Shang Dynasty Music

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History of musical development in the Shang Dynasty.

General information

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English title Shang Dynasty Music
Date of publication

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Geographical span of this epoch

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Important locations

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Tiger pattern chime stone, Shang (1600 BC - 1050 BC), Length 84cm, Width 42 cm, Thickness 2.5 cm, Excavated in 1950 from Yinxu, Anyang, Henan Province, The large tiger pattern chime stone shown here could be called the king of Shang chime stones. It is inscribed with a robust tiger and has been shown to sound five musical scales, thus could be used for performing different compositions. Photo (c) National Museum of China

The Shang Dynasty lasted from 1600 - 1050 BC.

The long period of the Bronze Age in China, which began around 2000 B.C., saw the growth and maturity of a civilization that would be sustained in its essential aspects for another 2,000 years. In the early stages of this development, the process of urbanization went hand in hand with the establishment of a social order. In China, as in other societies, the mechanism that generated social cohesion, and at a later stage statecraft, was ritualization. As most of the paraphernalia for early rituals were made in bronze and as rituals carried such an important social function, it is perhaps possible to read into the forms and decorations of these objects some of the central concerns of the societies (at least the upper sectors of the societies) that produced them.[1]

There were probably a number of early centers of bronze technology, but the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan Province emerged as the center of the most advanced and literate cultures of the time and became the seat of the political and military power of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600BC - 1050BC), the earliest archaeologically recorded dynasty in Chinese history.[1]

Music Development in Shang Dynasty

General Information

According to some sources, in the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, only royal families and dignitary officials enjoyed music, which was made on chimes and bells.[2]

Bronze Instruments

Along with the rise of bronze smelting techniques[3] a large number of instruments were made which are found at excavations sites. Such Instruments excavated from sites of the Shang dynasty include stone chimes, bronze bells, panpipes, and the sheng.[4]

Examples of such bronze instruments include Bronze Nao (bell-shaped percussion instrument) as excavated in 1959 in Ningxiang County, Hunan Province:

Bronze Nao

According to the website of the Hunan Provincial Museum:

Nao refers to a kind of bell-shaped percussion instrument. Altogether nineteen big bronzes of Nao were excavated from the same site; each can produce one or two distinctive pitches when struck on different parts. When grouped together, they could be used to perform various ancient musical compositions. Up to now, they are regarded as the earliest musical instruments that can be performed in a group. Therefore, archeologists infer that this bronze Nao may be one of a chime of bells. At the top of the design, two small elephants with curled noses stand on the two sides of the bronze Nao. The left, middle and right sides are decorated with six tigers, six fishes and eleven nails. The design of the elephants is abstract and mysterious, but looks very vivid and realistic. With complicated and breathtaking design, this is a masterpiece of bronzes of Shang Dynasty.[5]

Another Nao is part of the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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According to their website:

Nao were typically arranged in sets of three or five. Played with the mouth facing upward, smaller examples could be held in the hand while larger ones, known as yong, required a frame support. Shang-dynasty instruments such as this nao were frequently decorated with the taotie motif—a symmetrical design representing the flattened face, or "split representation," of a mythological animal.[6]

A set of three Nao had been unearthed in Henan in 1968:

Bronze Nao

According to the Henan Museum website:

A set of three bronze nao bells with meander pattern, made in the Shang Dynasty, the overall heights are respectively: 20.5cm, 17cm and 14.5cm. In 1968, they were unearthed at Xiaonanzhang Village, Wenxian County, Jiaozuo City, Henan Province. (...) An acoustic study of the bronze nao bells has shown that, when beaten at their front bulging part, they respectively produce sounds of three notes, i.e., do, re and sol (or shang, jue and zhi, according to the traditional Chinese five-note scale). That is to say, the discovery of this nao set has constituted material evidence and scientific basis for studies of bronze musical instruments in the late Shang Dynasty, particularly bronze nao sets near the Yin Ruins. In addition, they have also fully demonstrated China’s bronze casting technology and consummate handicraft in that period.[7]

Further information

General information about Shang Dynasty


  1. 1.0 1.1 Department of Asian Art (In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (October 2004). "Shang and Zhou Dynasties: The Bronze Age of China". Retrieved on 2013-03-29.
  2. Travel China Guide. "Chinese Music". Retrieved on 2013-10-20.
  3. "The Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC)". Retrieved on 2013-10-12.
  4. Paul Noll. "History of Chinese Music - Page 2". Retrieved on 2013-02-23.
  5. Hunan Provincial Museum. "Bronze Nao with Elephant Patterns of Shang Dynasty (1600—1046BC)". Retrieved on 2013-10-12.
  6. "Nao (bell) [China] (49.136.10)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (September 2009)
  7. Cai Jie (Henan Museum). "Bronze Nao Bells with Meander Pattern". Retrieved on 2013-10-12.