History of metallurgy in China

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Metallurgy in China has a long history. The earliest metal objects in China date to around 3,000 BC.

China was also the earliest civilization that produced cast iron.[1]


Chalcolithic Age[edit]

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.[2][3] 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."[4]

"Copper manufacturing, a more complex industry than jade working, gradually appeared in the Yangshao period (5000 to 3000 BC)[5]. Jiangzhai is the only place where copper artifacts were found in the Bonpo 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)[6], 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..."[7]

"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)."[4]

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)."[8]

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.[9]

Linjia site (林家遗址/Línjiā yízhǐ) has the earliest evidence for bronze in China, dating to c. 3,000 BC.[10] 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.

Bronze Age[edit]

The Erlitou culture (c. 1900 - 1500 BC), Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 - 1046 BC) and Sanxingdui culture (c. 1250 - 1046 BC[11]) of early China used bronze vessels for rituals (see Chinese ritual bronzes) as well as farming implements and weapons.[12] 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.[13][14][15] 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 attested in the 18th century.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

Iron Age[edit]

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.[19][18]

In 1972, near the city of Gaocheng (藁城) in Shijiazhuang (now Hebei province), an iron-bladed bronze hatchet (铁刃青铜钺) dating back to the 14th century BC was excavated. After a scientific examination, the iron was shown to be made from meteoric iron.

Cast-iron artifacts are found in China before the 5th century BC,[20] 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 Zhou dynasty onward, was of cast iron. 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."[21]

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[22].

Cast iron is rather brittle and unsuitable for striking implements, it can, however, be decarburized to steel or wrought iron by heating it in the air for several days. In China, these ironworking methods spread northward, and by 300 BC, iron was the material of choice throughout China for most tools and weapons. A mass grave in Hebei province, dated to the early third century BC, contains several soldiers buried with their weapons and other equipment, the artifacts recovered from this grave are variously made of wrought iron, cast iron, malleable cast iron, and quench-hardened steel, with only a few, probably ornamental, bronze weapons[citation needed].

In the first century AD, the Han government established ironworking as a state monopoly and built a series of large blast furnaces in Henan province, each capable of producing several tons of iron per day. By this time, Chinese metallurgists had discovered a new process (others were already practiced) to fine molten pig iron, stirring it in the open air until it lost its carbon and became wrought iron. (In Chinese, the process was called Chao, literally, stir frying.) Metal casting was spread westwards to the Dayuan by Han deserters (Shiji, 123).

Also during this time, Chinese metallurgists had found that wrought iron and high quality cast iron could be melted together to yield an alloy of intermediate carbon content, that is, steel. According to legend, the sword of Liu Bang, the first Han emperor, was made in this fashion[citation needed]. Some texts of the era mention "harmonizing the hard and the soft" in the context of ironworking; the phrase may refer to this process.

In the Korean Peninsula, iron objects were introduced through trade just before the Western Han Dynasty began (c. 300 BC). Iron ingots became an important mortuary item in Proto-historic Korea. Iron production quickly followed in the 2nd century BC, and iron implements came to be used by many farmers by the 1st century AD in Southern Korea.

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.[23][24][25][26][27][28][29]

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.[30][31] To remedy the problem of deforestation, the Song Chinese discovered how to produce coke from bituminous coal as a substitute for charcoal,[30][31] 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).[32]

