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The Political and Ritual Significance of Bronze Production and Use in Ancient Yunnan

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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

The exceptional quality and enormous quantity of bronzes included in the elite tombs of the Dian Culture in central Yunnan Province provide an excellent opportunity to explore the interplay among craft specialization, ritual, and political power. Although Yunnan contains some of China’s richest deposits of copper, lead, and tin, the early phases of bronze metallurgy there are still very poorly represented in the archaeological record. By the mid-first millennium bc, however, the technology of bronze production had reached a very high level of sophistication, and bronzes played a crucial military, ritual, and social role in Dian society. It appears that a close, symbiotic relationship existed between Dian metallurgical craftsmen and their elite patrons. Present evidence suggests that possession of bronzes, and the control over the means to produce them, invested the Dian elite with the ability to acquire and maintain power and control over their own people and many of their neighbors. Among the Dian, primarily endogenous political and ritual developments fostered the rapid specialization of the metallurgical craft. Under the patronage of the Dian elite, metalworkers developed complicated methods of casting using piece-molds and investment processes (such as lost wax casting), combined with a variety of mechanical joinery techniques to produce vibrant and detailed scenes of warfare, ritual, and other aspects of Dian life. With the careful attention devoted to details of ethnic identification, military prowess, social status, and ritual activities, these objects both legitimated and maintained Dian political and religious power and prestige in the eyes of the Dian people and of their non-Dian neighbors.

Affiliations: 1: International Center for East Asian Archaeologu and Cultural History Boston University 650 Beacon Street, 5th Floor Boston, MA 02215 U.S.A., Email:


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