An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

jinwen 金文, bronze vessel inscriptions

Nov 28, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The so-called jinwen 金文 are inscriptions mainly produced on ritual bronze vessels from the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) and Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), but also on other objects of the Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Former Han periods 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).

The oldest inscriptions, which are still insignia of producers or owners rather than texts, date from the Erligang 二里岡 phase (13th cent. BCE). The apogee of jinwen texts is the Western Zhou period. Some scholars use the term jinwen only for inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels and bells, and not for other objects like bronze tallies or weights. The Chinese word wen can refer to both texts and patterns (acutally written 紋).


The history of research in bronze vessels and their inscriptions is very old. From the Former Han period on scholars were interested in the dating and the texts of the vessels unearthed in tombs and hoards, like Zhang Chang 張敞 who analysed the texts of a ding 鼎 tripod unearthed in Meiyang 美陽.

The Song period 宋 (960-1279) was the high time of bronze inscription research. The most famous of these studies is Lü Dalin's 呂大臨 (1044-1091) Kaogutu 考古圖, a richly illustrated catalogue on old bronze vessels and their inscriptions. Other books are Huangyou sanguan guqi tu 皇祐三館古器圖, Liu Chang's 劉敞 (1019-1068) Qianqin guqi ji 先秦古器記, and Li Gonglin's 李公麟 (1049.1106) Kaogutu 考古圖.

While these books are descriptive catalogues of collector's possessions, there were also more systematic listings, like Xue Shanggong's 薛尚功 (fl. 1144) Lidai zhong ding yi qi kuanshi fatie 歷代鍾鼎彜器款識法帖, or even character dictionaries for bronze texts, like Kaogutu shiwen 考古圖釋文 by Lü Dalin, or Zengguang zhong ding zhuan yun 增廣鍾鼎篆韻 by Yang Jun 楊銁 (XXX).

A second heyday of the research in bronze inscriptions was during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), when scholars were again interested in practical text-critical research, rather than in the Neo-Confucian metaphysical speculations. The most important collections of bronze inscriptions were Jiguzhai zhong ding yi qi kuanshi 積古齋鍾鼎彜器款識 by Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849), Jungulu jinwen 攟古錄金文 by Wu Shifen 吳式芬 (1796-1856), Chuoyizhai yiqi kuanshi 綴遺齋彜器款識 by Fang Junyi 方浚益 (d. 1899), Kezhai jigulu 愙齋集古錄 by Wu Dacheng 吳大澂 (1835-1902), and the books Guzhou shiyi 古籀拾遺 and Guzhou yulun 古籀餘論 by Sun Yirang 孫詒讓 (1848-1908). There best character dictionary of this time is probably Wu Dacheng's Shuowen guzhou bu 說文古籀補.

During the Republican period scholars like Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 (1866-1940; author of Sandai jijin wencun 三代吉金文存), Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) and Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978; author of Jinwen congkao 金文叢考, Liangzhou jinwen ci daxi 兩周金文辭大系) developed scientific criteria to establish a method for dating the inscriptions and using them as historiographical sources.

A large number of book has been compiled by Chinese and overseas scholars, of which only several can be listed here: Yang Shuda's 楊樹達 (1885-1956) Jiweiju jinwen shuo 積微居金文說, Rong Geng's 容庚 (1894-1983) Shang-Zhou yiqi tongkao 商周彜器通考 and the lexica Jinwenbian 金文編 and Jinwen xubian 金文續編, Yu Xingwu's 于省吾 (18961984) Shuangjianchi jijin wenxuan 雙劍誃吉金文選, Ke Changji's 柯昌濟 (1902-1990) Jinwen fenyu bian 金文分域編, Tang Lan's 唐蘭 (1901-1979) Xizhou qingtongqi mingwen fendai shizheng 西周青銅器銘文分代史證, Chen Mengjia's 陳夢家 (1911-1966) Xizhou tongqi duandai 西周銅器斷代, the book Jinwen tongshi/Kimbun tsūshaku 金文通釋 by the Japanese scholar Shirakawa Shizuka 白川静 (1910-2006), as well as the handbooks Jinwen gulin 金文詁林 by Zhou Fagao 周法高 (1915-1994), Sun Zhichu's 孫稚雛 (b. 1938) Jinwen zhulu jianmu 金文著錄簡目 and Qingtongqi lunwen suoyin 青銅器論文索引, or the book Xinchu jinwen fenyu jianmu 新出金文分域簡目 published by the Archeological Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 中國社會科學院考古研究所.

