Chinese Bronze Inscription

In terms of studies of written records, there are two different disciplines: Paleography and Epigraphy. The previous one focuses on the inscription: the evolution of inscriptions, the meanings, and etc.; while the latter one focuses on the handwriting specifically. As an example of study of Paleography, Chinese bronze inscription is a variety of writings that appears on the ritual bronzes (Zhong and Ding) date back from 14thcentury B.C. to 3rdcentury B.C.

Instead of a single style of inscriptions, bronze inscription can be roughly divides into four different inscriptions: Shang bronze inscription (14thcentury B.C. to 11thcentury B.C.), West Zhou bronze inscription (11thcentury B.C. to 8thcentury B.C.), East Zhou bronze inscription (8thcentury B.C. to 3rdcentury B.C.), and Qin Han bronze inscription (3rdcentury B.C.); all categorized according to the chronological frequencies. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: “Sheep” Characters in Bronze Inscription

Although the production of bronze dated before Shang dynasty, the bronze inscription has not been seen on unearthed artifacts until the after the relocation of capital (Yin Xu) during later Shang dynasty. (Figure 2) By the early stage of bronze inscription, few characters can be seen on the bronzes, and most of the contents are related to ancestor. During Zhou dynasty, the use of bronze inscription became more and more common and reached the peak during the East Zhou. The contents are also no longer restricted to the ancestors’ names: emperor’s daily events, hunting ceremonies, victories of battle, music score, and etc. After the great unification of Qin dynasty, the emperor Ying Zheng (259 B.C. to 210 B.C.) unified the inscription; together with the increase use of ironwork, bronze inscription exits the stage of history.

Figure 2: Yin Xu Site

The general practice for bronze foundries to prepare for inscription was to cast the metal surface onto the clay mold. (Figure 3) As the inscriptions are mostly interior and positive (which means the characters sink into the metal surface instead of rising from it), the current hypothesis of the practice was the craftsman first negatively write the inscription on the wet clay and apply another wet clay onto it after the first version has hardened. Yet, although experimentally proven to be one possible solution, this practice has not yet gained any archaeological background from any sites. (Oliver, 2000)

Figure 3: Casting Practice in a Bronze Foundry

The bronze inscriptions have been discovered and systematically studies by archaeologists since Song Dynasty (10thcentury to 13thcentury). Its rich content on social events provides scholars with important details on Pre Qin Period history, specifically the history related to emperor and kings, and the glyphs have greatly influenced the evolution of Chinese. (Zhang, 2014)



Reference List

Oliver Moore

2000 Chinese. University of California Press, Oakland


Xiuxia Zhang

2014 Study of Bronze Inscriptions. Electronic document,, accessed Sep 29th, 2019



Further Readings

Jeremy Norman

The Earliest Chinese Inscription in Bronze


Plcombs Chinese

Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty




Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3

2 thoughts on “Chinese Bronze Inscription

  1. This is an interesting post but doesn’t quite specifically enough help us to understand how archaeology has been used here to help us learn more about the past? What can these bronze inscriptions tell us about the societies that used them?

  2. Firstly, these bronze inscriptions, unlike the easily decomposed written documents on silk or bamboo, can last a much longer time. This feature provides archaeologists with first handed written documents, which is more precise and reliable than other written documents that are copied and rewritten generation by generation.

    Secondly, speaking of the content, the study on bronze inscription by Muoruo Guo in 1935 shown that the social structure at Western Zhou dynasty was slavery system. In this case, the bronze inscription provided rich information on the past social structure, and denied the long held belief that there were no slavery system throughout Chinese history.

    Xiuxia Zhang
    2014 Study of Bronze Inscriptions. Electronic document,, accessed Sep 29th, 2019

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