Ancient Chinese Bronzes
The existence of the believed first prehistoric Chinese dynasty of Xia from the 21st to the 16th century was assumed a myth on account of scientific excavations at early bronze-age sites in Anyang, Henan Province in 1928 (Crystal 2004) (Poon). But archaeological finds in the 1960s and 1970s, consisting mainly of urban sites, bronze implements and tombs, provided evidence to the existence of a Xia civilization in the locations mentioned in ancient Chinese manuscripts. These new finds theorized that the probable Xia period to be between the Neolithic culture and the urban Shang dynasty. The one evidence shared by these ancient civilizations was bronze metallurgy (Crystal, Poon), which could have been a prehistoric activity before the 22nd century BC (Lees 2004).
The assumed connection between the two dynasties was the founding of the Shang dynasty by a rebel who overcame the last Xia ruler in the 17th century. The Shang dynasty, also called the Yin in its later stages, has been credited by thousands of archaeological discoveries as the cradle of Chinese civilization that reigned from 1700 to 1027 BC (Crystal 2004) (Poon). These discoveries indicated that Shang’s economy was basically agricultural, complemented by hunting and animal husbandry, and marked out two important events of the period. The first of these events was the development of a writing system, as evidenced by ancient Chinese inscriptions on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones, called oracle bones. The second was the use of bronze metallurgy. Recovered ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions dating from the Shang times attested to the workmanship and high level of civilization of the period (Crystal) (Poon).
Historians inferred that an ancient Neolithic dynasty could have preceded the Xia and existed between 12000 and 2000 BC in ancient China and that a Western Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang from 1027 to 771 BC (Emuseum), followed by an Eastern Zhou 770-476 BC and by a warring states period from 475-221 BC. Early imperial China was ruled by the Qin dynasty from 221-207 BC; Western Han, 206-9 AD; Hsing, 9-25 AD; and the Eastern Han, 25-220 AD (Emuseum). Under the reign of the Easter Han dynasty were the Western Chin, 220-265; Eastern Chin, 317-429; and Southern and Northern, 420-588. The Southern dynasties were the Song, 420-478; Qi, 79-501; Liang, 502-556; and Chen, 557-588. The Northern dynasties were the Northern Wei, 386-533; Eastern Wei, 534-549; Western Wei, 535-557; Northern Qi, 550-577; and Northern Zhou, 557-588. Classical Imperial China was ruled by the Sui and Tang dynasties, 580-618 and 618-907, respectively. The five dynasties during the Liang period were the latter Liang, 923-936; Latter Jin, 936-946; Latter Han, 947-950; and the Latter Zhou, 951-960. These were replaced by the Northern Song, 960-1125; Southern Song, 1127-1279; Liao, 916-1125; Western Xia, 1038-1227; and Jin, 1115-1234. And later Imperial China was ruled by the Yuan, 1279-1368; Ming, 1368-1644; and Qing, 1644-1911 (Emuseum).
Ancient Chinese art spanned the First Bronze Age from the Shang to the Han periods and the Second Bronze Age of the Han dynasty. The First Bronze Age was more concerned with securing immortality and safe transition into the afterlife and observed the “Cult of the Dead” theme (Kupp). For this reason, kings and their officials built and ornamented their tombs buried underground and placed intricately designed bronze vessels and weapons close to the coffins, supposedly to comfort and protect their dead on their way to the next world. Historical records showed that members of the Shang dynasty were buried not only with their bronzes, ceramics, weapons and amulets, but also with their servants, bodyguards, horses, chariots and charioteers (Sano). Shang queen Fu Hao, wife of the king, who shared state honors with him, was buried along with more than 200 bronze pieces, 16 human sacrifices and six dogs (Sano). The Second Bronze Age, on the other hand, stressed a “Celebration of the Living” and aesthetic brilliance. These two opposing Ages constitute the Early Chinese Bronze period (Kupp).
The Chinese emperor was the most frequent patron of the arts and professional artists were often employed by the government and produced works by royal order. New or individual artists were usually retired officials who could design their own and differently from imperial styles. Despite their differences in artistic preferences, dynasties sought to preserve tradition as a common objective and to secure support from their subjects by perpetuating the achievements of previous dynasties. Innovations, such as those coming from India or the Middle East, were accepted and incorporated into the then existing Chinese culture pattern (Kupp).