The largest compendium of bronze inscriptions, containing rubbings as well as transcriptions into modern script, is the book Yin-Zhou jinwen jicheng 殷周金文集成, published in 1984 by the institution just mentioned.

The bronze vessel inscriptions are of great importance for historians, because they are able to supplement information not given in the transmitted sources, as the universal history Shiji 史記 or the "Book of Documents" Shangshu 尚書, and for the study of ancient Chinese characters, as a supplement to the character dictionary Shuowen jiezi 說文解字.

Inscriptions through the ages

The oldest inscriptions from the Erligang period (13th cent.) are only preserved on a very small number of vessels, and the inscriptions bare only one to three characters. The characters are cast into the vessel and are protruding (yangwen 陽文), which means that the characters or signs have been carved into the mould. Some of the inscriptions are names of families, some the names of an ancestor, during the sacrifice to whom the vessels were used, some inscriptions might even give a hint of the use of the vessel. Because most of the vessels have not been excavated by archeologists, it can not be proved if they are true Erligang vessels or forgeries.

The inscriptions of the Yin period 殷 (12th-11th cent.), that is, the last part of the Shang period, are longer, but still relatively short, the longest bearing some 50 characters. The content of the inscriptions is similar to the Erligang pieces, containing the names of families or owners, or the names of ancestors to which sacrifices were made. The insignia of families (zuhui 族徽) can not directly be interpreted as Chinese characters, but have a rather "heraldic" meaning. Some have the shape of a persons, some that of animals. A part of these insignia has been interpreted as ancient forms of Chinese characters, some of them might later have been used as place name. The inscriptions are often to be found in several parts of the vessels, depending on the shape.

The Sisibi you 四祀邲卣, for example, bears an inscription of 42 characters in 8 columns on the outer bottom, and two identical inscriptions on the inner bottom and the inner side of the cover, with 4 characters indicating the family (Yamo 亞獏) and the ancestor (Fu Ding 父丁 "Father Four"). The long inscription says that the vessel was bestowed to the family after the king had made a sacrifice to his ancestor. The longest inscription of the Shang period is that on the Xiaozi N you 小子■卣, which was bestowed to a grandee who had taken over the task to supervise some submitted tribes (renfang 人方).

But the smaller inscriptions are not less informative, like the many vessels found in a tomb in Xiaotun 小屯 near Anyang 安陽, Hebei, where the capital of Yin was located. All bronze vessels excavated there bear the inscription Fu Hao 婦好, so that the name of the owner of the tomb could be identified, namely the consort of King Wu Ding 武丁.

The language of the Yin period inscriptions, as well as the shape of the characters, is very similar to that in the oracle bone inscriptions dating from the same time.

The Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) inscriptions perpetuate the traditions founded by the Shang rulers, but the inscriptions become longer and more narrative, almost of a literary quality. The content is also diversified. It is especially the longer inscriptions that are similar in content to the speeches found in the Shangshu, like, for example, the 400-characters long text of the Xiaoyu ding 小盂鼎 from the time of King Kang 周康王 (10th cent.). In fact, numerous inscriptions give additional information which is not provided in the traditional written sources. The conquest of the Shang by the Zhou ruler King Wu 周武王 is dated in the inscription of the Li gui 利簋. The Duke of Zhou's 周公 campaigns the east to quell the rebellions of the royal princes are mentioned in the N-fang ding ■方鼎. There is mentioning of Marquis Kang's 康侯 enfeoffment as ruler of Wei 衛, and the transferral of Marquis Ze 夨侯 from Yu 虞 (i.e. Wu 吳) to Yi 宜 in the Yi hou Ze gui 宜侯夨簋. The southern campaigns of King Zhao 周昭王, as well as the inspection travels of King Mu 周穆王, both in the 10th century, are also recorded.

