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Bronzes, mortuary practice and political strategies of the Yan during the early Western Zhou period.


After the conquest of the Shang in China around the mid-eleventh century BC, the immediate political challenge the Zhou faced was how to manage its new kingdom. It had a dramatically expanded territory and a culturally and ethnically diverse population. The Zhou developed a feudal network through enfeoffment, and the Zhou king sent out his family members and meritorious officials to establish a series of vassal states in North China. These vassal states not only served as the local delegated authority, but also formed a protection zone for the Zhou central court.

The Zhou waged several major military campaigns against rebellions by Shang clans and those associated with them in the very early stages of the new kingdom. Historical texts and bronze inscriptions of the Zhou record that members of the Shang were assigned to each vassal state as subjects and moved to different regions of the kingdom to further reduce the threat (Hsu & Linduff 1988:153-163). Meanwhile, the Zhou court also encouraged each vassal state to compromise and co-operate with the non-Zhou clans.

The establishment of the Yan state

Yan was an example of an important vassal state established by the Zhou court in the late eleventh century BC, and the enfeoffment of the Yan is well documented in inscriptions on bronze vessels excavated from the capital of the Yan at Liulihe, 43 km south-west of today's Beijing (Figure 1) (Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo & Beijingshi Wenwuyanjiusuo 1990: 20-31). Archaeological excavations at Liulihe over three decades have yielded a cemetery of the Yan with over 200 burials, 26 chariot and horse pits, and the remains of its capital city, including walls, a moat, a drainage system and residential areas, all of which were in use during the entire Western Zhou period (late eleventh century BC to c. early eighth century BC) (Beijing Daxue Kaoguxi & Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo 1996a: 4-15; 1996b: 16-27; Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo 1995; Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo, Beijing Daxue Kaogu Wenboyuan & Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo 2000: 32-38; Liulihe Kaogudui 1984: 405-416, 404; 1997: 4-13; Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo & Beijingshi Wenwuyanjiusuo 1990: 20-31). Finely cast bronze ritual vessels were also unearthed in the burials of the Yan nobles mainly in the early Western Zhou period during the reigns of King Wu, King Cheng, King Kang and King Zhao, roughly from mid-eleventh century to middle-tenth century BC.


The Yan were situated at a strategic location which functioned as a buffer between the Central Plain, the "core of dynastic China", and the Northern Zone, the periphery areas along the Great Wall occupied by non-dynastic groups. During the Shang dynasty (sixteenth century BC to mid-eleventh century BC), interactions between these groups and the Shang were recorded in oracle bone inscriptions mentioning that local elites from this region participated in the Shang divination ceremonies and paid tribute such as horses, ox and boar to the Shang king. Marriages as well as conflicts also took place occasionally between local groups and the Shang (Yang 1997: 97-103; Zheng 324-336). The cultural influence of the Shang in this area was suggested by archaeological materials as well. At Liujiahe north-east of Beijing, for example, typical Shang style bronze ritual vessels were discovered at a tomb of a local elite (Beijingshi Wenwu Guanlichu 1977: 1-8)

The arrival of the Zhou power at Liulihe in the early Western Zhou period fundamentally altered the political and cultural landscape in this area. For the first time, political authority from the dynastic centre attempted to establish a direct control over local populations who had previously enjoyed a different cultural and political tradition. This was a new challenge for all parties involved: the Yan, the Zhou court, and the local groups. As a newly formed state in the northern frontier far from the Zhou capital, how the Yan managed this situation would not only be crucial to its own survival, but would also have a profound impact on the stability of the Zhou, the political future of local populations, and the relationship between the dynastic centre and northern periphery.

The following discussion will propose three strategies initiated by the Yan during the early Western Zhou period to establish and expand its cultural and political control in this 'foreign' land. Three critical issues will be discussed: (1) How did the Yan maintain its relationship with the Zhou court? (2) How did the Yah construct its internal political structure? (3) How did the Yan deal with the local population? This study will indicate that Yan's strategies of control are represented in the style, inscriptions and use of bronze vessels in mortuary practice.

Yan's close political and cultural connections with the Zhou court

The legitimacy of Yan's political authority ultimately came from the Zhou court. As the local representative of the Zhou, it was not only obligatory, but also necessary for the Yan to uphold Zhou cultural identity and political principles, in fact, it was the fundamental foreign policy of the Yan to keep a strong cultural and political tie with the Zhou court. This was clearly demonstrated by the style and use of the ritual bronzes, the layout of the Liulihe cemetery, and frequent political exchanges between the Yan and the court recorded in bronze inscriptions.

