Anyang, the last great capital of the ancient Shang dynasty, is sometimes described as the birthplace of Chinese archaeology. Investigations at the site – which were launched by Academia Sinica in 1928 and, with the exception of a hiatus between 1937 and 1950, have carried on almost continuously up to the present day – played a central role in the development of archaeological practice in China, and have produced an array of dazzling discoveries, resulting in the designation of the ancient city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
The Freer Gallery of Art, now part of the National Museum of Asian Art, has long had a special connection to Anyang, having supported some of the earliest excavations at the site, which were led by Li Chi, the director of archaeology for Academia Sinica, who was also affiliated with the Freer at the time. Today, the National Museum of Asian Art is home to hundreds of items associated with the settlement, and Anyang: China’s ancient city of kings features more than 200 such objects from the museum’s collections. The exhibition, which is part of the Freer’s centenary celebrations, also celebrates the value of international collaboration, drawing on ongoing research at Anyang to place these remarkable objects in context.
‘Great Settlement Shang’
In the 13th century BC, the kings of the Shang dynasty founded a new capital on the southern bank of the Huan River, in Henan province, central China. The city remained the Shang seat of power for several centuries c.1250-1050 BC, during which time it developed into one of the largest urban centres in the ancient world, covering more than 14 square miles, although its exact boundaries are still unknown and archaeological work continues to uncover further evidence of habitation.
The late Shang period was a time of great prosperity and development, and Anyang was home to an opulent palace district occupied by the city’s rich and powerful elite. Much of Anyang’s royal cemetery was looted in antiquity, but the wealth of luxury objects that it once would have contained is attested by the tomb of Fu Hao, a royal consort of King Wu Ding, which was discovered in 1976, intact and filled with ritual vessels and personal objects like jewellery that were treasured during her lifetime and then taken to the afterlife. Anyang was a city of great inequality, however, with non-royal elites living in smaller imitations of palace buildings, complete with sophisticated plumbing systems, while the lowest in society inhabited semi-underground pit-dwellings, and prisoners captured during Shang military campaigns were victims of large-scale human sacrifice. Archaeological work has also uncovered other parts of what the kings called ‘Great Settlement Shang’, including neighbourhoods of factories and workshops with an extensive network of roads and canals running through them, houses with subterranean cellars used to store the city’s grain as well as other food supplies produced in nearby agricultural lands, and deep wells and a possible reservoir that provided its inhabitants with water.
In a settlement of this size and complexity, a considerable degree of bureaucracy is needed to keep the city running. In Anyang, this was coordinated by Shang royal officials. Many of their day-to-day tasks are detailed in China’s earliest surviving written records, the ‘oracle bones’ of Anyang. Thousands of these ritual and administrative texts, written on bone and turtle shell, using a fully developed writing system ancestral to modern Chinese script, have emerged from Anyang and contain invaluable references to events and activities in the city, from the construction and maintenance of its transportation network and the procurement of horses for the imperial chariotry to Fu Hao’s delivery of a royal baby (to the king’s disappointment, a girl).
Inscriptions are also found on bronze banqueting vessels from Anyang, recording royal ceremonies in which gifts were awarded to important government officials. These inscriptions are mostly very brief, often just a single insignia or a short dedication, but they give us a crucial sense of the interests of the city and the roles that were important to its success.
Power and production
However, even without their inscriptions, the beautiful bronze vessels from Anyang are significant for the important evidence they provide of the level of craftsmanship found in the city, and of the wealth and prestige of its elites. Anyang was a centre of bronze-manufacturing, home to large, factory-like workshops with highly specialised divisions of labour. The intricately worked vessels produced by these factories, often decorated with ornate patterns and fantastical animals, were used by the highest in society at ritual banquets honouring their ancestors, and doubtless functioned as impressive display items and status symbols as well.
Indeed, it is likely that access to bronze was controlled by the Shang royalty who alone had the ability to grant the commissioning of ritual vessels, no doubt as rewards for service to the crown. Many non-royal elites and lesser members of society appear to have commissioned simpler ceramic versions of these banqueting vessels for themselves. However, ceramics were not always less prestigious: a remarkable white chevron pattern ceramic jar on display in the exhibition is almost definitely a royal object, probably originating from a royal tomb, as fragments of similar objects have been found in the palace area. Jade was another prestigious material favoured by Anyang’s elite, used to make jewellery, ornaments, ceremonial objects, and more. The sophistication of the jade workshops at Anyang is evident, and it suggests that the city’s craftspeople were using a formalised industrial approach and new technologies such as treadle lathes to produce these spectacular pieces for high-status clients.
The many beautiful works on display in Anyang: China’s ancient city of kings reflect the site’s importance as a centre of culture and technology in Bronze Age China and highlights the sophistication of this great settlement. And running throughout the exhibition is recognition of the important archaeological work still being carried out at the site and its power to improve our understanding of these remarkable objects and the fascinating people who produced them.
Anyang: China’s ancient city of kings
Address: National Museum of Asian Art, 1050 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC, 20560
Open: until 28 April 2024