A mysterious ancient Chinese recipe for bronze is finally solved

For centuries, researchers have wondered about the ingredients for a 2,300-year-old Chinese bronze recipe. Now they think they’ve finally figured it out.

Trustees of the British MuseumThese knife coins have been used as currency in Imperial China 2500 years ago.

For decades, scholars have wondered about ancient China’s prolific bronze industry—and may have just found their answer in a mysterious 2,300-year-old text.

In a study published in the journal AntiquityScholars in England say they have identified a recipe by which Imperial China made bronze on a large scale, written in an ancient text known as Kaogongji.

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This set of documents is widely considered the oldest known technological encyclopedia, with parts dating back 2,500 years. The book includes six chemical formulas for making the bronze used to make swords, bells, axes, knives, mirrors, and more.

“These recipes were used in the largest bronze industry in Eurasia during this period,” said Ruiliang Liu, curator of the Early China Collection at the British Museum in London. Attempts to reconstruct these processes have been made for more than a hundred years, but they have been unsuccessful. ”

Diagram of Kao Gong Ji

Researchgate.netThe ideal capital of imperial China Kaogongji.

In fact, over the past century, researchers have studied the components jin and xi, which were thought to be copper and tin, two major components of bronze. The meaning of these words is further complicated by the fact that the word “jin” means gold in modern Chinese.

But when they tried to mix these ingredients according to the book’s instructions, their results did not match the ancient bronze artifacts from Imperial China.

Now, it looks like the mystery may finally be solved. “For the first time in more than 100 years of scholarship, we have provided a working explanation of how to interpret the recipes of bronze crafts in early China,” said the study’s lead author, director of the University of Oxford’s Laboratory of Archeology and Research. . Art History, Mark Pollard.

Artifacts of the Shang Dynasty

MeetingArtifacts believed to have been used in a Chinese Bronze Age altarpiece, found in the tomb of a Western aristocrat in Zhou, Shaanxi Province.

For this latest study, according to ScienceLiu and Pollard tested the chemical composition of 2,400-year-old knives—bronze knives used as currency—made during the same period that these recipes were written. This proved critical, as their results showed that most of these parts are made of a specific metal alloy.

Metal alloys are combinations of two or more distinct elements, which means that ancient Chinese goldsmithing was more complex than previously thought. “It represents an additional, previously unknown layer of China’s mineral production and supply network,” Liu added.

In fact, it is now believed that jin and xi can actually be two types of pre-alloyed metallic alloys: one is a mixture of copper, tin, and lead, and the other is made of copper and lead. Leo and Pollard hypothesized that these ingots were then made into blocks and distributed to bronze makers throughout the empire.

“There’s a much bigger control and supply network, and we don’t really understand how that happens,” Liu added.

Tomb of Fu Hao

flickrThe tomb of Fu Hao in Yinxu, the ruins of the ancient capital of the Shang Yin Dynasty.

The question of how China was able to produce such a staggering amount of bronze—a quantity that surpassed anything found in Europe during the same period—aroused great interest in 1976 with the discovery of 1.5 tons of bronze artifacts in the Imperial Cemetery. Fu Hao, a Chinese general of the Shang dynasty.

However, some researchers remain skeptical of these findings. They suggest that Kaogongji It could have been written by the officials instead of the craftsmen, falsifying the recipe due to their lack of specific knowledge.

However, the chemical analysis process used by Liu and Pollard is likely to be useful in similar studies of paleominerals from different cultures and regions in the future.


After this insight into how scholars believe they deciphered the mysterious ancient Chinese recipe for bronze, check out these photos from the Qing dynasty before the communist revolution in China. Or read how the mystery of these ancient Chinese pyramids was finally solved.

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