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.[33][34][35][36][37][38][39]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ In 200 BC. Srinivasan, Sharda and Srinivasa Rangnathan. 2004. India’s Legendary Wootz Steel. Bangalore: Tata Steel.[1] [2] [3]
  2. ^ 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)
  3. ^ 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.)
  4. ^ a b Katheryn M. Linduff, Jianjun Mei (2008), Metallurgy in Ancient Eastern Asia: How is it Studied? Where is the Field Headed? (PDF) The British Museum
  5. ^ Brackets added by Wiki-author
  6. ^ Brackets added by Wiki-author
  7. ^ The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archaeological Perspective, Kwang-Chih Chang, Pingfang Xu, Liancheng Lu, Yale University Press, 2005, p 66
  8. ^ Bai Yunxiang (2003), A Discussion on Early Metals and the Origins of Bronze Casting in China. (PDF) Chinese Archaeology, Vol 3(1)
  9. ^ Anne P. Underhill, ed., A Companion to Chinese Archaeology John Wiley & Sons, 2013 ISBN 1118325729 p524
  10. ^ Gideon Shelach, Prehistoric Societies on the Northern Frontiers of China: Archaeological Perspectives on Identity Formation and Economic Change During the First Millennium BCE. Routledge, 2016 ISBN 1134944810 p26
  11. ^ see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Sanxingdui#chronology_unclear.21.3F.21
  12. ^ "The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology". National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  13. ^ Cotterell, Maurice. (2004). The Terracotta Warriors: The Secret Codes of the Emperor's Army. Rochester: Bear and Company. ISBN 1-59143-033-X. Page 102.
  14. ^ J. C. McVeigh (1984). Energy around the world: an introduction to energy studies, global resources, needs, utilization. Pergamon Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-08-031650-6. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  15. ^ Zhewen Luo (1993). China's imperial tombs and mausoleums. Foreign Languages Press. p. 44. ISBN 7-119-01619-9. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  16. ^ Jacques Guertin; James Alan Jacobs; Cynthia P. Avakian (2005). Chromium (VI) Handbook. CRC Press. pp. 7–11. ISBN 978-1-56670-608-7. 
  17. ^ Greg Woolf (2007). Ancient civilizations: the illustrated guide to belief, mythology, and art. Barnes & Noble. p. 226. ISBN 978-1-4351-0121-0. 
  18. ^ a b Mei, J.; Wang, P.; Chen, K.; Wang, L.; Wang, Y.; Liu, Y. (2015). "Archaeometallurgical studies in China: Some recent developments and challenging issues". Journal of Archaeological Science. 56: 221. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2015.02.026. 
  19. ^ Chen, Jianli, Mao, Ruilin, Wang, Hui, Chen, Honghai, Xie, Yan, Qian, Yaopeng, 2012. The iron objects unearthed from tombs of the Siwa culture in Mogou, Gansu, and the origin of iron-making technology in China. Wenwu (Cult. Relics) 8,45-53 (in Chinese)
  20. ^ The earliest use of iron in China
  21. ^ http://sinosword.com/Chinese-sword-classify.html ; 2017-08-12
  22. ^ http://sinosword.com/Chinese-sword-classify.html ; 2017-08-12
  23. ^ Sal Restivo, Mathematics in Society and History: Sociological Inquiries (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992, ISBN 1-4020-0039-1), pp 32.
  24. ^ Nathan Sivin, Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections. (Brookfield, Vermont: Variorum, Ashgate Publishing, 1995), Chapter III, pp. 21, 27, & 34.
  25. ^ Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1, Physics (Taipei: Caves Books Ltd., 1986), pp. 98 & 252.
  26. ^ Hsu, Mei-ling. "Chinese Marine Cartography: Sea Charts of Pre-Modern China," Imago Mundi (Volume 40, 1988): 96–112.
  27. ^ Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-521-49781-7), pp. 335.
  28. ^ Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1: Paper and Printing (Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd, 1986), pp 201.
  29. ^ Hartwell, Robert. "Markets, Technology, and the Structure of Enterprise in the Development of the Eleventh-Century Chinese Iron and Steel Industry," The Journal of Economic History (Volume 26, Number 1, 1966): 29–58.
  30. ^ a b Wagner, Donald B. "The Administration of the Iron Industry in Eleventh-Century China," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (Volume 44 2001): 175-197.
  31. ^ a b Patricia B. Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais, East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, ISBN 0-618-13384-4), pp. 158.
  32. ^ Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering (Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd., 1986), pp. 376.
  33. ^ appleton's new practical cyclopedia. NEW YORK. 1910. p. 432. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (Original from Harvard University)
  34. ^ Marcus Benjamin; Arthur Elmore Bostwick; Gerald Van Casteel; George Jotham Hagar, eds. (1910). Appleton's new practical cyclopedia: a new work of reference based upon the best authorities, and systematically arranged for use in home and school. Volume 4 of Appleton's New Practical Cyclopedia. NEW YORK: D. Appleton and company,. p. 432. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (Original from the University of Michigan)
  35. ^ The universal cyclopaedia. Volume 8 of The Universal Cyclopaedia: A New Ed. Prepared by a Large Corps of Editors, Assisted by Eminent European and American Specialists, Under the Direction of Charles Kendall Adams ... Editor-in-chief; Illustrated with Maps, Plans, Colored Plates, and Engravings. NEW YORK: D. Appleton. 1900. p. 489. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (LIBRARY OF THE LELAND STANFORD JR. UNIVERSITY)
  36. ^ Charles Kendall Adams; Rossiter Johnson (1901). Universal cyclopædia and atlas, Volume 8. NEW YORK: D. Appleton and Company. p. 489. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (Original from Columbia University)
  37. ^ A.J. Johnson Company (1895). Charles Kendall Adams, ed. Johnson's universal cyclopedia: a new edition. Volume 6 of Johnson's Universal Cyclopædia. NEW YORK: D. Appleton, A.J. Johnson. p. 201. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (Original from the University of California)
  38. ^ Charles Kendall Adams (1895). Johnson's universal cyclopaedia, Volume 6. NEW YORK: A.J. Johnson Co. p. 201. Retrieved 18 July 2011. (Original from Princeton University)
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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.