Thingies Up-close and Personal
© Stephen Selby, 2000
In this article, I am inviting readers to take part in a discussion on thingies. If you are not familiar with thingies, here is a drawing of some thingies (After Shi Zhangru. See citation below):
Thingies were made of bronze in China during the relatively short period between the end of the Shang period and the early part of the Zhou period. That is to say, from about 1300 BCE to about 1100 BCE, or about 3,000 years before our time. The majority had bells at the ends of the arms (as illustrated above); but some had arms ending in animalistic heads.
Archery archaeologists are interested in them because when they have been discovered in their original archaeological context, they regularly appear in chariot burials among a grouping of objects related to archery.No one is certain what their purpose was. As I shall explain below, there have been several attempts by archaeologists to explain what they were. Only one of these attempts sought to incorporate the views of a bow-maker, and in that case without significant success.
This is your opportunity to contribute your views as an archer or bowyer to the archaeology of archery. Can we come to a view, once and for all, on what ‘thingies’ are?
The Shang period (referred to in Zhou times as ‘Yin’ culture) stands out in Chinese cultural and artistic history for two main features. One is the excellence of its bronze casting technique and the exquisiteness of the bronze artwork. The other is for having yielded the first large and consistent literary records in the Chinese language in the shape of the ‘oracle bones’.
In terms of later documentation, the ‘Historical Annals’ of Sima Qian, written in the Han Dynasty, provide us with a genealogy of the Shang kings which was subsequently corroborated by the Oracle bones. However, for a period of Chinese history which is said to have spanned a period of some 600 years up to about 1100 BCE, we have only a few small scraps of information. For a general discussion of the historical context of the Shang you can refer to Creel, H. C. : ‘Studies in Early Chinese Culture’. First Pub. Waverly Press, Baltimore, 1937. Current Ed. Porcupine Press, Philadelphia, 1978. ISBN 0-87991-601-X.
In around 1300 BCE, the Shang kingdom was based around the area of Anyang in Henan Province. Over the period of about 1000 years up to about 1000 BCE, the Shang people appear to have shared the present area of central and north China with the Xia and the Zhou as well as a number of steppe-land and southern tribes. The Xia seem the have been the major cultural influence in the early period, followed by the Shang and then by the Zhou; but it is probably more correct to regard the three cultural centres as contemporaneous rather than sequential.
The Zhou took advantage of a weakening of political control among the Shang rulers and defeated them in a decisive victory at the battle of Mu Ye in around 1100 BCE. The Zhou at that time regarded themselves as culturally inferior to the Shang. On gaining political control, they retained Shang courtly rituals and administration and adopted the Chinese writing forms developed (we assume) by the Shang.
The Shang court had a different religious outlook to the Zhou. The Shang revered a ‘Supreme Deity’ and regarded the domain of the dead ancestors as lying below ground. The Zhou, on the other hand, revered ‘Heaven’ and regarded the heavens as the domain of the ancestors.
This divergence of views seems to be reflected in the attitude of the two cultures to writing. The Shang and Zhou courts undoubtedly used writing extensively. Oracle bone inscriptions include characters apparently showing the writing brush and bound bamboo books. But the Shang left their most extensive surviving written records on bone and tortoise shell buried in pits in the ground. Their writing on bronze implements rarely exceeded one or two characters. Under the Zhou, on the other hand, the use of the oracle bones gradually died out, while lengthy inscriptions can be found on bronze vessels in which offerings were made through the scents and vapour of cooked meat and wine, which ascended upwards to heaven.
The Zhou adopted the artistic precedents of the Shang almost entirely. The Shang, for their part, shared a certain amount of animalistic symbolism with the steppe-land nomadic tribes of the north. Thus we can find horse-heads, birds of prey and stags depicted in burial items from both cultures.
The ancestor-worshipping rituals of the Shang demanded meat for sacrifice, which was supplied through very extensive hunting activities. It can be interpolated from the inscriptions on the oracle bones, too, that human sacrifice was widely practised: a minority tribe, the Jiang, were referred to in similar terms to the animals that the Shang court hunted. It seems that military expeditions against the Jiang were regarded in much the way that hunting expeditions were: an activity to gather sacrificial victims for the ancestors. Human sacrifices were also a feature of noble Shang burials.
