Published in Frontiers of History in China, vol. 11, no. 3 (September, 2016) http://journal.hep.com.cn/fhc/EN/10.3868/s020-005-016-0027-3#1
Like elsewhere in the world, weaponry in China has long been regarded as the symbol of warfare and violence. Hitherto much scholarly attention has been given to the Shang (ca. 1,600-1,046 BCE) and Zhou bronze eating and drinking vessels, as well as to musical instruments, without an equivalent understanding the significance of the contemporary bronze weapons, which are extent in a surprising quantity. To fill the gap, in this groundbreaking book revised from chapters of his Ph. D. dissertation at Peking University, Jian Xu brings together the much-overlooked ritual implication embedded in the bronze weapons of early China, covering the span from the Erlitou culture (ca. 1,800-1,500 BCE) to the Western Zhou period (1,046-771 BCE).
As the title reveals, Xu has sought to re-examine bronze weapons within the theoretical framework of material culture. Despite the fact that material culture as an interdisciplinary arena of inquiry has been widely acknowledged within Anglo-American academia, the introduction of this Western invention into Chinese scholarship is still in its infancy. According to Anke Hein, Chinese archeology has a strong typology-oriented tradition “that is based both on local traditions of historiography and antiquarianism and the nature of early Western archaeological endeavors in China, and has strongly political determinants as well.”  Following this parameter, in the Introduction, when Xu discusses the complex scholarship on bronze weapons of early China, two major approaches are apparent. The antiquarian approach embraces a tradition, tracing back to the Northern Song period (960-1,127 CE) when important scholarly writing took up found and collected objects under the rubric of “studies of metal and stone” (jinshi xue金石學), that is, more liberally, “studies of bronzes and stone inscriptions.” Celebrated by antiquarians for their textual and historiographic values, bronze objects’ archaeological information has been downplayed or edited out when being collected and catalogued. By contrast, the other approach focuses on archeological discoveries in situ, which marked the beginning of modern Chinese archaeology basically surrounding the 1928 excavation of the sites at Anyang Yinxu, Henan, which were led by Li Ji 李濟 (or Li Chi, 1896-1979) (p. 9). From Xu’s view, except for few like Max Loehr (1903-1988), most scholars who adopted either of these two approaches─which are confined to incomplete materials─have innate defects in their formalistic analyses. Divergent and even conflicting naming and classifying systems of bronzes weapons based on previous approaches also impede further understanding (p. 17). Departing from past scholarship, therefore, Xu adapts the American archeologist Lewis R. Binford’s (1931-2011) theory of three archaeological systematics─technological, social organizational, and ideological—modified by Binford based on the cultural anthropologist Leslie A. White’s (1900-1975) categorization of cultural systems. Such a framework, as it is argued, focuses on investigating material objects as cultural products and “lies in the shared frame of thought that culture is defined by human behavior.”  With this multi-dimensional conceptual tool, as thoroughly analyzed by the following four chapters based on a comprehensive and systematic database, Xu treats bronze weapons as material agents through which a broader and more complex cultural system can be peeked into.
Dealing specifically with Binford’s first dimension, Chapter One probes bronze weapons’ stylistic developments, ornaments, and metallurgic information. It begins with Xu’s methodological reflection on Gustav O. Montelius (1843-1921)’s typological paradigm, which has long remained dominant, and seems continue to be so, in the field of Chinese archaeology. Covering archaeologically excavated burials, public and private collections, the bronze weapons concerned are classified as the dagger-axe (戈 ge), spear (矛 mao), halberd (戟 ji), axe (斧鉞 fu yue), sword/dagger (短劍 duan jian), knife (刀 dao), arrowhead (矢鏃shi zu), helmet (胄 zhou), and armour (甲 jia). According to Xu’s formal analysis, stylistic changes of weapons serve to differentiate whether a specimen was intended as a utilitarian instrument, or as a “sign” which is highly decorated. Xu argues that the interaction of two elements─functional and non-functional─played a crucial role in dynamic changes of bronze weapons before the Easter Zhou. While the functional element features utilitarian designs intended for military use and killing, and the non-functional element features superfluous ornamentation such as graphic carvings and inlaid turquoise, one can find that neither of the dual natures of weapons can completely rule out the other.
In order to reveal the role of bronze weapons in social stratification, Chapter Two reconstructs the burial contexts of excavated specimens. With emphasis on their material contents and spatial distribution, the burials include such well-known sites as the pre-Shang Yanshi Erlitou (Henan), the Shang cemeteries at Panlongcheng in Wuhan (Hubei), Xin’gan Dayangzhou in Jiangxi; also Western Zhou cemeteries at Zhangjiapo near Xi’an city (Shaanxi), Mapo and Beiyao in Luoyang, to name only a few. Although all of these burials’ occupants were aristocrats, some were even kingly elites, but the variety of combinations of bronze weapons with other excavated objects within burial space has yet to be intensely studied. Take the burials of Panlongcheng (M1, M2, M11) as an example, although scattered in separated places, bronze ritual vessels and weapons were mostly found outside the coffin on the second tier of the tombs, thus suggesting that they share the intended value for the deceased. In general, when compared with the widespread combination of dagger-axes and spears, the rare combination of axes and knives from late Shang tombs indicates the occupants’ higher ranking (p. 146). On the other hand, bronze specimens’ variations in type, quantity and combination also indicate chronological, cultural, and regional differences.
