Copper and tin: a reassessment of basic terms in ancient Chinese metallurgy

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During the recent decade and more, we have had dozens of posts dealing with the importance of archeology for studying the spread of ancient languages.  A major subtheme of this research has been the accumulation and assessment of archeological and linguistic evidence for the dissemination of metallurgical technology (see "Selected readings") below.

A new study of an early Chinese text sharpens our understanding of key terms relating to the composition and smelting of bronze during the first millennium BC.  Here is a popular account of this pathbreaking investigation:

Researchers decode metal-making recipes in ancient Chinese text:  Study identifies mystery elements in Kaogong ji, shedding light on how early bronzes were produced

Sascha Pare, The Guardian (8/10/22)

The Guardian article begins thus:

Researchers have deciphered enigmatic recipes for metal-making contained in an ancient Chinese text, revealing unexpected complexity in the art at the time.

Six chemical formulas are given in a Chinese text from 300BC known as the Kaogong ji. The manuscript, known as The World’s Oldest Encyclopedia of Technologies, forms part of a detailed archive of early imperial rule, which archeologists have been trying to decode since the 1920s.

“The Kaogong ji may have been written by an administrator to assure the emperor that everything was under control. It is part of a manual for how to run the empire,” said Prof Mark Pollard, from the University of Oxford.

For 100 years, scholars have grappled with the meaning of two key components of the recipes: Jin and Xi. Now, researchers believe they have identified the missing ingredients.

The two mystery components Jin and Xi were thought to be copper and tin, but a study published in the journal Antiquity suggests they could refer to pre-made alloys used in the production of early Chinese bronzes.

The scientific paper in Antiquity:

"The six recipes of Zhou: a new perspective on Jin (金) and Xi (锡)", by A.M. Pollard and Ruiliang Liu, Antiquity (8/10/22)


Knowledge of alloying practices is key to comprehending the mass production of ancient Chinese bronzes. The Eastern Zhou text, the Rites of Zhou, contains six formulae, or recipes, for casting different forms of bronze based on the combination of two components: Jin and Xi. For more than 100 years, the precise interpretation of these two components has eluded explanation. Drawing on analyses of pre-Qin coinage, the authors offer a new interpretation, arguing that, rather than pure metals, Jin and Xi were pre-prepared copper-rich alloys, in turn indicating an additional step in the manufacturing process of copper-alloy objects. This result will be of interest to linguists, as well as archaeologists of ancient Chinese technology.

It is noteworthy that the authors acknowledge the support of the European Research Council Horizon 2020 (ERC advanced project FLAME, Flow of Ancient Metal Across Eurasia, 670010).

Most exciting of all, the study compares metal-making practice in the Rites of Zhou to Greek coinage around the same dates.  The authors do not make any claims for contact that might have influenced Chinese metalworking practices, but their account of Greek metallurgy is sufficiently detailed that it could provide the basis for future research explaining how these two technical traditions came to resemble each other so closely.  In any event, the authors' ability to gain their new understanding of Chinese bronze metallurgy was achieved through inspiration drawn from their intense examination of Greek processes, particularly as identified and outlined by Caley (1939).

For those who are interested in Kaogong ji, we are fortunate to have a complete translation of the text:

Jun Wenren.  Ancient Chinese Encyclopedia of Technology: Translation and Annotation of the Kaogong ji, The Artificers' Record.  New York:  Routledge, 2013.

This book presents the first translation into English of the full text of the Kaogong ji. This classic work, described by the great scholar of the history of Chinese science and technology Joseph Needham as "the most important document for the study of ancient Chinese technology", dates from the fifth century BC and forms part of the Zhouli (The Rites of the Zhou Dynasty), one of the great Confucian classics. The text itself describes the techniques of working and the technologies used by over twenty different kinds of craftsmen and artificers, such as metal workers, chariot makers, weapon makers, music instrument makers, potters and master builders. This edition, besides providing the full text in English, also provides a substantial introduction and other supporting explanatory material, over one hundred illustrations of ancient Chinese artefacts, and the original Chinese text itself.

To conclude this post, I note with optimism the many gathering strands of evidence connecting ancient Greece and early China, of which the material presented here is a part.  There's more to look forward to, such as the forthcoming articles in Sino-Platonic Papers:by Lucas Christopoulos on "Dionysian Rituals and the Golden Zeus of China" and by Ifan Cheng on the Five Elements (wǔxíng 五行).


Selected readings

[Thanks to AntC]


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 12:39 pm

    This has earned a bunch of popular press write-ups suggesting that important new insights about the early meanings of the words jin1 金 and xi1 錫 have been achieved, which feels a bit misleading…

    Re: the six formulae, the "Kaogongji" text (not quite accurate in the article) crucially begins "金有六齊" and then states "六分其金而錫居一謂之鐘鼎之齊" and similar for the other five formulae — this IMO can only mean "as concerns *metal [alloys]* (or translate "bronze" but NOT e.g. "copper" or "gold") there are six ratios/formulae: (1) that in which xi comprises one sixth of the total *metal/bronze* present is known as the bell-cauldron ratio…. etc."

    So from the standpoint of linguistics, I don't think there is anything new to be learned here re: jin1 at least. Re: xi1, perhaps, depending on one's view of the degree to which the alloying procedures suggested do/don't/should correspond to what is seen in the archaeological record. Probably Von Falkenhausen's (2014) caveats regarding the nature of the "Kaogongji" in his review of Wenren's (2012) translation (both are noted by the authors though the latter wrongly alphabetized under "Jun" in the bibliography), are crucial…

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 4:28 pm

    鐵 “iron” is related to 錫 “tin” via the schwa/“a” alternation. They also reflect the alternative emergence of the pre-OC onset sl- to ɬ- (ʰl-) and s-.

    I recall discussing the possible connection with Balto-Slavic elsewhere on LLog.

  3. Chris Button said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 10:21 pm

    I also think 金 may well be related to 柑 “mandarin orange” by the schwa/“a” alternation as well. They also differ in syllable weight (kəːm vs kamː)

  4. Chris Button said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 10:23 pm

    Probably worth mentioning that a form for 金 seems to be attested in the oracle bone inscriptions.

  5. maidhc said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:05 am

    As far as I know, in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, the only known source of tin was Afghanistan. Britain had not yet been discovered. So the disruption of the caravan routes brought about by the events of "1177 BC" was a major problem for the Bronze Age kingdoms. Even though Egypt had managed to defeat the Sea People invaders, the lack of tin was a major economic problem for them.

    Did the Chinese also get tin from Afghanistan to make bronze, or did they have another source?

  6. V said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 1:33 pm

    maidhc: "As far as I know, in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, the only known source of tin was Afghanistan. Britain had not yet been discovered."

    I thought the first known source of tin for them was Cornwall, and after the Bronze Age collapse cut off the Eastern Mediterranean from Britain that they switched to Afghanistan?

  7. bks said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 8:24 am

    I know nothing about this topic but I do remember reading that the key to ancient metallurgy was the invention of the bellows.

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