In or around 1200 BCE, the horse-drawn chariot came into vogue. (Some historians speculate that the horse chariot was an import from the West.) It is not clear whether the Shang people rode horses before that. The Shang used these chariots in warfare, and such prestige became attached to them that the chariots, the riders and their horses were all killed and placed in a burial together with the bodies of prominent members of the Shang court. It is in these chariot burials that archaeologists often find ‘thingies’ in their archaeological contexts. (See Yang Hong. ‘Weapons in Ancient China’. Science Press, NY, 1992 Chapter 4.)
Illustrations and descriptions of thingies can be found in a number of works. For a series of clear photographs (taken, however, from uninformative angles) you could see –
Authors have, however, mainly relied on three scholarly discussions of ‘thingies’ for their descriptions. I shall summarise these below in the order that they were published.
(I) Shi Zhangru: ‘Complete Sets of Weapons from the Yin (Shang) Site at Xiao Tun’ Annual Report of the History and Language Institute of the Academia Sinica No. 22. 1950. Pp. 19 - 59.
Shi Zhangru is one of the first western-trained archaeologists to provide us with an insight into the weapons found in Shang chariot burials. He concentrates in his article on providing a precise description of each item as it was found in its archaeological context.
Previous authors (who had studied thingies out of archaeological context) – strongly influenced by the fact that most thingies have a bell at each end – concluded that they were horse bells
Shi challenged this view, showing that the archaeological context puts thingies together with a grouping of weapons within the frame of the chariot itself rather than among the accoutrements of the horses and harnesses. In each of four assemblages of burial items, Shi demonstrates that thingies were grouped with a consistent set of items comprising knives, halberd heads, stone and bronze arrowheads, a whetstone, jade or bronze bow-tips and jade objects which appear to form part of a quiver. (See illustration at the end of this article)
In an attempt to reconstruct the Shang bow, Shi Zhangru examined the forms of all the known pictographic oracle bone characters for the word ‘bow’ -
He concluded that the Shang bow was clearly a composite recurve bow.
He also refers extensively to the description of bow-making in the ‘Rites of Zhou’, a work probably compiled in about 300 BCE describing crafts in an idealised kingdom.
As a result of his studies, Shi concluded that the thingy was attached to the bow at the handle and reconstructs it as follows –
While one could have some arguments with the illustration above (e.g. the placing of the string nocks), it serves well enough to explain how Shi thought that the thingy formed part of the bow.
Shi failed to explain what value a thingy, used as illustrated above, would have added to the design of a bow. In my book, ‘Chinese Archery’, I have attempted to provide some thoughts as to what would have been achieved by having a thingy in this grip position. My suggestions were:
Perhaps wisely, I avoided coming to any conclusions.
(II) Tang Lan: ‘ "Bow Shaped Objects" An Examination of the Purpose of Bronze Bow-Guards.’ Kaogu (Archaeology) Magazine, 1973. No. 3
Most recent writers (e.g. Yang Hong cited above) have accepted Tang Lan’s article as the most plausible explanation of the purpose of thingies. He starts by dismissing some previous theories. Early Chinese antiquarian texts described thingies as horse bells (disregarding the fact that many obvious examples had no bells.) He dismisses the theory of them having been parts of shields, as well as Shi Zhangru’s theory of their having been attached to the grips of the bow.
Tang felt that, had the grip formed a separate part of the bow, it would have been mentioned in the sections of the Rituals describing archery technique. He also points out that the detailed description of bow making in the ‘Rites of Zhou’ made no mention of bronze in the process of bowmaking.
Tang makes the valid point that the bow would have been difficult to draw since most thingies have a large boss or else decorative ridges on the face of the centre plate, which would be in contact with the palm at the time of the draw.
Tang’s interest in thingies had been aroused through his studies of two Zhou period inscribed bronze vessels. He makes a paleographic study of some words that refer to ceremonial items presented to a noble along with a fish-shaped quiver. He develops the argument that the last of the three Chinese characters is equivalent to a more recent word meaning a ‘bow guard.’
