Bronze Weapons of the Sichuan Basin


A Review of Study on Bronze Weapons of Sichuan Basin (Sichuan pendi qingtong bingqi yanjiu 四川盆地青銅兵器研究), by Dai Lijuan 代麗鵑

Geographically, the Sichuan Basin is a relatively independent region circumscribed by high mountain ranges, but local cultural and technological developments have been linked to other regions since the beginning of the Bronze Age. The discovery of exogenous bronze vessels and jade objects from various contexts in the region unmistakably show the existence of interregional interactions between the Sichuan Basin and Central Plains, as scholars like Lothar von Falkenhausen (“The External Connections of Sanxingdui.” Journal of East Asian Archaeology 5, 1-4, (2003), 191-245) have pointed out. Following this tune, Dai Lijun in her dissertation Study on Bronze Weapons of Sichuan Basin tries to examine this issue in greater detail through the analysis of four major types of bronze weapons (or implements) from a long-term perspective. Even though bronze weapons from the Sichuan Basin have already been intensively studied (e.g.,  Zhongwei Jing, 早期中国青铜戈・戟研究 [Research on Bronze Ge and Ji of Early China]. Beijing: Science Press, 2011; Zhihui Yao, 晚期巴蜀青铜器技术研究及兵器斑纹工艺探讨 [A technical study of bronzes from the Ba-Shu region in the 5-2 Century B.C.E. and a discussion on the decoration of weapons]. Beijing: Science Press, 2006), Dai takes a new way through synthesizing various aspects of artifact studies – including typology and developmental sequence, manufacturing techniques, and iconography –, placing the discussion of these aspects in their archaeological context, and also conducting comparative analysis with material from neighboring regions. Through this detailed study of bronze weapons, the dissertation outlines the development of local bronze-weapons industry, and gains significant insight into the roles these weapons played in regional interactions and local ritual activities.

The dissertation consists of seven chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion and five appendices. For the main body of the dissertation, Dai selected four major types of bronze implements: yue 鉞 axes, ge 戈 axe-daggers, mou 矛spearheads, and jian 劍 short daggers from the Sichuan Basin because 1) they are chronological diagnostic; 2) they were widely produced; 3) they are portable and transportable, and reflect cultural exchange (p. 2-3). In other words, bronze weaponry from the Basin served not only as implements in warfare but also a major component in the local bronze industry, even though they are relatively easy to manufacture in comparison with bronze ritual vessels. Several analyses can be found in the appendices, including a research on the social structure of the Shifeng 什邡 cemetery based on its layout (Appendix 2), the results of chemical composition and metallographic analyses of weapons from Sirenxiaoqu 石人小區 (Appendix 3 and 4), and an report on an experimental analysis testing the hypothesis suggested by Falkenhausen (2003, 226) that bronze short-daggers might have imitated a prototype that was made of bamboo or bone (Appendix 5). These appendices supplement additional background information such as social organization and technique of alloying that did not fit into the main line of argument of the dissertation but are important to keep in mind throughout the study.

In Chapter 1, Dai first defines the spatial and temporal scope of the dissertation and offers a brief introduction to the major discoveries that she continues to refer to later in text. Then she divides the Basin into three sub-regions: the Chengdu Plain, the eastern hills, and the rim of the Basin. Inhabitants of these areas rely on different strategies of subsistence, which might have led to the emergence of different ethnic groups and eventually to differences in weapon assemblages as the author explains later in the dissertation.

Before starting the comprehensive analyses of weapons, in Chapter 2 the author discusses the yue axes — which were named after similar objects found in the Central Plains— and makes an excellent case to clarify the definition of weapons and address the function of this special type of implements. Previous research on these artifacts generally holds that these could serve as one type of “weapon” based on an analogy of the function of yue axes in the Central Plains. But Dai disagrees with this mainstream viewpoint. Since this type of implements was poorly cast and not carefully refined after casting, had only simple decoration, and has not been found in any bronze hoards, the author argues quite convincingly that this type of implements might not have served as real “weapons” in warfare (p. 52). Instead, as Dai suggests (p. 53), these objects more likely were used as agricultural implements or tools for craft production. In Chapter 6 and 7, the author employs the same principle to evaluate the potential functions of some special types of weapons through synthesizing their manufacture techniques and archaeological context, which could also be a useful way to address the functions of weapons in other regional contexts.

