History of metallurgy in China

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Recent evidence indicates that the earliest metal objects in China go back to the late fourth millennium BCE. Copper was generally the earliest metal to be used by mankind. The use of copper in ancient China goes back to at least 3,000 BC.

"The earliest sites that have yielded metal objects date to the late fourth and third millennia BCE.[1][2] Quite early metal-using communities are found in Qijia and Siba sites in Gansu, with comparable sites in Xinjiang in the west, and others in Shandong, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia in the east and north, and in the Central Plain in the lowest levels at Erlitou."[3]

"Copper manufacturing, a more complex industry than jade working, gradually appeared in the Yangshao period (5000 to 3000 BC).[4] Jiangzhai is the only place where copper artifacts were found in the Banpo culture. ... Archaeologists have found a number of remains of copper metallurgy in various cultures from the late fourth millennium B.C.E. to the early third millennium B.C.E. These remains include the copper-smelting remains and copper artifacts in the Hongshan culture (4700 to 2900 BC),[4] and copper slag at the Yuanwozhen site. ... Thus we may suppose that the inhabitants of the Yellow River valley by the later Yangshao period had already learned how to make copper artifacts..."[5]

"The Qijia culture (c. 2500-1900 B.C.) of Qinghai, Gansu and western Shaanxi has yielded copper and bronze utilitarian items and gold, copper and bronze personal ornaments. The earliest dates for metal in this region are found at a Majiayao site at Linjia, Dongxiang, Gansu (KGXB 1981)."[3]

The majority of early metal items found in China come from the North-Western Region (mainly Gansu and Qinghai, 青海).

"Their dates range from 2900 – 1600 BCE. These metal objects represent the Majiayao 马家 窑 Type of the Majiayao Culture (c. 3100 – 2700 BCE), Zongri 宗日 Culture (c. 3600 – 2050 BCE), Machang 马 厂 Type (c. 2300 – 2000 BCE), Qijia 齐家 Culture (c.2050 – 1915 BCE), and Siba 四坝 Culture (c. 2000 – 1600 BCE)."[6]

At Dengjiawan, within the Shijiahe site complex, belonging to the Shijiahe culture, in Hubei province, some pieces of copper were discovered, making these the earliest copper objects discovered so far in southern China.[7]

Linjia site (林家遗址/Línjiā yízhǐ) has the earliest evidence for bronze in China, dating to c. 3,000 BC.[8] Although bronze artifacts were exhumed from the archeological sites of Majiayao culture (2700–2300 BC), it is still widely believed that China's Bronze Age began from around 2100 BC during the Xia dynasty[citation needed], which most probably coincides with the Erlitou culture. Typical for the late Chalcolithic phase and the beginning of the bronze age are the copper bells found at Taosi (Taosi phase of the Longshan culture: 2300 to 1900 BC), along with many jade-artifacts and an isolated, early bronze-object.


The Erlitou culture (c. 1900 – 1500 BC), Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – 1046 BC) and Sanxingdui culture (c. 1250 – 1046 BC[9]) of early China used bronze vessels for rituals (see Chinese ritual bronzes) as well as farming implements and weapons.[10] By 1500 BC, excellent bronzes were being made in China in large quantities, partly as a display of status, and as many as 200 large pieces were buried with their owner for use in the afterlife, as in the Tomb of Fu Hao, a Shang queen.

In the tomb of the first Qin Emperor and multiple Warring States period tombs, extremely sharp swords and other weapons were found, coated with chromium oxide, which made the weapons rust resistant.[11][12][13] The layer of chromium oxide used on these swords was 10 to 15 micrometers and left them in pristine condition to this day. Chromium was first scientifically discovered in the 18th century.[14]

The beginning of new breakthroughs in metallurgy occurred towards the Yangzi River's south in China's southeastern region in the Warring States Period such as gilt-bronze swords.[15]

Lost-wax casting[edit]

According to some scholars, lost-wax casting was used in China already during the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC - 476 BC), although this is often disputed.[16]


A Chinese blast furnace, pouring out iron

In 2008, two iron fragments were excavated at the Mogou site, in Gansu. They have been dated to the 14th century BC, belonging to the period of Siwa culture. One of the fragments was made of bloomery iron rather than meteoritic iron.[17][16]

Cast-iron artifacts are found in China before the 5th century BC,[18] as early as the Zhou dynasty of the 6th century BC. An Iron Age culture of the Tibetan Plateau has tentatively been associated with the Zhang Zhung culture described in early Tibetan writings.

Around 500 BC, metalworkers in the southern state of Wu achieved a temperature of up to 1130 °C, hot enough to use hearth as a blast furnace. At this temperature, iron combines with 4.3% carbon and melts. As a liquid, iron can be cast into molds, a method far less laborious than individually forging each piece of iron from a bloom.