Harmonious balance was the underlying principle in Chinese art and culture. Chinese bronze art delicately expresses that careful balance of local tradition and innovations and of religious and secular concepts (Kupp). Since 1500 BC, bronze was produced by mixing copper and tin and considered a fluid superior to copper when hot and harder when cold. It was also easier to cast than copper and produced better tools, weapons and art. Eventually, the mix was improved wherein copper was smelted separately and then melted with tin in controlled proportion. Artists used simple tools, like bamboo brush or a wooden beater, the design or construction of their looms, kilns and foundries hints at their understanding of complex production processes. The enduring quality and resulting fame of bronze casting point to the technical prowess of these ancient artists even then. They used the “lost wax” process in casting magnificent bronze works. Beginning with a model cut and incised on the inner face with precision, the model was afterwards coated with solidified wax, encased in a two-layer mold of plaster or clay. It was melted or removed from the mold, into which metal was poured in that space. After it had cooled, the model was broken to obtain the metal object (Kupp).
Ancient Chinese were well acquainted with the art of molding and chiseling bronze. Surviving examples reflect their history, culture and superstition (Light of China 2004). From the third millennium BC, technical methods of bronze casting were gradually improved until the Xia dynasty. During the Xia, bronze was cast and used as tribute by nine Xia provinces into tripod caldrons of bronze. These tripods were shaped with maps and figures of natural scenery and then preserved as palladium of the kingdom, but disappeared during skirmishes at the end of the Zhou dynasty (Light of China).
Bronze was prehistorically known as tong, meaning “mixed metal.” A process called cire perdue was used in producing large pieces of Chinese bronze with a hammer, burin and chisel (Light of China 2004). Records on the Wei dynasty show that the emperor of the Tian An period kept a cast figure of Sakyamuni at his Buddhist Temple in its second year in 467 AD. The figure was made up of 100,000 lbs of copper, overlaid with 600 lbs of gold bells or zhong and caldron or ding. It was top-quality bronze in those ancient Chinese times that expressed the old saying, “the bell sounds, the food is in the caldron.” The typical figure was a round and swollen figure of the body on three curved legs and two upright handles or “ears” as seen as the bas relief of the Han dynasty. The figure was prominently placed on the mat circle for guests to see during a banquet (Light of China).
The oldest mirrors in China were called jing and made of bronze (Light of China 2004). These were generally round, molded at the back with mythological figures, animals, floral scrolls and other decorative designs. The myth or cult of the time was inscribed at the back of many of these mirrors, such as Daoist gods, grotesque monsters and natural marvels like bas relief, astrological images and the 12 zodiac signs. The bronze mirrors of the Tang dynasty, that dated back from 618-906, mostly had the 28 animals of the lunar zodiac, their corresponding asterisms and other stellar signs and symbols. After the 10th century, the decorations became less ornate with sprayed images of natural flowers, birds and butterflies, fish, moss, water weeds and a lion trainer with phoenixes in the midst of arabesques (Light of China).
Social conditions dictated the production of ancient Chinese bronzes, which went through a long series of adaptation and change (Lees 2004). From a few small tools and decorative pieces in prehistoric times, these bronzes were in the form of containers of basic wine and food during the Xia era. In went through another long period of change during the Shang period from 1400-1200 BC when it reached prominence. It had varying realistic and imaginary animal designs during the period. With the disappearance of the Shang culture, bronze art reflected the decorative values and motif of the succeeding Zhou culture (Lees).
The discovery of ancient bronze works and other past treasures has revealed the secrets of ancient Chinese civilization in addition to written records already recovered. An already well-developed bronze metallurgy indicated the existence and level of activity of a settled and organized society (Sano), as the bronze production needed the locating, protecting, mining and smelting of copper-and-tin-containing ores which were mixed to produce bronze. It was primarily used for agriculture, as war weapons and then as special eating and drinking containers or vessels during ancestral worship and state rituals (Sano). It was believed that only the king, the royal family and the aristocracy owned these vessels of sacrifice. The early Bronze Age was a highly stratified slave society, ruled by a powerful king, surrounded and supported by his nobles. Under the Shang religion, which flourished between the 1600 and 1100 BC, the king derived his power from his divine ancestors. The natives believed that these deities could control events and bring them good or bad luck, so that they offered food and drink to these gods or divine ancestors at their ancestral shrines to placate or win their favor (Sano).