The characters of the early Western Zhou are still quite bold and crude, but become more standardized from the mid-Western Zhou period on. The larger inscriptions mainly deal with charges issued by the kings of Zhou, or enfeoffments of the feudal lords, which were often accompanied with the bestowal of gifts. Some inscriptions also deal with economical and territorial exchanges between feudal lords, which had to be sanctioned by the king (e.g. Hu ding 曶鼎, Qiu Wei 裘衛). Of the late Western Zhou inscriptions, that of the Maogong ding 毛公鼎 is the longest (479 characters, enfeoffment of Duke Mao). The Guo Jizi Bai pan 虢季子白盤 and the Duoyou ding 多友鼎 contain reports of campaigns against the western Xianyun 獫狁 tribes, the Xijia pan 兮甲盤 and the Jufu xu 駒父盨 of wars against the southeastern tribes of the Huai region (Huaiyi 淮夷).

In the 8th century the quality of the vessels and the inscriptions is deteriorating, like, for instance, in the Liangqi 梁其 vessels. With the flight of the house of Zhou to the east, the number of vessels cast by the royal house drastically declined. Instead, the feudal lords, even those of the lesser states, started issuing decretes on bronze vessels, and thus took over a task formerly exerted by the kings of Zhou.

The inscriptions of the Eastern Zhou period, especially the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), reflect the growing power of the feudal lords who took over the hegemony over the other states, like the states of Jin 晉 (e.g. Jin Jiang ding 晉姜鼎), Qi 齊 (Geng hu 庚壺) or Chu 楚 (Ling Yinzi Geng ding 令尹子庚鼎).

In the far west, the state of Qin 秦 also cast its own vessels with inscriptions, like the Qingong zhong 秦公鍾 bell, the Qingong gui 秦公簋, or the Qingong bo 秦公鎛 bell, which is lost. The characters of the Qin inscriptions look different than that of the "central states". But the other states also developed their distinctive types of writing, like the kedouwen 科斗文 style of Jin with a thick corpse and slim ends, or the "bird-style" (niaoshu 鳥書) of the southern states. This development intensified in the course of time.

Additionally, the wording used in the inscriptions were also in some points differnt in the various regions. The characters were not any more produced during the casting process, but engraved after the ready-made piece, and then often filled with golden alloys (cuojin 錯金). The technical development of crafts also changed the appearance of the vessels and their inscriptions.

The content of the inscriptions also changed. The old pattern of enfeoffment or royal charged disappeared and was replaced by an indiction of the craftsmen's names, that of the users, the region of use, and, in the case of weights and measures, also by the concrete indication of the weight or volume. A lot of items now also were inscribed with a concrete date on which they were fabricated or brought into use. Most inscriptions on bronze objects are therefore quite short, but there are also examples of lengthy incriptions, like the 448-characters long inscription on the Zhongshan wang fanghu 中山王方壺 and the 469-characters long on the Zhongshan wang ding 中山王鼎, which is famous for its delicate style of writings with long and slender characters.

The inscriptions describe the conquest of a part of the territory of Yan 燕 by the army of Zhongshan 中山, an indicent not covered by traditional written sources.

The bronze objects of the Qin and Han periods are of practical use. The excavated of discovered objects are mainly weights and measurement tools bearing inscriptions of the imperial issuing of the measuring standard. They are important sources for the study of the administrative history of these periods. A very interesting example with an inscription with medical content are two hu cans unearthed in Mancheng Lingshan 滿城陵山.