Later in his article (p. 182), Tang seriously misinterprets Shi Zhangru’s plan showing the position of objects found in the burial. A rough circle of ornamental plaques taken by Tang to be the outline of an unstrung bow was in fact, according to Shi Zhangru’s original text, the outline of the platform of the chariot itself. Tang’s statement that "from the layout of the excavation the bow-tips and the former are on the bow and the former is clearly at the centre of the back of the bow…" is not correct. At most, one could do no more than speculate on the original position of the thingies in relation to the bow-tips and the arrows in their quiver
A little later, Tang derides Shi Zhangru’s reconstruction of the thingies attached to the belly of the bow at the grip as ‘quite ludicrous’. As I shall show below, however, a little experiment would have allowed Tang to see that the idea was less ludicrous that he had thought.
Tang’s analysis leads him to the conclusion that thingies are a device known in Chinese as : that is, a ‘bow-guard’ attached within the circle of an unstrung reflex bow to ‘prevent it from being damaged’ and ‘to preserve its curvature’ (p. 183). However, he does not venture an illustration of the device, nor does he dwell on why such a device might be necessary. He does not explain either why such a device should have been made massively out of bronze.
Despite some ingenious etymological speculation, Tang’s analysis does not stand up to close scrutiny. His attacks on Shi Zhangru’s article are disrespectful and dismissive (as one might have anticipated in a critique of a Nationalist-period archaeologist written during the Cultural Revolution.)
Shi himself was involved in the excavations at Xiaotun and had first-hand knowledge of the burial layout. Tang misinterpreted the archaeological evidence and made a number of strange errors himself. For example, his claim that the crossbow existed in the Shang period relies heavily on a quotation from a part of the Old Text School version of the Shang Shu (also known as Shu Jing) which was already well-known in Tang’s time to be an apocryphal Han Dynasty work. His hermeneutic analysis, furthermore, is mainly based in Han Dynasty texts written some 1,000 years after the time that thingies were in use.
(III) Watson, William. "The Chinese Chariot: an Insider’s View". Arts of the Eurasian Steppelands: a Colloquy Held on 27 - 29 June". Ed. Philip Denwood. Pub. Percival David Foundation. London 1978. ISBN 0728600544.
Watson’s interest in thingies arises from a view that certain items in the Shang chariot burials can be linked to Siberian and Central Asian counterparts. He accepts Tang’s analysis and refers to thingies as ‘The Bow-Guard’ (p. 1) However, Watson avoids Tang’s error, correctly referring to the location of the thingies ‘within the platform of each buried chariot… …or lying only slightly across the edge of it.’ (p. 1–2).
Watson, similarly without experimentation, quotes Tang:
"The great width of some pi (up to 3 ½ inches) disposes of the possibility that this bronze instrument may have been a permanent fixture of the bow… …A moment’s reflection on the action of the strung bow showed how ludicrous were the last two interpretations…" (p. 3)
"The pi is a bow-straightener. When (the bow) is unstrung it is bound inside the bow, to prevent damage."
(Watson’s translation from Tang’s quotation of a section of the Book of Rites.)
One point raised by Watson in relation to the Siberian specimens of thingies, thought to date from the 11th - 8th centuries BCE, is that the base-plate of the thingies was not curved as was the case in the Chinese specimens. Curvature of the body is a distinctive feature of all thingies of Chinese origin illustrated to-date. It must therefore be questioned whether the Siberian objects, though superficially similar, served the same purpose.
Thingies Up Close and Personal
(IV) The following description is translated from ‘Ancient Chinese Weapons’. ‘Ancient Chinese Weapons’ Editorial Committee. Shaanxi People’s Press, Xian, 1995. ISBN 7-224-03778-8.
Cross-section of a thingy (adapted from ‘Ancient Chinese Weapons’). A: Upper surface of body. B: Hollow under surface of body. C: Shoulders. D: Bell sphere. E: bronze ball. F: Boss.
‘The interior of the body is hollow. On the upper surface there are three longitudinal ridges and the whole of the upper side of the body is arched. The centre of the upper face of the body has a round boss flanked on both sides with decoration of two facing cicadas in thick relief lines among intricate cloud and lightning patterns.
