Arts and Crafts during the Xia,Shang and Zhou Dynasties
Starting from the Xia, the Shang and the West Zhou, China began the replacement of dynasties one after another.
Bronze mask from Shang Dynasty_CraftChina

Both the Xia and the Shang had official post specially set up to manage handicrafts under the direct control of royal families and nobles. The sacrificial vessels, sacrificial utensils, weapons and valuable articles for daily use needed by the rulers were all fabricated by the handicrafts under the control of officials. Most of the craftsman in the Shang Dynasty belonged to the respective clan engaged in a special kind of handicraft from generation to generation but a small part of them were slaves transformed from prisoners of war.


Bronze ware was an important handicraft variety in the Shang Dynasty. The brone ware of the Shang Dynasty had almost all categories with various shapes. For decorative designs, they were of central symmetry of single line patterns, mysterious and solemn. Due to the tendency of drinking prevailing among the ruling class of the Shang Dynasty, the making of drinking vessels was highly developed. As the cost was very high, the bronze ware could only be used by rulers. For the broad masses of slaves, earthenware was still taken as principal articles for their daily necessities. As a result, the pottery-making technique of the Shang Dynasty was also universally developed. There were three kinds of technique to make pottery: wheel, mold and their combination. There was also an internal division of labor for the pottery-making technique and different kilns fired different potteries. China is the first nation in the world to breed silkworms, weave silk fabrics and use lacquer. In the Shang Dynasty, wild silkworms had already been domesticated. The coating of lacquer can prevent wooden articles from rotting and be used for decoration as well. So far as decoration was concerned, the handicraft in the Shang Dynasty was full of strong religious color and its religious significance was more important than aesthetic consciousness.


In politics, the Western Zhou Dynasty practiced three different systems: the system of granting titles and territories to the nobles; the hereditary system; and the hierarchy system of power. The system of rites was greatly stressed, which affected the formation and development of the technology in dress and personal adornment, utensils, palace chambers and horse-drawn carriages of the Zhou Dynasty. In economy, the “nine squares” system of land ownership (one large square divided into nine small ones, the eight outer ones being allocated to slaves who had to cultivate the central one for the owner) was adopted, which expanded the scale of agricultural production and the collective labor became a scene of showing farming technique. The large number of handicraft slaves captured by the Zhou Dynasty in the process of conquering the Shang Dynasty also provided favorable factors for the development of handicrafts.


According to the Kao Gong Ji (The Records of Examination of Craftsmen), the earliest monograph on handicrafts in China, the Western Zhou Dynasty divided social labor into six categories: the nobility, literati and officialdom, craftsmen, traveling merchant, farmer, and needle worker. At that time the division of labor for the handicraft was very elaborate. There were thirty kinds of work in six handicrafts, namely, carpenter, bronzer, tanner, painter, carver, and pottery maker. Division of labor on the basis of specialization had already formed but production was under the unified operation and management of local authorities with raw materials and workshop provided. Coordination of several different professions was needed for manufacturing many objects. For instance, it needed the cooperation of carpenters, bronzers, lacquerers and tanners to manufacture a chariot. So the handicraft was broad in scale and strict in organization.


For meeting the demand of administration with rites, the handicrafts of the Western Zhou Dynasty, such as bronze ware, dyeing and weaving, lacquer were and jade ware, reflected rigid difference of social strata in quantity, shape, color, lines and grain as well as in their use, showing a feeling of perfect order. For utensils of livelihood, farms tools and weapons, bronze craft was still an important variety at that stage. Many bronze wares had long inscriptions engraved to give an account of the content of offering sacrifices to gods or ancestors, eulogizing somebody’s virtues, granting a reward, doing exchanges, getting married, or talking litigation. In decoration, there was a trend of simplicity and plainness rich in a feeling of rhythm. The fabrication and use of primitive porcelain were also rather popular, the technique of applying glaze was obviously improved, and the hardness, moisture absorption and mineral composition were close to later porcelain.