Under the influence of White’s cultural neo-evolutionism, Binford tends to view material tools’ dynamic mechanics as a focal part of humans’ technological means in his treatment of social processes. Therefore, Binford’s technological-cultural orientation, as Xu rightly puts it, fails to recognize objects’ religious/ritual expression and cultural relativism (pp. 149-150). Building on his criticism regarding Binford’s defect, Xu’s three case studies presented in Chapter Three follow the perspective of cognitive and contextual archaeology ─two theoretical syntheses of New Archaeology readily available to his interpretation for bridging the material and symbolic aspects of archaeological finds. (1) With the focus on willow-leaf shaped swords, he shows the ways in which the roles that bronze weapons played in different cultural zones—signifier of cultural identity, valuable items, or prestigious goods—express diverse social values. (2) Inspired by Katheryn Linduff’s studies of gender in Chinese archeology, particularly the case of Fu Hao from late Shang Anyang, Xu points out that, except for those from the tombs at Tianma-Qucun, bronze weapons were also buried with female occupants, suggesting that weapons did not necessarily express masculinity in the Shang and Zhou cultures (pp. 160-161). (3) The Chinese archaeologist Guo Baojun 郭寶鈞 (1893-1971) has keenly proposed the “beaten tomb (毆墓 ou’mu)” hypothesis, according to the Rites of the Zhou (Zhouli), to explain why many bronze dagger-axes’ and halberds’ blades were found broken during his excavation of the Western Zhou cemetery at Xincun, located in Xunxian, Henan (p. 162). Based on Guo’s widely-acknowledged interpretation, Xu further argues that, compared with the late Shang period, the deliberate destruction of dagger-axes and halberds became more evident and widespread among Western Zhou burials, and probably thereby developed into a regular worship practice.
Made with precious material that was strictly control by the ruling elites, jade weapons in early China, given their scarcity and ritual significance in burials, are taken up in a comparative study of contemporary bronze weapons in Chapter Four. Archeological data demonstrate that several types of stone or jade weapons dating to the late Neolithic period, such as the axe, dagger-axe and knife, predate the bronze counterparts and had an impact upon their early designs. Most distinctive are jade axes featured in ritual practices of the Liangzhu culture, developed in the Lower Yangzi region around 3,400-2,300 BCE. Jade weapons, particularly the dagger-axe, had gradually declined in quantity and size by the Eastern Zhou (ca. 770-255 BCE), along with their shifting role from the ritual emblem to ornament-oriented accessory (p. 205). The stylistic and symbolic interaction between jade and bronze weapons, as Xu suggests, constitutes a parallel development to understanding the diversity of social and ritual symbolism in the Chinese Bronze Age.
Even without a concluding chapter, Xu has convincingly shown us that bronze weapons before the Eastern Zhou as a whole deserve being equally perceived and treated as ritual artifacts in their own right. By challenging the preoccupied dichotomy between ritual artifact and utilitarian instrument, this book also offers a close study of objects driven by a shared academic agenda in fields of Early China in particular and Chinese archaeology in general. Although why the Eastern Zhou has been excluded from his discussion remains to be specified, and a critical reader may raise questions of how and why the end of the Western Zhou, alongside political turmoil and ritual reform, marks a radical impact on bronze weapons, Xu is fully aware of the potential bias brought by archaeological evidence. Theoretically and practically, this book incorporates pioneering Western conceptual tools into Chinese scholarship and its local contextual analyses, thus making a welcomed attempt in the rising Chinese New Archaeology.
 Anke Hein, “The Problems of Typology in Chinese Archeology,” Early China 2015.18, 3.
 Lewis R. Binford, “Archaeology as Anthropology,” American Antiquity 28.2 (Oct., 1962): 217-225. White divides culture as a whole into three categories: technology, social system, and philosophies, see Leslie A. White, The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Society (New York: Grove Press; London: Evergreen Books Ltd, 1949): 392.
 Lewis R. Binford, “Archaeological Systematic and the Study of Cultural Process,” American Antiquity 31.2 (Oct. 1965): 203.
 For theoretical developments and practices of these two archaeological syntheses within the wave of New Archaeology, see Ian Hodder and Hudson Scott, Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), especially chapter 2 “Processual and system approach” and chapter 8 “Contextual archaeology”; Colin Renfrew and Chris Scarre eds., Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1998); Colin Renfrew, “Towards A Cognitive Archaeology: Material Engagement and the Early Development of Society,” in Ian Hodder ed., Archaeological Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012): 124-145; Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012): 381-420.