Ritual bronzes were emblems of Zhou power. The style and use of the bronzes were encoded with different cultural and political messages. Bronzes at Liulihe are very similar to those in the Zhou metropolitan area. Typical Shang and Zhou style ritual vessels and weapons form the mainstream of the bronze art at Liulihe. Their shape and decor follow the Shang or Zhou style. The popular Shang and Zhou motifs, for example, taotie (animal face motif) and birds with short and long tails are the main decorations on Liulihe bronzes. A circular footed gui from burial M253 dated in the late Shang or early Western Zhou period can best exemplify the late Shang style. It is an almost identical copy of Yuan gui from Anyang dated in late Shang period, with a similar shape and decorative scheme (Sun 2001: 37). Moreover, inscriptions on some of the bronzes bear Shang clan emblems and tiangan numerals ("heavenly stems"), the Shang practice of naming ancestors. Typical Zhou style bronze vessels are represented by the square-based gui, gui with three or four legs, and the zun with flanges. The Zhou tradition of referring to ancestors also appears in the inscriptions of these vessels.

Styles that had originated in other regions, including north-western China particularly Lingtai and Baoji area, Chengdu Plain in south-western China, Wucheng culture in the middle and lower reaches of the Gan River in the south and the northern zone, were also represented on a small number of bronzes found at Liulihe. These regions or cultures, however, were not in direct contact with the Yan, and the regional styles were introduced to the Yan through contact with the Zhou capital, indeed, most of these styles can be found in the Zhou metropolitan area. Study of the style and casting technique suggested that some bronzes excavated at Liulihe were even probably made in the foundries at the Zhou capital (Sun 2001: 76-79).

Ritual bronzes were used in the same way by the Yan nobles in mortuary practice as those in the Zhou metropolitan area. They were regal symbols signifying an individual's social position and political power. Studies of historical texts and mortuary practice suggest that Zhou feudal hierarchy was gradually institutionalised in the Western Zhou period (Hsu & Linduff 1988: 171-177). A four-tiered social hierarchy of the Yan can be observed in burial structures and contents in the tombs at Liulihe (Sun 2001: 118-124). It consisted of Yan rulers, the upper aristocrats, lower-class elite and commoners. A similar ranking system was used in other Zhou vassal states such as Wei and Jin (Hsu & Linduff 1988: 171-177).

The layout of the Liulihe cemetery indicates that burials were organised according to kin relations of the deceased, a representation of the Zhou Zongfa system. Studies of the cemeteries in Zhou capital areas at Zhangjiapo and Beiyao indicate that the very arrangement of burials reflected the lineage of the deceased and individual's position within the lineage (Luoyang Wenwu Gongzuodui 1999; Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo 1999). This practice was also followed by vassal states of the Zhou including the Wei at Xincun and Guo at Shangcunling (Hsu & Linduff 1986: 163-171; Guo 1964; Zhongguo Shehuikexueyuan Kaoguyanjiusuo 1959).

The burials at Liulihe were organised into four zones, each perhaps representing a different kin group (Figures 2 & 3). Within each zone, burials were further grouped into small clusters. The number of burials in each cluster varies and the location of each burial seems to be related to the social status of the deceased. Large and rich tombs, for example M22 and M105 in zone one, M52 and M53 in zone two and M1193 and M202 in zone three, were located north of other burials in their respective clusters. The southern part of the graveyard in zone three was exclusively reserved for the marquis' Family, and can be identified as gongmu, a cemetery of the nobles mentioned in the Zhou Li (the Rites of the Zhou).


It was absolutely vital for the Yan to maintain a channel of communication with the Zhou court. Frequent diplomatic and political exchanges between the Yan and the Zhou court were also recorded in bronze inscriptions from Liulihe. To pay homage to the Zhou king and to reward vassal states for their respect were important and necessary aspects of exchange, through which political ties between the king and the vassal states were reinforced. The marquis of the Yan not only frequently sent his envoys such as Jin and Yu to the Zhou court, but also paid court visits himself to reassert Yan's subordination and loyalty to Zhou king. Inscriptions on a bronze gui recorded that his patron, Yu, as a chief envoy of the Yan, was sent to the Zhou new capital (Chengzhou) at Luoyang to participate in court ritual and pay homage to the Zhou king on behalf of the marquis of the Yan (Figure 4). A whole set of six bronze vessels were cast to commemorate the Zhou King's reward for Yu. Another famous ding commissioned by Yan marquis Zhi recorded that the Zhou king bestowed oil Zhi twenty strings of cowries (currency of the Zhou) upon his first court visit (Zhongguo Qingtongqi Quanji Bianji Weiyuanhui 1997: 3).


