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Chinese Bronze Script – Forging Civilisation

    The development of Chinese civilisation is intricately linked to its own bronze age.

    Between 5,000 – 6,000 different ancient bronzes with writing on them exist. This is Chinese Bronze script. There could be many more waiting to be discovered.

    These objects script better than any other materials. Thanks to them, we can see Chinese civilisations’ evolution. 

    And we can directly see how its writing system marched towards its later forms.

    What is bronze script?

    Chinese bronze script side by side with Chinese modern regular script
    Approximate version of Chinese bronze script (/large seal script) side by side with Chinese modern regular script.

    The lines are from Confucius’ Analects: “Confucius said: ‘A man survives by his integrity. If he survives without it, it’s down to luck.'” (6. 19)

    Bronze script (金文 [jīnwén]) (sometimes referred to as bronze inscription script or bronzeware script) is a form of Chinese great seal script found on ancient ritual bronze objects.

    It dates back to the between approximately 2,200 and 4,000 years ago, from China’s Shang (1760 BC – 1520 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC – 256 BC) dynasties.

    This long timeframe means that like great seal script more generally, bronze seal script changed over time. Many characters have more variation in form than other scripts.

    Alternative name: bell inscription script

    Most – but not all – of the ritual bronze objects with bronze script engravings are bell shaped. 

    This lends them their alternative name: zhongdingwen (钟鼎文 [zhōngdǐngwén]) – which translates literally as ‘bell pot script’ (a name rarely – if ever – used in English translation). 

    Here ding (鼎) refers to a kind of bell-shaped cooking pot that had three of four legs. The examples of these found with bronze script were not used for cooking, but for commemorative and ritual purposes.

    What’s the difference between bronze script and great seal script?

    Bronze script and great seal script are essentially the same script translated onto different materials (in different ways).

    So, their names are different because bronze script is found on bronze whereas large seal script is found on stone, jade, bamboo, and other materials.

    This means that bronze script is a type of great seal script (which itself is part of the wider category of seal script) but it is better preserved than many other examples of great seal script.

    Features of bronze script

    Because of the variation in bronze script over time, it is difficult to concisely summarise its features.

    And two trends take place between the earliest and latest bronze script characters.

    • The characters move away from pictorial representation forms. I.e., they become simpler in design but more complex in the level of meaning they represent.
    • The technology used to create them becomes more sophisticated. As a result, the characters become more refined and uniform.

    Some generalisations are possible. For a start, like seal script more broadly, and its predecessor oracle script, the characters feature many rounded lines and forms alongside straight and square ones.

    Components of characters also often tilt in a way that they don’t in later scripts. This sometimes subtracts from the scripts sense of symmetry.

    However, defining what every can already see is only useful up until a point. As the famous phrase uttered in a 1964 court case has it: 

    I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it

    – Potter Stewart

    How was bronze script transplanted onto bronze objects?

    Bronze script was transferred onto objects in two ways:

    • Relief: Created with moulds to make characters look raised from background
    • Intaglio: Engraved into objects

    Early on, during the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, inscriptions were first written and then engraved onto moulds for casting reliefs. This led to them having a more handwritten appearance.

    Later, during the late Eastern Zhou period, the intaglio method of incising characters directly onto bronze was used.

    More precision was required for this and the script naturally become more uniform. Deviating incisions to accommodate idiosyncrasies of handwriting, as could be done with reliefs for moulds, was no longer convenient.

    Timeline of bronze script

    Early bronze script: Shang dynasty (1760 BC – 1520 BC)

    The oldest examples of bronze script date back to the Shang dynasty (1760 BC – 1520 BC). These examples typically contain only two or three characters, often inscriptions of the bronze objects’ owner.

    The characters themselves were both more pictorial-based and complicated than later bronze script forms. 

    This reflects the Chinese language steadily moving away from its early picture-based designs to more abstract forms that using less strokes.

    The relatively thick, rounded and decorative bronze script characters often tapered at the end of each line. 

    They look similar to their predecessor: the ancient oracle bone script. Like oracle bone script, there is variation in forms of the same characters and lines used for them.

    And like most Chinese writing up until the 20th century, they were written from top to bottom and left to right.

    They had more characters and complex meanings to convey, including honorary declarations for individuals and tribes.

    Example of Shang dynasty bronze script: Queen Mother Wu bronze vessel

    Photo of Queen Mother Wu
    Queen Mother Wu. This vessel is 133 CM high and 110 x 79 CM in width and length of the main body. It is houses in the National Museum, Beijing.

    In 1939, during the second world war, on farmland in Wuguan Village, Henan Province, the Queen Mother Wu (司母戊鼎 [sīmǔwù dǐng]) bronze vessel was discovered. 

    Weighing in at 832.84 KG, this was the largest find of its kind to date.

    There are a few stories about its discovery. It is said to have taken 3 nights of digging to fully unearth. 