‘Two curved shoulders sprout from the ends of the body. X-ray examination reveals that the shoulders are hollow adjacent to the point of attachment to the body. The two shoulders are terminated with spherical bells into which apertures have been cut, each bell containing a small bronze ball which rings when the artefact is shaken.
‘At the juncture between the shoulders and the body are clear marks caused by binding. The total length is 35.5 cm and the weight is 0.55 kg.
‘Bronze bow guards were tied to the middle of the back of the unstrung bow to prevent the body of the bow from being damaged. The casting method was split-mould two-stage casting: that it, the balls within the bells were cast first, followed by the body of the device itself.
‘The balls were cast in a two-sided coreless mould. The bell spheres and the body were cast using symmetrical opposing moulds with a core. The small, pre-cast balls were first encased in clay and then placed within the spaces which were to become the bell spheres. Once the bronze had been invested and set, apertures were cut into the bell spheres and the clay was extracted, leaving the balls free to roll within the bell spheres. The clay moulds which were used in the casting of the body and shoulders each bore the core required for the formation of the hollow spaces at the junctions of the shoulders.
‘For the small balls, the bronze was invested directly into the moulds, while for the rest of the implement, the bronze was invested along ducts long the outer sides of the shoulders.’
The following is a visual analysis of a pair of thingies in my own collection. I shall refer to them as Specimens A and B. Superficially the two specimens look identical; but in fact there are subtle differences between them.
Specimen A. Height 10 cm. Overall length 36 cm. Weight 750 gm.
Specimen B. Height 10 cm. Overall length 37.5 cm. Weight 750 gm.
Both specimens date from approximately the late Shang period, around 1200 BCE. This is adjudged both from the design and from the fact that Specimen A has the Chinese character ‘ya’ () incised in the under surface of the body. In bronze and oracle bone inscriptions, this character is frequently associated with the relatives by marriage of the royal household of Shang in Anyang. Neither specimen bears any other decoration. They are very well preserved with light patination and some encrustation.
The ‘ya’ character incised in Specimen A.
Underside view of Specimen B. Broadest dimension (centre of body) 3.9
The wall of the hollow bronze body is 3-4mm thick. This appears to be the average thickness of the bronze walls of all the hollow parts. The bronze balls enclosed in the bell spheres are 1 cm in diameter.
Oblique view of the underside of Specimen A. On a level surface, the bell spheres are 1.1 cm lower than the outer junction of the underside of the shoulder/body.
A feature of both specimens, not remarked upon in other reports, is clear rabbeting of the lower edges of the underside of the body. (Watson actually said that there was no rabbeting on thingies) The rabbeting on Specimen A is most visible at the middle and recedes towards the point of attachment between the body and the shoulders.
Rabbeting visible on Specimen A
An interesting aspect of this rabbeting is that is applied differently on the two Specimens: Specimen A has parallel rabbeting, while Specimen B has opposing rabbeting.
Cross-section of the hollow body (though the middle) showing the different rabbeting applied to each.
Observations and questions
Almost every aspect of the shape and construction of thingies raises questions. We must not be too beguiled by the idea that thingies formed part of Shang period archery equipment: with a bit of padding and a strap, they make a very nice ‘Bug’s Life’ style headgear.
Few bronze items found in the Shang burials were as massive as thingies, the main exception being ritual vessels. However, ritual vessels were in nearly all cases heavily decorated. While some thingies are decorated, most are plain and utilitarian. Many of the large burial items are made of jade and stone. For example, the burials described by Shi Zhangru included arrowheads and bow-tips made both of jade/stone and of bronze. The same is true of axe-heads. All the thingies (and all the knives) were, however, made of bronze only.
It is not possible to judge the engineering qualities of the bronze 3,000 years after it was cast. However, thingies are massive and strong devices, which could clearly withstand quite violent forces. Some effort has been made, also, to limit the amount of bronze used in the shoulders and the base. Since the saving in costly materials is limited, it seems possible that weight saving was the over-riding factor rather than expense.
Size and design
The design and size of thingies from the Shang/Zhou transition in China are very consistent.