In Chapter 3, Dai addresses the development of the ge axe-daggers in the Basin and its outside cultural connections. Although the typology of ge has been intensively studied by many scholars (there are at least ten articles on the typological development on ge quoted in the dissertation), Dai’s study strikes a good balance between reviewing previous scholarship and proposing a new scheme of analysis considering not only shapes and forms but also other attributes like size, weight, manufacturing technique, and especially the archaeological context. This chapter first introduces and evaluates the typological schemes presented previously such as the widely-followed one suggested by Feng Hanji 馮漢驥 in 1961. Based upon this foundation, Dai the divides the ge into four categories. For each category, she determines the sequence of change and dates representative subtypes according to other securely-dated objects found in the same contexts. Then she goes an important step further by comparing the sequence of morphological changes between the Sichuan Basin and the Central Plains. For the category of protruding-crosspiece ge (shangxia chulan ge上下出欄戈), for instance, the author argues that this type of weapons originated from the Central Plains from where it reached the Sichuan Basin between the 14th and 12th century (p. 92). Unlike previous scholarship, she argues that the form of cultural transmission reflected in this type of weapon was not always lineal and continuous. Based on the typological sequence and regional comparison of artifacts, Dai suggests that the connection between the two places was interrupted after the Erligang period (i.e., Early Shang period, c.a. 16-14 BCE). Thereafter, this type of ge went through a development on its own in the Sichuan Basin, which eventually led to the development of a new type with perforations along crosspieces that has not been found in the Central Plains.

According to Dai, the 6th century BCE is another critical moment in the development of ge. The most representative example to illustrate this point is the type of ge with elongated blade (youhu ge有胡戈) which emerged in the Sichuan Basin under influence from the Chu state in the East (p. 104). Dai has noticed the ge with elongated blade could be subdivided into two types. Type A usually is undecorated, and the developmental sequence of its subtypes demonstrates the preoccupation of craftsmen with the stabilization of the overall construction and increase of its functionality in combat. Type B, by contrast, was decorated with symbolic motifs (e.g., tigers) and its developmental sequence did not show any technical concerns with improving those functions. The Type A ge, along with other Central Plains or Eastern-style bronze vessels (e.g., the hu 壺 vessel with pictorial warfare scene inlaid with various types of metals) found in the Basin reflect the strong connections between the Basin with the states located further east along the Yangzi River valley after the 6th century BCE (p.108). The Type B ge, on the other hand, might be viewed as “decedent” of Type A adopted by Ba-Shu people with an indigenous transformation, and one of its primary functions was to be used or displayed in the context of ritual activities, but not actual combat.

Chapter 4 analyzes the development of spearheads to identify evidence of cultural interactions reflected in this type of weapons. Again, the author first discusses the spearheads found at several sites of different dates to build a chronological sequence (Suiguanying 水觀音→Juwajie 竹瓦街 → Zaozixiang棗子巷→ Qingdao M1 清道M1 → Sirenxiaoqu石人小區 → Lijiaba李家壩) to identify the major developmental trend of object typology. It is of interest to note that the development of spearheads is somewhat similar to that of ge, as the author suggests. After the type of leaf-shaped blade spearheads with long socket (yexing changjiao mao葉形長骹矛) – which originated from the Central Plains – reached the Basin, the manufacture of spearheads appeared to go on an independent trajectory. Eventually, their morphology developed into two types around the 8th century BCE: the first one maintained the traditional long-socket, while the second one is characterized by its short socket and the looped rings that are directly joined to the blade. Slightly later, from the 6th century BCE onward, animal motifs like tiger started to be popularly cast on the area of the socket between the two rings as decorations. Alongside with this trend, certain new types of spearheads such as triangular-blade spearheads (sanjiaoxing fu’er mao 三角形附耳矛) and spearheads with arch-shaped slots on the socket (gongxing jiaokou mao拱形骹口矛) also appeared about the 6th or 5th century BCE under the influence from groups living in the Eastern edge of the Basin (p. 125). At the same time, tin-plating technique derived from both the Wu-Yue states and Northwest China was introduced to the region and thereupon, it was widely employed to decorate the surface of spearheads and other types of weapons as well.