The overwhelming dominance of the Zhou metropolitan bronze style, all unambiguous expression of the zongfa system in mortuary practice, and frequent contact and exchange with the Zhou suggest Yan's strategies to maintain solidarity among themselves and to strengthen its role as a local delegate of the Zhou. As a newly formed state in a culturally and politically sensitive area far from the capital, any divergence would invite unnecessary, and even unaffordable threats against its survival.

Political coalitions with Shang elites in the Yan

Bronze inscriptions and archaeological evidence as mentioned above indicate that the Shang clans and those associated with the Shang were relocated to different vassal states. The Zhou court encouraged these states to take a liberal policy toward the Shang clans during the early 0Western Zhou period. In the Wei and Lu states, for example, the lord was even instructed to govern according to Shang principles (Hsu & Linduff 1986: 186-190).

These compromises were also seen in the Yan state. Some of the original Shang population was encouraged and permitted by the Zhou conquerors to preserve their own clan identity. Tiangan or heavenly stem numerals, in the Shang practice of naming ancestors such as fuyi and fukui, are frequently seen on ritual bronzes at Liulihe. Shang clan signs such as the well-known Ju, Jiuguan, Qi and Ya signs are also shown on bronze vessels. A branch of the Qi clan, for instance, might even have kept a fief north of Liulihe in the Jinniucun area where eight bronze vessels of early Western Zhou period inscribed with "Qiyayi" were found (Zhang 1995: 223-230).

Bronze inscriptions reveal that these Shang nobles such as the notable Fu, the occupant of burial M52, and the You, the occupant of burial M53, frequently received rewards from the marquis of the Yan. Bronzes were often cast to commemorate this kind of event.

Inscriptions on a bronze ding and a zun from Fu's burial recorded that various kinds of gifts were given to him by the marquis of the Yan including money in the form of three strands of cowries, a garment and male and female servants. Such honour glorified the whole family and should be known to the ancestors. The clan sign "Ju" followed each entry of the inscriptions and indicate Fu was the member of this clan (Figure 5). A bronze gui commissioned by You bears an inscription addressed to his recent deceased father saying that You having received three strands of cowries from the marquis of the Yan, cast this sacrificial vessel for him (Figure 6).


There is no doubt that gift-giving was an important strategy used by the Yan leaders to draw the Shang elites over to their side. It was not only an expression of a political recognition and acceptance of the Shang elites, but also an encouragement for them to join the political establishment of the Yan. Indeed, Shang elites seem to hold high military and political positions in the Yan state. They were buried with fine ritual bronze vessels and accompanied by separate chariot and horse pits, a treatment that many nobles from the Zhou clan were not even granted.

The remarkable display of the status of Shang elites can be best exemplified by Fu's burial, M52. It is a medium-sized tomb furnished with both inner and outer coffins. Fu was accompanied by a human sacrifice identified as a twelve-year-old boy placed at the second level terrace outside the coffin. In addition to six bronze vessels with inscriptions, a most noticeable burial item for Fu is a bronze ji spear inscribed with "the marquis of the Yan". This weapon must have been given to Fu by the marquis and it was placed right next to the deceased inside the coffin, a very prominent place for burial offering. Fu's social and political status was further symbolised by two chariot pits south of his burials. Pit M52CH1 contained a chariot (north) and four horses (south) with their backs toward the chariot as if pulling it. Each horse with an entire set of furnished harness fittings was carefully laid out in an individual pit (Figure 7). Another pit M52CH2 was furnished with one chariot and two horses.


Further study of burial customs indicates that the Shang clans were also given more freedom to follow their own funerary traditions. Zones one and two are adjacent to each other, and both exhibit a strong Shang funerary traditions. Typical Shang burial customs, human and dog sacrifices and yaokeng (a rectangular pit underneath the waist of the deceased), were widely practised in both zones. Among the thirteen tombs of the early Western Zhou period in zone one, all but one (Burial M1) have dog sacrifices and four human sacrifices (Burials M21, M22, M105 and M2). Eleven burials (M1, M3, M20, M21, M22, M23, M24, M26, M31, M105 and M2) were furnished with yaokeng. In zones two, four of the seven early Western Zhou burials (burials M50, M52, M54, M58) have dog sacrifices and three human sacrifices (burials M52, M53 and M54). Four burials (M50, M53, M54 and M58) were equipped with yaokeng (Figure 2). Altogether, eighty-five percent of the early Western Zhou burials in zones one and two have at least one of those three characteristics.

Besides the practice of Shang burial customs, Shang clan signs were found in inscriptions on bronze vessels from the burials in zone two, such as burial M52, suggesting that zone two contains the burials of the Shang nobles. There is no direct evidence to determine the clan identity of the deceased in zone one. However, the nature and uniformity of the burial customs indicate that the deceased here had a strong cultural affiliation with the Shang, and could be members of the Shang clans as well.