If iron ores are heated with carbon to 1420–1470 K, a molten liquid is formed, an alloy of about 96.5% iron and 3.5% carbon. This product is strong, can be cast into intricate shapes, but is too brittle to be worked, unless the product is decarburized to remove most of the carbon. The vast majority of Chinese iron manufacture, from the late Zhou dynasty onward, was of cast iron.[19] However forged swords began to be made in the Warring-States-period: "Earliest iron and steel Jian also appear, made by the earliest and most basic forging and folding techniques."[20]

Iron, however, largely remained a product for non-military and non-aristocratic use, employed by farmers for hundreds of years, and did not really affect the nobility of China until the Qin dynasty, when iron long-swords became a part of the Qin army's equipment.[20]

Middle Ages[edit]

Shen Kuo's written work of 1088 contains, among other early descriptions of inventions, a method of repeated forging of cast iron under a cold blast similar to the modern Bessemer process.[21][22][23][24][25][26][27]

Chinese metallurgy was widely practiced during the Middle Ages; during the 11th century, the growth of the iron industry caused vast deforestation due to the use of charcoal in the smelting process.[28][29] To remedy the problem of deforestation, the Song Chinese discovered how to produce coke from bituminous coal as a substitute for charcoal.[28][29] Although hydraulic-powered bellows for heating the blast furnace had been written about since Du Shi's (d. 38) invention of them in the 1st century CE, the first known illustration of a bellows in operation is found in a book written in 1313 by Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333).[30]

Gold and silver[edit]

During the Qing dynasty the gold and silver smiths of Ningbo were noted for the delicacy and tastefulness of their work.[31][32][33][34][35][36][37]

Myths and legends of metallurgists[edit]

Chinese mythology generally reflects the mentality of a time when metallurgy had been practiced for a long time. According to Mircea Eliade, the Iron Age has produced a large number of rites, myths and symbols and the blacksmith was the main agent of diffusion of these mythologies, rites and metallurgical mysteries.[38] The secret knowledge of the metallurgists and their prodigious and formidable powers made these men the founders of the human world, and the masters of the spirit world.[39] Later, this model of metallurgist is taken and interpreted again by the Taoist alchemists.

Some figures of metalworkers illustrate the close relationship between the mystical power of the sovereign, and the mining and metallurgy industry in the Chinese world.

The Book of Immortals cites: Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) collected the copper from Mount Shou and melted it at the foot of Mount Jing.When the copper was melted, a bearded dragon came down and lifted the sovereign up into the sky.

The name of Huangdi does not appear in the inscriptions of Shang and Zhou of the West, but appears in texts as late as the Guoyu (Warring States) or Zuozhuan (probably Hans from the West). However, according to ancient texts such as Guoyu and modern studies like Mitarai 1984, it is possible that Huangdi existed in early antiquity, and that he was the founder of a regional ethnic group who revered him as a God in the tradition of this region.

The Yellow Emperor fought Chiyou at Mount Kunwu whose summit was covered with a large quantity of red copper.[40]

The seventy-two brothers of Chiyou had copper heads and iron fronts; they ate iron and stones. [...] In the province of Ji where Chiyou is believe to have lived (Chiyou shen), when we dig the earth and we find skulls that seem to be made of copper and iron, they are identified as the bones of Chiyou.[41]

Chiyou was the leader of the Sanmiao or Jiuli aborigines who defeated Xuanyuan, the future Yellow Emperor. Chiyou, a rival of the Yellow Emperor, belonged to a clan of blacksmiths. The advancement of weaponry is sometimes attributed to the Yellow Emperor as well as to Chiyou. It was the latter who discovered the process of metal casting. Kunwu is sometimes associate to an entire people, sometimes a suzerain blacksmith, sometimes a mountain that produces metals, sometimes a sword.[42] Kui, master of music and dance named by Shun, who was succeeded by Yu the Great a blacksmith as well. Yu the Great, founder of the first Xia dynasty, spent years working on water development. His works on the river earned him the throne. According to legend, it is to him that we attribute the glory of having accomplished the melting of the Nine Tripodes of the Xia. Helped by the Dragons descended from Heaven, he brought down Mount Guiji (a mountain of Zhejiang), which contained precious metals.[43]

In these myths and legends, mines and forges were closely associated with those who wanted to be recognized as leaders.[44] There is a clear association between recurring events -foundation of a dynasty, struggle for hegemony, exploration of the country and exploitation of its natural resources, etc. - and symbolic aspects attached to founders and blacksmiths – power, fire, metalwork – is confirmed through tradition. In other words, the civilization of metallurgy imposes itself throughout the ages. Its memory is transmitted at the moment when the myths are constituted: a model of interpretation is crystallized.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Linduff 1997:306–418 (Linduff, K. M. 1997. An Archaeological Overview: Section 1. Reconstructing Frontier Cultures from Archaeological Evidence, in E. C. Bunker, et al., Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, New York: The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1997)
  2. ^ Mei 2000 (Mei, Jianjun 2000. Copper and Bronze Metallurgy in Late Prehistoric Xinjiang: Its cultural context and relationship with neighboring regions, BAR International Series 865, Oxford: Archaeopress.)
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  4. ^ a b Brackets added by Wiki-author
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Public domain
  •  This article incorporates text from appleton's new practical cyclopedia, a publication from 1910 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Appleton's new practical cyclopedia: a new work of reference based upon the best authorities, and systematically arranged for use in home and school, by Marcus Benjamin, Arthur Elmore Bostwick, Gerald Van Casteel, George Jotham Hagar, a publication from 1910 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from The universal cyclopaedia, a publication from 1900 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Universal cyclopædia and atlas, Volume 8, by Charles Kendall Adams, Rossiter Johnson, a publication from 1901 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Johnson's universal cyclopedia: a new edition, by A.J. Johnson Company, a publication from 1895 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Johnson's universal cyclopaedia, Volume 6, by Charles Kendall Adams, a publication from 1895 now in the public domain in the United States.
  •  This article incorporates text from Universal cyclopaedia and atlas, Volume 8, by Charles Kendall Adams, Rossiter Johnson, a publication from 1902 now in the public domain in the United States.