Types and content of inscriptions

1. Marks

From the beginning bronze tools were cast with a mark (huiji 徽記) indicating the owner of the vessel. In the simple form the mark was the name of a family (zuhui) to whom the vessel belonged, or the name of the person that had the vessel made. In he complex form the type of the vessel is also named, as well as the use or the place where it is stored. In some longer texts the wish is also included that the descendants might keep the vessel and hold it in high esteem. The longer texts appear in the early phase of the Western Zhou period.

Quotation 1. Examples of ownership marks (huiji 徽記) on bronze vessels
吏從作壺 Li Cong zuo hu
中作旅簋 Zhong zuo Lü gui
寑小室盂 Qin xiao shi yu
曾仲斿父用吉金自作尊壺 Zeng Zhong You Fu yong ji jin zi zuo zun hu
己華父作寳鼎子子孫孫永用 Yi Hua Fu zuo bao ding zi zi sun sun yong yong

2. Sacrifices

In sacrificial inscriptions the target person of the offering is named, i. e. the ancestor. In longer text the name, rank, family and position of the persons conducting the offering may also be named.

Quotation 2. Examples of sacrificial inscriptions on bronze vessels
戈父己 Ge Fu Ji "Father VI of the Ge family"
子申父己 Zishen Fu Ji "Zishen for Father VI"
衛作父庚寳尊彜 Wei zuo Fu Geng bao zun yi "Wei made this precious honoured vessel for Father VII"
小臣作父乙寳彜 Xiaochen zuo Fu Yi bao yi "The senior serviceman made this precious vessel for Father II"
陵作父日乙寳罍單 Ling zuo Fu Riyi bao lei Dan "Ling made this precious jar for Father Ri II, by Dan"

3. Royal commands

The custom to record royal commands (ceming 冊命) on bronze vessels came up during the Western Zhou period. From the reign of king Mu on the texts were very standardized and included a fixed set of informations and paragraphs. These recorded time, place, the recipient of the command, the text of the command, the order to propagate the fame of the king, the ordering of casting the vessel, and wishes for the present and the coming generations. Some inscriptions are even more longer and contain additional information about the location where the king was seated, how the command was handed down to the nobleman, the recitation of the command, the handing over of the document, the exchange of tallies, and a listing of the presents made by the king, with an exhortation to make use of them.

Quotation 2. Examples of royal commands (ceming 冊命) in bronze vessel inscriptions
唯三月初吉甲戌 It was in the third month, in the auspicious first decade on the day with the cyclical characters jiaxu
王才康宮 The king was in the Kang Palace
■{火火/乂}白內右康 N-bo presented Kang the Right
王令死嗣王家易女幽黃鋚革 The king commanded him to serve the royal house with all his heart: We order you to
康拜稽首敢對揚天子不顯休 Kang received these kowtowing, daring to spread the august fame of the Son of Heaven.
用乍朕文考釐白寶尊鼎 He ordered to make this honoured precious tripod spreading Our
子子孫孫其萬年永寶用 My sons and grand-sons may preciously make use of it for ten thousand years.
奠井[Made by] Dian Jing.

4. Royal instructions

The documents most similar to the speeches included in the Shangshu are royal instructions (xungao 訓誥). They are to be found mainly on Western Zhou bronzes and become very rare in later ages. The last example are the vessels of the king of Zhongshan. The pattern of the inscriptions is very similar to the royal commands, only the instruction replacing the command. The most prominent example is the long inscription of the Maogong ding.

5. Records of events

The recording of events is an often seen content of bronze vessel inscriptions. The pattern changes according to the length of the inscription, but the basic model remains the same. The content are records of success in military campaigns, presents made by the king, reports of a special mission, and so on.

Li Xueqin 李學勤 (1992). "Jinwen 金文", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, Vol. 1, 462-464. Beijing/Shanghai.
Ma Chengyuan 馬承源 (1988). Zhongguo qingtong qi 中國青銅器 / The Chinese Bronzes (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe).