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Kevin A.

AS 201 Asia in Antiquity
Tuesday, 5:00 8:00 pm

The Growth of Early Shang Civilization: New Data From Ritual Vessels
by Robert L. Thorp (1985)

This paper is a review of the "The Growth of Early Shang Civilization: New Data
From Ritual Vessels Author(s)" by Robert L. Thorp (1985). Through the intensive
study of ritual vessels dating back to the Shang Civilization (c. 1500 - 1045 B.C.),
Thorp embarks on the herculean task of organizing archaelogical knowledge on the
subject, and presents new assumptions and reconsiders previous ones on the
cultural growth and geographic reach of the Early Shang Civilization. The study
provides important insights in understanding the formative stages of Chinese
culture in the Early Bronze Age.

The Shang Dynasty is an important period in Chinese history as it left many great
contributions. The earliest pieces of Chinese writing were dated back to this period.
A highly ritualistic society, most Shang artifacts with inscriptions were objects used
for fortune-telling such as oracle-bones, and for burials such as bronze ritual
vessels, which is the focus of the study. As explained by Thorp, the ritual vessels
were an important element of Shang burial practices, reflecting their belief on
ancestor-worship and the continuity of life in another world.

Thousands of ritual vessels were unearthed in the last few decades providing
academics with vast amounts of new data. Early on, western scholarship has already
developed an interest in the study of Shang civilization. With studies from
established archaeologists such as Max Loehr and Virginia Kane, theories and
assumptions have been developed to explain the Early Shang material culture, and
provide a periodization that chronologize, albeit rudimentarily, the Shang
civilization. Armed with new data, Thorp analyzes existing theories and
assumptions, problematizes key aspects of previous archeological knowledge, and
presents striking alternative views such as on the nature of relationships between
and among different ancient dominions and settlements, specially during the
Transitional Period, a period between the height of bronze production at
Zhengzhou, in archaeological terms the Upper Erligang Phase, and the onset of the
royal occupation at the Anyang sites (p. 9).

Earlier theories explained these relationships through a so called "metropolitan and
provincial model (p. 51), a dichotomy which according to Thorp, implies "either a
central polity in control of all areas or a paramount style centre leading the way" (p.
55). This particular framework supposes that the more intricate and "better"
designs were from the metropolitan -- Anyang in this case -- and less elaborate,
eccentric designs hailing from the provincial sites, impying artistic inferiority of the
latter. Thorp argues that this model forwards a number of assumptions:

a) Anyang was essentially unitary;
b) Developments were always purposeful with a final goal;
c) Prof. Loehrs sequence of styles was essentially linear and describes that unitary
d) that areas outside Anyang, while in communication with it, often produced
eccentric vessels;

Thorp contradicts this view by pointing out that since the time of writing of these
works, new evidence has surfaced that does not support such views. Kane talks
about the "An-yang touch," referring to the distinctive and "advanced" style of
Anyang ritual vessel artistry, but Thorp stresses that it has become more difficult to
isolate this as a distinctive style and that "aberrant and old-fashioned types" (. 53)
continue to appear in various Anyang burial sites.

Thorp continues that Kanes periodization is untenable and argues that the An-
yang touch more likely refers only to a fraction of production, and some of the
artistic developments Kane date to Late Shang may have earlier even before the
dynastic occupation of the Anyang area. Thorp concludes that Kanes system has
eroded and suggests to reconsider the speed of progress and deliberateness of
artistic developments. Instead, Thorp proposes the Network Model and asserts that
the developments of the Late Shang period were "complex and not unitary, dendritic
not linear, random and accidental as well as purposeful, fitful as well as rapid" (p.
53). Thorp adds that it could have been a direct result of collective decisions, trial
and error, and large-scale production.

Thorp then moves forward and commends Robert Bagleys interpretation. He claims
that Bagleys approach is more flexible and nuanced but still applies the terms
metropolitan and provincial. The difference is that Bagley questions the location of
Shang capitals and whether the hypothetical metropolitan was truly at Anyang or
some other sites. Through his conception of a metropolitan tradition (p. 54),
Bagley also offered insights that supported the idea of a Transitional Period by
pointing out unarguable stylistic provincialisms (p. 53). Still, Thorp warns that
Bagleys approach should not be localized within narrow geographical limits, such
as a supposed style center. Thorp, nonetheless, concludes that the metropolitan-
provincial model has proven inappropriate for the Shang civilization it was intended
to explicate.

Thorp sums up his contention against earlier historiographic faults, proposal to
seriously consider a Transitional period and a Network Model, and prospects for
Ancient Chinese archaeology in this last paragraph of his article:
it is necessary to reconsider the supposed primacy of any area and to
entertain the hypothesis that a network of interacting sites synergistically
created those cultural traits one calls Shang civilization. Few of these traits-
architecture, ceramics, bronze, writing, burials had one parent only. A bronze
vessel datable by context, typology, or style to the Transitional Period is the
final product of many earlier creative decisions and processes. Anonymous and
collective as these may be, they are no less important than the hypothetical acts
of culture heroes or the creations of great artists. Seeing Shang civilization in its
own terms, not through dynastic models or Euro- centric theories, is the
challenge and the promise of the archaeology of ancient China (p. 56).
My reaction to the work of Thorp rests on three levels: First on content, style of writing and
organization of information, second on methodology, and third on the problems and
opportunities of ancient archeology. Although a very comprehensive work, this article is
relatively easier to read in terms of diction as Thorp must have avoided the extensive use of
archaeological jargon. Although some words are unfamiliar, I was able to read it with
relative ease. The most difficult part, however, is the section where Thorp intensively
details and explains the artistic properties of different ritual vessels alongside confusing
periodizations and numerous geographic locations. The reader must be very patient and
organized in order to fully appreciate its content.
This reader appreciates the introduction of Thorp mostly as it provides the academic
context where a study such as this comes into picture. Thorp provides in the introduction
the seminal works that eventually became canons, at least for western scholars, on the
subject and sheds light on the archaeological developments that would be the basis of his
work. Thorp also attempts to illuminate the existing debates on the subject, specifically the
periodizations and the historicity of Xia. This is a good approach since one of Thorps main
points is the consideration of a Transitional Period in the current periodization of the Shang
As much as I would like to scrutinize the methodology, I do not have expertise on
archaeology to make an informed evaluation of Thorps approach. Looking on the data that
Thorp has presented, however, I realized how tremendous hardwork it requires to engage
in ancient archaeology, specially if your purpose is to challenge existing theories and
assumptions. The categorization, detailed description and examination of the artifactual
syntax in this work are impressive and provide important insights to aspiring ancient
Chinese scholars. His attention to detail, and ability to connect elements and clearly
elucidate these connections to form well constructed arguments are commendable.
Although some parts were confusing at best, the reader does not discount the inherent
difficulty of organizing and presenting such vast amounts of information.
Finally, what Thorps study shows is how Euro-centric models have long dominated the
discourse and dictated the analytical models used to understand and explain ancient
societies like the Shang Civilization. This is most evident in the conception of Shang society
by earlier theorists as having primal cultural centers with fixed geographical boundaries,
and one-way cultural interaction with other contemporary societies. Historians and social
scientists alike should be on the look out for such inadequacies and attempt to provide
alternative views based on credible evidence.