Metallurgy (China)

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Quia (see Majiayao). Chinese metal working has yet to be established. The metal industry encountered towards the middle of the 2nd millennium bc at Erlitou, on the other hand, is clearly ancestral to the Shang and Zhou metalworking tradition, showing already the distinctive character that in the realm of metal technology sets ancient China apart from the rest of the world. The main idiosyncrasy of the Chinese tradition, a single-minded reliance on casting to the exclusion of other methods of shaping and decorating metal, cannot be properly appreciated without some consideration of the use to which metal was put in early China. As elsewhere in the ancient world, bronze was used in China for weapons and to a lesser extent for tools, but beyond this there is a clear divergence of traditions, with the bronze ritual vessel in China holding an importance that the civilizations of the Near East gave instead to sculpture. Metal sculpture may favour or even demand the use of casting; metal vessels do not. Outside China metal vessels have rarely been made by casting because such objects of regular shape are made more easily and more cheaply by hammering, which requires little in the way of workshop apparatus and readily achieves an economical thinness of metal. A variety of factors peculiar to the Chinese scene might be suggested to account for the early Chinese metal-worker’s apparent indifference to these considerations of ease and economy: abundant supplies of copper and tin probably lessened the appeal of techniques that conserved metal (see Tonglüshan); precious metals, which demand economical techniques, were little used in China; and an already highly sophisticated ceramic technology could provide the mastery of high temperatures needed for smelting and casting, expertise with clays useful in mouldmaking, and perhaps also experience with large and well-organized workshops. At a very early stage lavish royal patronage in China seems to have mobilized the resources necessary for casting on an industrial scale, a conclusion that might almost be argued on the evidence of a single bronze vessel, the Si Mu Wu Fang Ding, found in the Shang royal cemetery at Anyang and dedicated in its inscription to a deceased empress. Made in a single pour of metal, except for its handles, this vessel weighs 875 kg and is the largest bronze casting known from antiquity. It must have required an enormous foundry, and it is only one of many large Shang and Zhou castings. The narrow range of objects that early Chinese founders were called upon to produce — weapons, tools, and ceremonial vessels — had a direct bearing on their choice of manufacturing technique. Weapons and tools could be cast in simple bivalve moulds, while vessels could be cast in moulds of more than two sections (in principle only elaborations of bivalve moulds); since vessels have fairly regular shapes, the number of sections required was not inconveniently large. Section-mould casting thus satisfied all the needs of the early Chinese metal-worker, who relied on casting not only for the fabrication of bronze vessels but also for their decoration. The importance of the section-mould technique lies chiefly in the influence it exercised on the decoration that grew up in Shang foundries (see ritual vessels, china). Given the limited range of objects they sought to produce, Chinese founders had no pressing need for the cire perdue or lost-wax method, which is useful in casting very complicated shapes. Though it appeared in the Near East in the 4th millennium bc, the lost-wax method does not seem to have been employed in China until the 6th century bc and even then was used only occasionally as an adjunct to section-mould casting (see Xiasi, Sui Xian); highly elaborated section moulds were still the basis of casting technique at the 6th-5th century bc foundry complex excavated at Houma. The contrast between Chinese and Near Eastern metal-working is sometimes presented as a contrast between section-mould casting and lost-wax casting. This is misleading at best, since the Western metal-worker asked to make a vessel would be unlikely to use the lost-wax process or any other form of casting. What sets Chinese metal-working apart is not the use of a particular casting technique but the use of casting rather than hammering to make and decorate vessels. The long Bronze Age tradition of casting and neglect of hammering techniques in China — seen even in Chinese coinage — strongly influenced the course taken by the Chinese iron industry from its beginnings in about the 6th century BC; its emphasis on cast rather than wrought iron is completely at variance with the history of iron in the West. As in the case of bronze technology, the contrast is at least in part that of an industrial process organized on a large scale and a craft that can be pursued in small workshops or even by a single smith.

The Macmillan dictionary of archaeology, Ruth D. Whitehouse, 1983Copied