In Chapter 5, Dai examines the developmental trajectory of jian short daggers, or more precisely, short daggers with willow-leaf shaped blades and a flattened tang (tang = the back portion of a sword) (liuyexing bianjing tongjian柳葉形扁莖銅劍), which have been widely found in the region and are usually viewed as the iconic type of Ba-Shu-style weapons. In the beginning of the chapter, Dai first clarifies that a complete short dagger should include five components: pommel, grip, grip wrapping (hou 緱), guard, and scabbard. Based on the reconstructed structure of a complete dagger, Dai discovers that, before the 6th century BCE, short daggers found in the Sichuan Basin exhibit some variety in terms of the size of the blade, but in general they are relatively short, and the length of the blade is no longer than 30 cm on average. Meanwhile, any short dagger with a blade that is shorter than 20 cm usually is very thin and not well-manufactured. As these objects are basically impractical in combat, very likely they might have served just as objects produces especially for funerary purposes (mingqi明器).

After clarifying the developmental sequence, Dai moves on to the long-ongoing debate concerning the origin of short daggers. As the earliest evidence for the presence of such objects in the Sichuan Basin predates that from other regions, this type of short daggers, Dai argues, was likely invented there and then was adopted by communities from other regions. Similar to her viewpoint in Chapters 3 and 4, Dai suggests the 6th century BCE is also a critical moment in the development of this type of weapons. Long daggers with a blade that is longer than 30 cm on average, for instance, started to emerge in the Basin under the influence of the dagger industry from the East. Also, she points out craftsmen from the region employed tin-plating technique to decorate the surface of daggers at about the same time, just like in the case of spearheads.

In the last 2 chapters, the author discusses the social significance of certain types of weapons in the indigenous context to supplement her research on inter-regional interactions. To be more specific, Chapter 6 addresses the social background for the emergence and circulation of mingqi before the 6th century BCE, which are identified based on statistic studies of measurements and observation of manufacture quality. The author classifies the so-called minqi weapons into three categories: artifacts that imitate characteristic details of a full-fledged weapon but were poorly manufactured and of smaller size, artifacts that were poorly manufactured and only vaguely imitate the profile of a full-fledged weapon, and weapons that exactly replicate jade ritual regalia such as serrated-edge ge (quren ge曲刃戈). Except for the third category that was usually found in bronze hoards, the first two types were primarily used in burial context and were interred together with other full-fledged weapons, which clearly contradicts the idea proposed previously that they would have served as body ornaments or even coins. As Dai Lijuan suggests, these objects might have served as substitutes of certain ritual regalia used in funeral ceremonies or ancestral worships (p. 164), but the details of the religious system is hard to explain without any textual records about the inhabitants’ ritual practice.

In Chapter 7, the author identifies certain types of weapons that were “reinvented” during the 3rd century BCE after they had not been produced for several hundred years. Unlike mingqi, the antique-style bronze weapons manufactured between the 6th and 3rd century BCE imitate not only the characteristic profile but also details of decoration on prototype full-fledge weapons. Dai suggests the practice of reinventing the old tradition might have been triggered by two major reasons. First, as the prototype weapons were popularly used between the 11th and 10th century BCE, the indigenous communities might have tried to reinforce and renew the memory about their ancestors joining the Zhou army and participating in the conquest of the Shang dynasty during the 11th century BCE as a demonstration of their connections with the Zhou dynasty (p. 174).

Secondly, the practice of using animal motifs (tiger, cicada, etc.) to decorate new types of weapons, such as the ge type with downward-elongated blade, between the 6th and 3rd century BCE, might have been adopted as a “mnemonic device” for a history that was orally transmitted. In previous studies, these animal motifs were simply considered as the result of cultural transmissions originating from the Central Plains or the core controlled by Zhou people. But Dai proves that these elements appearing on weapons after the 6th century BCE were not “new” at all. Instead, they can all be widely found on bronzes from the Sanxingdui 三星堆 Culture (17 ~12 BCE), indicating that these elements occupied an essential roles in the indigenous religious system already since the Early Bronze Age. As these motifs were linked to ritual practices predating the 6th century BCE, Dai argues the manufacture of “hybrid-type” bronze weapons might have helped makers or users build their identities and connect themselves to the religious system of their predecessors.

