within the range of dates controlled by the Shang dynasty. Others believe the Erlitou sites belong to the preceding Xia (Wade–Giles: Hsia) dynasty. The U.S. National Gallery of Art defines the Chinese Bronze Age as the "period between about 2000 BC and 771 BC," a period that begins with the Erlitou culture and ends abruptly with the disintegration of Western Zhou rule. Though this provides a concise frame of reference, it overlooks the continued importance of bronze in Chinese metallurgy and culture. Since this is significantly later than the discovery of bronze in Mesopotamia, bronze technology could have been imported rather than discovered independently in China. While there may be reason to believe that bronzework developed inside China separately from outside influence,the discovery of Europoid mummies in Xinjiang suggests a possible route of transmission from the West.



The Shang Dynasty of the Yellow River Valley rose to power after the Xia Dynasty. While some direct information about the Shang Dynasty comes from Shang-era inscriptions on bronze artifacts, most comes from oracle bones – turtle shells, cattle scapulae, or other bones – which bear glyphs that form the first significant corpus of recorded Chinese characters.



Iron is found from the Zhou Dynasty, but its use is minimal. Chinese literature dating to the 6th century BC attests knowledge of iron smelting, yet bronze continues to occupy the seat of significance in the archaeological and historical record for some time after this. Historian W. C. White argues that iron did not supplant bronze "at any period before the end of the Zhou dynasty (256 BC)" and that bronze vessels make up the majority of metal vessels all the way through the Later Han period, or to 221 BC [sic?].



The Chinese bronze artifacts generally are either utilitarian, like spear points or adze heads, or "ritual bronzes", which are more elaborate versions in precious materials of everyday vessels, as well as tools and weapons. Examples are the numerous large sacrificial tripods known as dings in Chinese; there are many other distinct shapes. Surviving identified Chinese ritual bronzes tend to be highly decorated, often with the taotie motif, which involves highly stylized animal faces. These appear in three main motif types: those of demons, of symbolic animals, and of abstract symbols. Many large bronzes also bear cast inscriptions that are the great bulk of the surviving body of early Chinese writing and have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of China, especially during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).



The bronzes of the Western Zhou Dynasty document large portions of history not found in the extant texts that were often composed by persons of varying rank and possibly even social class. Further, the medium of cast bronze lends the record they preserve a permanence not enjoyed by manuscripts. These inscriptions can commonly be subdivided into four parts: a reference to the date and place, the naming of the event commemorated, the list of gifts given to the artisan in exchange for the bronze, and a dedication. The relative points of reference these vessels provide have enabled historians to place most of the vessels within a certain time frame of the Western Zhou period, allowing them to trace the evolution of the vessels and the events they record.

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