Overall length (cm)
Sotheby’s catalogue (no date)
Tang Lan p.183
39, 37, 34.5, 39, 22.4, 36, 42, 37, 41
Palace Museum, Taipei
32.7, 37, 38,2,
Baoji Museum, Shaanxi
Specimen A, B
Sometimes it is possible to relate the design of an ancient artifact to something from later history or the present day and then hazard a guess as to the usage of it. But this writer (and apparently pervious writers, too) have never seen anything like thingies. The nearest correspondence between the shape of the shoulders of thingies and another object is the chariot bow-hooks from the Warring States Period (for example, those on the driver’s bench of the bronze model of Qin Shi Huang’s chariot), but these were very much smaller.
Warring States period bronze bow-hooks (dimension in cm)
The BellsThe majority, but not all of thingies have bells at the end. Those without bells have animal heads (mainly horse heads) at the ends of the shoulders. Tang thought that the bells might have deterred theft of valuable bows (like a vehicle burglar alarm.) Some bronze knives of the same period had similar bells at the end.
A boss at the centre of the upper surface of the body is a common feature of Shang thingies. However, a few examples lack it.
In both Specimen 1 and 2, as well as in a number of other examples of thingies, the boss is a plain, two-stage raised circular nipple, slightly recessed within. Typical of some decoration on Shang items, it could have contained a piece of turquoise; but no example with turquoise in the boss has been reported (despite the fact that turquoise preserves well.)
The boss may have been a locating lug. If it was, then that suggests that location of the convex surface of the body against another element was important.
Thingies attached to the bow at the grip
As seen above, Shi Zhangru reconstructed the thingy as something attached to the back of the bow at the grip. Tang Lan subsequently ridiculed his reconstruction. This should not be allowed to pass without experimentation.
We do not know what the Shang period bow was like. But the shape of a crossbow prod made by Ju Yuan Hao for a reconstruction of a Han crossbow, if removed from the stock, has a profile consistent with the shapes of bows depicted in pictorial oracle bone characters. In particular, the grip is well set back. This allows for some experimentation:
As you can see, affixing the thingy to the bow grip as Shi Zhangru proposed presents no problem. In fact, it fitted extremely snugly onto the bow. In the process, it doubled the bow’s weight in hand. Using the bow silently became impossible, however, because of the bells.
The next question is whether, as Tang Lan asserted, it is
ludicrous to imagine drawing a bow modified in this way.
Here again, there is no problem. The bow limbs this close in to the set-back grip do not draw much closer against the bells than before the bow was drawn. However, the bosses make no sense in this configuration. While they do not cause ‘intolerable pain’ as Tang Lan suggested, they pushed into the palm: something which could not have been intended.
However, if the bow grip had to be attached to a crossbow stock, and the boss acted as a locator nut for centering the limbs, then the thingy would have been a useful device. The shoulders would take the binding to attach the bow to a lateral bar inserted though the stock.
Did crossbows exist in China in the Shang Period?
We don’t know. Tang Lan argued, on the basis of spurious literary evidence, that they did. Yang Hong also believed that they could have, based on the fact that crossbows of a simple design are widespread among China’s national minorities and do not require a high level of technological skill.
The puzzling thing, however, is that there is no archaeological evidence of their existence. Unless the trigger mechanism was made out of some soft, degradable material (which is improbable), we should have found trigger mechanisms and latches by now. What is more, with finely crafted bronze arrowheads in abundance, it is unlikely that Shang craftsmen would have eschewed bronze for the trigger mechanism, even if it were relatively simple.
There is no oracle bone character that clearly looks like a
crossbow (although Tang Lan suggests one which just might). On the other hand,
there is a distinctive oracle bone character for another sort of bow: the pellet
What are the other items found together with thingies in the Shang burials?
In four chariot burials examined by Shi Zhangru, thingies were found together with a distinctive group of small items on the platform of the chariot:
Shi Jiangru’s plan of Xiaotun Grave Excavation M20
No conclusion. This article is for you to finish. Please send your theories to ATARN at email@example.com .
For a file of follow-up correspondence, click here.
Last up-dated April 29, 2001