Bronze, thus, was linked with power and divinity. King Yu, founder of the Xia in 2200 BC kept nine ceremonial food cauldrons that represented the nine provinces under his rule (Sano). These passed on to the succeeding Shang dynasty and then to the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century BC. The Shang dynasty produced a lot of bronze vessels because it celebrated with wine a lot. But the Zhou dynasty produced fewer wine vessels in the belief that over-indulgence was offensive to heaven. Instead, it designed new food cauldrons and containers (Sano). The emphasis of the Shang art was the protruding eye in the most commonly used decoration of animal mask. This consisted of a head-to-head profile of two creatures, each contributing an eye, an ear or horn and a jaw to the overall animal image. This powerful image increasingly evolved into an abstract and late an elaborate ornamented form. What was initially a religious symbol for the dead later gave way to symbols of wealth and prestige of the living in the Shang time. Bronze workmanship consisted of luxury items of complicated and ornate designs inlaid with gold and silver (Sano). These works were preserved and got to be discovered because they were buried with their owners either in tombs or storage pits. The Zhou and Han dynasties that succeeded the Shang were likewise pompous but the inclusion of human sacrifices was seldom included in the tombs. Only wooden representations were buried along with the dead (Sano).
The Bronze Age of China covered the Xia, Erlitou culture of the 19th-16th centuries BC, Shang, Erligang culture, Zhengzhou, Yinxu, Anyang, Zhou, Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou, warring states period, Qin and the Han (Sano).
Convincing archaeological evidence shows that bronze making was a major industry during the Shang period and that the chief sources of copper and tin were abundant in the entire northern part of China. China is credited for developing the industry, but the various techniques could have originated or been influenced by the painted pottery of Yang Shao of the Neolithic era and from countries near the Caspian Sea, Siberia and Central Asia (Jacques Gernet as qtd in Ayers 2004). But bronze art was the highest aesthetic and technological accomplishment of the dynasty, which chiefly produced ritual vessels, luxury items and weapons. One popular item was the jue, a ritual vessel with three legs, said to be used to warm wine. Many of these vessels had inscriptions on the why they were cast and for what use. Researchers remarked that the fantastic or complicated designs and symbols were not accidental images of life but intentional yet meaningful representations of precisely what material reality was not (Sarah Allan as qtd in Ayers 2004). It deliberately contradicted the material realities of a material world or went beyond the material realm, such as feeding spirits. Bronze in itself suggested another order of things beyond average comprehension, because it used the language of spirits for whom the message was communicated. The motif too was awkward, too abstracted or grotesque, animal images joined to or disjointed by human images, or double images of a snake, a dragon or another animal in a representation that did not observe rules and limitations. Bronze interpretations continued to evolve – the taotie and the kui dragon underwent many replications in varied forms (Sara Allan as qtd in Ayers 2004), but wherein the artist was referring to the same message repeatedly.
Scholars disagreed over the relation between bronze and mythology. Some thought that bronze art directly depicted Shang ideology and religion, whereby others contended that it was pure decoration and without religious insinuation or symbol (Galambos 2004). One scholar suggested that the design in recovered ritual items was only ornamental and not traceable to the religion or mythology of the Shang dynasty. Much of the controversy grew from the lack of tangible references on the functions of these art motifs. The ancient bronzes had unpleasant visual effect because of their stern and angular appearance, which was simultaneously exotic and mysterious (Bagley as qtd in Galambos). They had no ornaments representing the vegetable kingdom but used a kind of animal vocabulary on animal-like designs and the resulting difference consisted of animal faces and staring eyes. Most striking was the pair of animal eyes from the surface that bewitchingly stared at the looker. There have been a considerable number of examples but the clear identity of the animal on these bronze vessels could not be conjured. It looked like a bull, a tiger, the leopards on Maya sculptures, or a mix of these. Shape and details continued to change but the impression had remained. Under the Western Zhou period, the animal facade became almost completely only decorative but, still, only the eyes were identifiable. This overwhelming dominance of the eye design in ritual implements and sacrificial rituals hinted at the power of the ‘presence” of the beast and its vast and dim physical environs.
