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White Pottery of Anyang in the Late Shang Period

When metallurgy first emerged in the Central Plains in early China, most notably at the site of Erlitou (c. 1900–1500 BCE) in Yanshi, Luoyang, in today’s Henan province, most bronze objects took the forms of existing clay vessels (Bagley, 1999, pp. 139–42 and 158–65). This tendency continued in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE), entering its peak in the Late Shang (c. 1250–1046 BCE). An enormous number of bronze vessels from Anyang (also in Henan), the major dynastic site of the Late Shang regime, share the same forms as their clay prototypes. The decision to cast most bronzes in forms used in pottery, instead of as tools or weapons, sets the Shang and its succeeding bronze cultures apart from all others around the world. The intricate relationship between bronze and pottery in the Shang period is further revealed when one examines the piece-mould bronze-casting method, which used clay to create the core and mould sections (Bagley, 1990; Nickel, 2006). In this article, I will explore this relationship and consider several questions that have seldom been raised—for example, was prestigious pottery still produced and used after the emergence of bronze vessels? If so, what were its functions and social roles in relation to bronze vessels?

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July/August 2020
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