Through the research on stylistic sequences of the three types of bronze weapons and their functions, the author reaches two major conclusions. First, she discovers the development of local weapon industry was primarily driven by the arrival of weapons and their associated technology from outside. The origin of certain types of bronze weapons had already been discussed by many authors before Dai, but her study for the first time brings these weapons and multiple lines of evidence together to show the overall developmental pattern of weaponry in the region as a whole. In general, there seem to be two developmental peaks reflected by all three types of bronze weapons from the region. The first one, coinciding with the initial large-scale appearance of bronze weapons, was triggered by the influence or expansion of the Erligang Culture as Dai argues. The ge with protruding crosspieces, triangular-blade ge (sanjiaoyuan ge 三角援戈), and spearheads with leaf-shaped blade and long socket were all introduced from the Central Plains. Thereafter, the connections between Sichuan and the Central Plains or other regions become less observable in records for about 400-500 years, but during the 6th century BCE the second waves of influence from the Chu and other states located further east along the Yangzi River (p. 197) lead to substantial changes in the assemblage. As demonstrated in this dissertation, a considerable number of new and exogenous weapons (e.g., long-blade daggers, ge with downward-elongated blade, and triangular-blade spearheads) were adopted by the inhabitants of the Sichuan Basin and then became localized during this transformation period.

Nevertheless, the author highlights that the communication between the Sichuan Basin and other regions is by no means a one-way exchange dominated by the Central Plains, which is her second key conclusion or theme in the dissertation. Dai strongly argues that the Ba-Shu societies did not just passively accepted weapons from outside; their ancient craftsmen also made innovations such as the iconic category of Bu-Shu weapons – short daggers with willow leaf shaped blades and a flatten tang were based upon foreign forms of weapons or techniques but with a local transformation. In addition, the makers and users let bronze weapons take on new social roles through making mingqi and using indigenous motifs to decorate new or exogenous types. More importantly, certain categories of weapons invented in the Sichuan Basin (e.g., the triangular-blade ge) generated visible impact on its neighboring regions as can be seen from the Yu state cemetery dating to the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE) in Baoji 寶雞, Shaanxi, from which a considerable number of Ba-Shu-style weapons has been retrieved. In short, Dai’s study of the Ba-Shu weapons reflects a dynamic pattern of cultural exchange and two-way connections. Bronze weapons thus served as key media through which different local culture and value systems interacted and communicated during the Bronze Age China.

To sum up, this dissertation integrates data on a wide range of aspects — especially first-hand information derived from visual examination of objects — to comprehensively address the issue of inter-regional connections reflected in bronze weapons from the Sichuan Basin. Besides, this study reaches an inspiring conclusion that views bronze weapons not only as fighting implements but also an important tool in the transmission of local oral history and ritual systems. As this dissertation focuses primarily on the most fundamental aspects of artifacts, it revolves around many long-ranging debates regarding dates and origins of these bronze weapons, and lays a solid foundation for investigating the relationship between warfare and bronze industry — the two defining features of the Chinese Bronze Age — in a broader context. Without any doubt, these contributions significantly advance our knowledge about the role bronze weapons played in Bronze Age China.

Wengcheong Lam
Department of Anthropology
Harvard University

Primary Sources
Archaeological reports on Bronze Age cemeteries and other finds from the Sichuan Basin
Visual examination of original objects in various research institutions in Sichuan by the author
Collection of bronze objects from various museums in China and the United States
Results of metallographic analysis of bronze weapons from the site of Siren Xiaoqu conducted by the author
Results of experimental analyses conducted by the author

Dissertation Information
The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 2011. 402 pp. Primary Supervisor: So Fong Suk 蘇芳淑

Image: Ge with tiger-images.  Line graph by Dai Lijuan.

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