Whether textual evidence existed or not, it was proposed that art, in its earliest form, was always linked with religion and magic (Croix as qtd in Galambos) and that the taotie was an essential part of the Shang religion.
A knowledge of myths appeared necessary in discovering the connection between Shang bronzes and mythology. Myths are know to be myths only after they ceased to be so, and passed into remembrances and not as contemporary tales (Galambos 2004). Myths were considered sacred stories or true history in that they dealt with realities and that Shang bronze decorations and Shang mythology represent contemporary religious reality and belief system and, therefore, they had meaning only as pure form (Galambos).
To further emphasize the significance of bronze metallurgy during the Shang civilization, attention must be placed on that specialist group of bronze craftsmen, just below the aristocracy. These skilled artists lived above ground stamped earth dwellings and enjoyed a lifestyle different from that of peasants (Ayers 2004). Their residences were superior to those of the peasants who lived at the bottom of the pyramid. The work they performed with bronze had a lot to do with their destiny, hence, the preferences and status, which they enjoyed.
The central figure of the Shang culture was the king and his legitimacy to the throne and wrapped in the people’s belief that their dead ancestors controlled or influenced the destiny of the living (Ayers 2004). They believed that the spirits of nature and their ancestors determined who would be their king and gave him their power to rule, hence, the inseparability of religion from government, and that legitimacy derived precisely from religion in the Shang culture. A Shang legend told the story of the high god, Ti, who gave bountiful harvest to the people and divine assistance in battle for their king (Chan as qtd in Ayers). The king could then communicate with his forefathers and intercede with Ti. This line of belief in the worship of ancestors among the Shang people gave a wide and powerful ideological support for political dominance. Through divination, the king could obtain hints and influence events by prayer and sacrifice and therefore legitimized and concentrated political power in himself. Because he declared himself as the medium or conduit and the only one who could communicate with their ancestors for blessings and enlightenment or ward off evil luck, he was the rightful ruler. He was also responsible for fruitful harvest and victories in battles because he the sacrifices he made, the rituals he performed and the divinations he conjured. Offerings of food and wine were made on bronze vessels and containers with inscriptions for the particular purposes, although these have largely remained unknown to modern times. Records say that the king inscribed his questions on a flat and polished oracle bone, a hole drilled into it and a hot bar inserted into that hole. The cracks that heat created were believed to represent or mark out the response of the gods to the king’s question. These writings or inscriptions on bone oracles are considered the oldest forms of Chinese writing. The king was important to the civilization because of the link he forged between the spirit world and the material world and ornate bronze vessels represented their highest and best to offer and appease or incline their gods and ancestors to grant their prayer.#
1. Ancient China. (2003). Bronzes of Ancient China. http://www.users.bigpond.com/wernerschidlin/ancientchina.html
2. Ayers, Sheldon A. (2004). Shang Bronzes: a Window into Ancient Chinese Culture (1523-1028 BC). Yale New Haven Teachers Institute. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1998/98.03.01.x.html
3. Chinavoc. (2002). The Art of Chinese Bronzes. http://www.chinavoc.com/arts/hardicraft/bronzes.htm
4. Crystal, Ellie. (2004). Chinese Dynasties. http://www.lightofchina.com/art/art_bronze_index.htm
5. Emuseum. Timeline of Chinese Dynasties. MNSU. http://www-chaos.umd/edu/history/welcome.html
6. Galambos, Imre. (2000). Ancient Chinese Ritual Bronzes. Huang Yong. http://www.language-chinese.net/how01.htm
7. Kupp, Gerry. Early Chinese Bronze. http://www.mala.bc.ca/www/discover/educate/posters/gerryr.htm
8. Lees, David M. (2004). Bronzes — Special Orders. http://www.exoticsiam.com/sbronzes.html
9. Light of China. (2004). Chinese Art: Bronze. Culture Atlas. http://www.lightofchina.com/art/art_bronze_index.htm
10. Poon, Leon. History of China. http://www-chaos.umd/edu/history/welcome.html
11. Sano, Emily. The Great Bronze Age of China. An exhibition from the People’s Republic of China. http://www.humanities-interactive.org/ancient/bronze/brochures_bronze_age.htm