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Shang Dynasty c. 1675 - c. 1066 BC
As late as 1928 many scholars still took Shang a legend, but in that year excavations at Anyang in Henan found not only the last capital of the Shang but also the evidences of an advanced civilization. The Anyang site consists of earth-pounded city walls, palaces and temples, sacrifice pits, work houses for bronzeware and glazed pottery, storage quarters for oracle bones, and cemeteries for royalty and slaves as well. Shang people made bronze vessels as advanced as any ever used; learned the use of acupuncture to treat the sick; organized army troops by decimal scale unit; invented carriages for long-distance carrying trade; observed eclipses and stars; recorded their divining activities by a primitive, yet remarkably advanced, written language. With the emergence of the Shang China's early history becomes a matter of record.

Oracle inscription, c 1500 BC
Central Research Institute, Taibei
ink rubbing on rice paper
In the month of May, His Majesty asked his soothsayer to divine the year's crop. The result is good. There will be a good harvest in the east; there will be a good harvest in the south; there will be a good harvest in the west; there will be a good harvest in the north.

Long before the oracle bones had been unearthed, the bronze vessels bore witness to the early stage of writing development. These vessels were made for offering food and millet wine to ancestors during court rituals. By the end of the Shang period some of them began to bear very short inscriptions, generally consisting of two or three characters forming a clan-name. The main significance of this ownership is in the account it gives of the honor to those who had then cast.


Zhou Dynasty c. 1066 - 256 BC

Around 1066 BC a duke kingdom Zhou rose to power and overthrew Shang. The Zhou perfected the Shang court ritual and ancestor worship into a hierarchally patriarchal clan system which essentially lasted into modern times. Zhou people were as superstitious as Shang people and tried to predict the future by grouping and calculating the stalks of a poisonous plant achillea sibirica. The Zhou idea of divination ended in I Ching, or Book of Changes, but their activity records, which were likely done on wood slips, have not survived. What survived from this period are hundreds of inscribed bronze vessels. The Zhou inscriptions are lengthy, which can be several hundred characters long, recording official appointments, sacrificing rituals, wars and law suits. Cast into the inner face of a vessel, these inscriptions are not merely historical documents; they are evidences of a new function of communicating the political and social achievements of their owners. As the vessels were retained in ancestral temples, the inscriptions would recall the merits to future generations.

Seal script.   This style is pronounced 'zhuan', literally means 'passing on'. There are two developing phases in this style - big seal script, which was named after Big Seal Characters, the Zhou children's primers, and small seal script, the standardized style of the Qin. Big seal script in general includes oracle inscription; in its narrowest sense it refers to the font when the primers were compiled. Taking the narrowest sense, these characters are less pictographic than before, regular in form, evenly aligned in columns and rows and, above all, brush written. This brush, no matter how faintly it demonstrates itself on a bronze vessel, was to convert physical act of handwriting from mere craft to a superb means of self-expression. Seal style is difficult to read for modern people, but has remained the principal script employed on seals for the last two thousand years.

In 771 BC an invasion of a nomadic tribe from northwest forced the Zhou to move its capital from Xian east to Luoyang, which divided the Zhou into two phases - Western and Eastern Zhou. The Zhou began to decline after this event and before long it dissolved into a number of warring states. The political turbulence during the second phase of the Zhou history was accompanied by an intellectual upheaval in various schools of thought. While Confucius, 551 - 479 BC, strove to analyze the troubles of his day by affirming the virtues of Western Zhou rites which were abandoned by the warring states, his contemporary Laozi, the exponent of Taoism, favored inaction and withdrawal from society. None of them, however, affected the art of handwriting yet until the reverence in Confucianism during the Han and Taoism during the Jin dynasty.

As the Zhou was split into small kingdoms by major periods of war and social difficulties, handwriting moved into differently directions, an ancient example of modern day mainland and Taiwan. Indeed, we find an increasing variety of regional styles as each of the feudal lords assumed the right to have his own way to write.



Stone Drum Inscription, 770 - 766 BC

Stone drums are ten drum-shaped, three--foot-tall granite blocks. At the time when they were discovered in the seventh century, each of them bore a four-character verse about the hunting of the Duke of Qin. Not many of its original 700 characters have survived - 465 of them were recorded then and 272 of them today with one block completely denuded.

My chariots were complete;
My horses were harnessed.
My chariots were gaily decorated;
My horses were thriving.
The officials gathered in force;
The banners waved in the wind.

Deer left footprints behind,
By which we pursued.
Bows were drawn;
Arrows were at the string.

I ran into a royal stag,
Which galloping, clip-clop.
He charged at me,
Raising quite a dust.

The herd rushed off,
Running out of sight.
I chased a lone buck,
But he, too, escaped.

Finally I shot a sorrel.

Chinese calligraphy

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