    It has been said that villagers re-buried it after discovery to hide it from the Japanese (then occupying China). 

    And also, that an antique dealer named Xiao Yinqing initially had one of its four legs sawn off, then gave up and asked villagers to re-bury it until he could move it.

    Either way, it was next uncovered, seven years later in 1946, another war was waging in China: The Chinese Civil War (1945 – 1949). 

    The Nationalist government exhibited the vessel in their capital of Nanjing in 1948. But when they fled to Taiwan a year later, the vessel was not amongst the art they took with them. Its weight was a likely reason for this.

    The vessel was commissioned by King Wending (reigned 1112 – 1102 BC) for his late mother, who had been queen. Muwu was her posthumous title.

    It only has three characters. They are inscribed on its inside:

    • 后 (hòu; read by some scholars as si): Empress; queen
    • 母 (): Mother
    • 戊 (): Wu (name)

    These characters are large and written with thick, artistically rounded lines.

    Ink rubbing of the characters inside the Queen Mother Wu  vessel
    Ink rubbing of the three characters inside the Queen Mother Wu vessel

    Middle bronze script: Western Zhou (1027 BC – 771 BC)

    During the Western Zhou dynasty’s two and a half centuries of rule, bronze metallurgy and engraving techniques became increasingly sophisticated. 

    And the script became more elegant, especially towards the end of this period. It began to look less ‘messy’ with more symmetrical, simpler and standardized characters. And an overall uniformity in the arrangement of pieces developed.

    Looking closer at the characters’ details, thinner, longer lines are clear. At times, the characters even appear to resemble small seal script.

    Example of Western Zhou dynasty bronze script: San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State bronze basin

    Photo of San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State
    San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State is 20.6 CM high with a diameter of 54.6 CM and 9.8 CM depth

    The date of discovery of the San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State (散氏盘铭 [sànshì pánmíng]) bronze basin is unknown. However, basin itself is known to date back to the reign of King Li (r. 877 – 828 BC).

    It features 357 characters ranged in nineteen approximately even lines. These were created using a mould to cast them on the basin’s inside. The rest of the basin features patterns and depictions of animals.

    Some scholars have categorised its characters as cursive bronze script. This is because they appear to vary in thickness and appear to tilt somewhat, as if written at speed.

    The whole piece discusses what is China’s oldest recoded property dispute. An exchange of land, including setting of its boundaries, is detailed.

    Copy of ink rubbing of San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State 
    Copy of Ink Rubbing of San Ends Discord with Neighbouring State text.

    Later bronze script: Eastern Zhou (771 BC – 256 BC)

    The Zhou period can be separated into the Western and Eastern Zhou periods. And the Eastern Zhou period itself can be separated into the Spring and Autumn (770 – 476 BC) and Warring States (475 – 221 BC) periods.

    Bronze script characters continued to evolve through both of these periods. They reflected the changes in great seal script more generally. This involved more abstract and easy-to-write characters which enabled quicker and more complex communication.

    There is a clear trend of increasingly round and square shapes made up of thin strokes. Characters start to look still neater and tidier, individually and collectively. 

    With today’s hindsight, we can clearly see the moves towards small seal script and even clerical script clearly coming.

    Example of Eastern Zhou dynasty bronze script: Tax-Exempt Transport Permits for Lord Qi

    Photo of two Tax-Exempt Transport Permits for Lord Qi side by side
    Tax-Exempt Transport Permits for Lord Qi. The left bronze permit is 29.6 CM x 7.3 CM X 0.7 CM, and the one right one is 30.9 CM x 7.1 CM x 0.6 CM

    The Tax-Exempt Transport Permits for Lord Qi (鄂君启铜节 [È jūn qǐ tóngjié ]) is a remarkable bronze object designed to look like bamboo slips (split bamboo – this was regularly used for writing on).

    It dates back to nearly 2,400 years, to 353 BC. And it was unearthed in Shouxian county, Anhui Province in 1957.

    There are two pieces, which are each divided by realistic bamboo section borders into two sections.

    One of them is a tax exemption pass for land transport. It is made up of 145 characters arranged in nine columns on both of its sections.

    The other is a pass for water transport. It contains 163 golden characters also arranged in nine columns of each section.

    At first glance, it’s clear that great care was taken to create an aesthetically pleasing and well-ordered object. The characters are clearly uniform in overall size and thickness of strokes (fundamental principles of mature Chinese scripts).


    Bronze script (also known as bell inscription script) is a subset of great seal script. In its original form, it’s found on ritual bronze objects from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (between 2,200 and 4,000 years ago).

    Its appearance varies over centuries. It moves from complex, pictorial characters towards simpler forms that convey more complex meanings. In other words, closer to later Chinese characters.

    These changes can largely be attributed to evolving technological engraving technique sophistication.

    It was transferred onto objects either through relief (moulds creating raised characters) or intaglio (engraving directly onto objects).

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