Several hundred inscribed bronze objects dating from Western and Eastern Zhou periods were commissioned for or by married women. Several dozen inscriptions are known whose commissioners called themselves sheng 生 (甥) of a number of lineages. In pre-Qin Chinese, the term sheng 甥 designated several categories of affinal relatives: paternal aunts’ sons, maternal uncles’ sons, wives’ brothers, sisters’ husbands, and sons of sisters or daughters. The wide geographical and chronological spread of female- or sheng-related vessels, as well as dedications to “many affinal relatives” (hungou 婚購) in bronze inscriptions point to the importance of marital ties in early Chinese society and politics.
Focusing on the inscriptions commissioned by sheng, the present article suggests that even when concluded at a considerable distance, marriages produced long-term mutual obligations for male members of the participating lineages or principalities. Affinal relationships represented social and political capital that could be converted in terms of individuals’ careers and prestige or benefits for their whole lineages/states. In sum, starting from the early Western Zhou period, marital alliances represented a substantial integrative factor in early Chinese politics. On the one hand, marital alliances helped to consolidate the radial network of Zhou states centered on the Zhou king. On the other hand, they facilitated the construction of decentralized regional and interregional inter-state networks. The latter guaranteed the stability of the Zhou political system even when it had a weak center. As a result, the Zhou networks did not fall apart following crises in the Zhou royal house, but continued to expand by the inclusion of new members.