The recognition given to the Shang elites illustrates the Yan leaders' wise political strategy. The goal is to minimise potential conflict and bring Shang elites into the ruling class. By doing so, the power base of the marquis of the Yan was expanded and strengthened.

Soft and hard tactics toward local groups

The Yan represented a "core" culture in a "peripheral" area. Never before was the culture and political power from the Central Plain brought so close to the frontier of the Northern Zone. For local people, the establishment of the Yan as a military and cultural colony constituted a serious threat to the cultural and political independence that they had enjoyed previously. The Yan developed an approach aimed at assimilating local elite culture and bringing local elites into the Zhou cultural and political systems. Burials at Changping Baifu, a site only 70 kilometres north of Liulihe, suggest the success of this strategy to some degree. The richest of three burials, tomb M2 dated around the late eleventh century to early tenth century BC, is attributed to a local leader who was a woman warrior. She was accompanied by 65 grave items including bronze helmets, weapons and horse and harness fittings (Beijingshi Wenwu Guanlichu 1976: 246-250). Most weapons and tools such as daggers and knives with animal-head or jingled pommels, socketed pickaxes, bow-shaped fittings and shield ornaments clearly demonstrate northern frontier tastes.

This case suggests that local sovereignty was no longer completely defined by local symbols. Rather, the authority of local elites had to be partially legitimated through their ties to the Yan. This may eventually lead to transferring the political control from local elites to the Yan. The acceptance of Zhou power symbol suggests the co-operation between the Yan and local elites which was mutually beneficial for both parties. For the Yan, winning the allegiances of local elites would help them control the general population. For local leaders, Zhou ritual bronzes added the mystery of their authority which reinforced their power and discouraged potential challenges.

The Yan tried to assimilate and buy over local people when possible. However, confrontation and suppression also took place when there were no other options. At Liulihe, bronze weapons and/or chariot and horse fittings were displayed in burials of all levels. Pits containing horses and chariots often associated with elite burials suggest the parade of military force.

The discovery of several bronze hoards at Kezuo and its vicinity suggest that Yan may once have extended its military campaign into the western Liaoning region in north-western China (Figure 1). The majority of these bronzes were cast in the Western Zhou period (Kezuoxian Wenhuaguan, Chaoyang Diqu Bowuguan, Liaoningsheng Bowuguan 1977: 23-27, 43). Some of them such as the Yu gui, Boju yan and Yanhou yu shared the same patrons as the Liulihe bronzes and their style is also similar to those in the Zhou metropolitan area. It is likely that these ritual bronzes belonged to the Yan elites and they tried to establish sub-colonies or military posts in Liao River valley where local bronze cultures like Weiyingzi and later upper Xiajiadian roughly dated from 1000-600 BC dominated (Han 1997: 234-251).

It seems that the Yan was able to manage challenges from, and conflicts with, local groups by cultural penetration and military campaigns. The success of these strategies can be best illustrated by the decline and disappearance of local culture at Zhenjiangying, a site 35km south-west of Liulihe. During the beginning of Western Zhou period, a distinct local style pottery dominated the site. However, local culture died out at the end of middle Western Zhou with Yan's occupation of this region (Beijingshi Wenwu Yanjiusuo 1999: 418-425).


The establishment of the Yan in north China during the early Western Zhou period is a story of success. Analyses of bronze styles, inscriptions and mortuary practice reveal the strategies used by the Yan to legitimise its rule and acculturate local groups. Backed up by a strong Zhou court, the Yan constructed a political coalition with the Shang internally and consolidated its cultural and political control.

The power of local elites was no longer solely expressed through the display of aboriginal symbols. The introduction of Zhou ritual bronzes into local elite culture underscores the first step taken by the Yon to deprive the political autonomy of local elites. The disappearance of local culture symbols at Zhenjiangying attests to the effectiveness and success of Yan strategies which created a solid foundation of the new state.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Liulihe was probably abandoned as the capital of the Yan after the early Western Zhou period (Liu & Zhao 1997). What happened to the Yan from then on to the end of the Western Zhou largely remains a mystery. Both historical texts and archaeological data on the Yan during that period are very limited. But the Yan reemerged as one of the seven strongest states in the Warring States period (475 BC to 221 BC), until 222 BC when the Qin conquered it.


The authors wishes to thank Professor Katheryn Linduff for her support and insightful comments on this paper.


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Sun Yan *

* Department of Visual Arts, Gettysburg College, PA 17325, USA. (Email:
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Date:Dec 1, 2003
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