Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic
From the first simple wine cup — one of the earliest Chinese bronze
vessels yet known — to the extraordinary life-sized terracotta figures
buried with the First Emperor of Qin, this exhibition features discoveries
that have fundamentally changed our knowledge of ancient Chinese history
At about the same time that Stonehenge was rising in England and
Abraham was framing the principles of Judaism in the Middle East, a Bronze
Age culture was developing in China that in many respects was seldom
equaled and never surpassed. This development seems to have occurred
early in the first half of the second millennium B.C. in the fertile
Central Plains of the Yellow River valley. For thousands of years this
area had sustained Neolithic cultures of increasing complexity, which
ultimately culminated in the first Chinese civilization. By the time
of the Bronze Age this culture was characterized by a strong centralized
government, urban communities with stratified social classes, palatial
architecture, a distinctive system of writing, elaborate religious rituals,
sophisticated art forms, and bronze metallurgy.
|Diagram of food cauldron No. 4 showing the section-mold method of casting (1) the model or core, (2) the model section, (3) the completed vessel.
[Paragraph 3] Unlike other cultures, where bronze was first used chiefly
for tools and weapons, in China this alloy of copper and tin was reserved
for the manufacture of majestic vessels that played central roles in
state ritual and ancestor worship for more than 1,000 years, even after
the official beginnings of the Iron Age in the fifth century B.C. Representing
the wealth and power of the rulers, these ritual utensils show the highest
degree of technical and artistic accomplishment in early Chinese civilization.
The legend of the founding of China's first dynasty demonstrates
the importance of bronze to the ancient Chinese: After King Yu of the
Xia brought the primordial floods under control, in about 2200 B.C.,
he divided his land into nine provinces, and had nine ding (food cauldrons)
cast to represent them. When the Xia dynasty fell, the "nine ding," also
called the "Auspicious Bronzes of the State," passed to the
Shang dynasty, and, in turn, to the Zhou when they conquered the Shang.
Possession of bronze vessels thus became a symbol for the holding of
power and prestige. Rulers used bronze cauldrons, cups, drinking vessels,
and other containers to present offerings of food and wine to royal ancestors
and deities. In this way they reaffirmed their hereditary rights to power
and attempted to persuade the ancestors to influence events favorably.
During Shang times wine played a major part in such ritual observances,
and containers for wine therefore far outnumber other types. Then, the
Shang were criticized for excessive wine drinking by their conquerors,
the Zhou, who felt that such overindulgence had offended Heaven and given
the Zhou the right to usurp Shang power. Safeguarding their own dynasty,
the Zhou produced fewer wine vessels and replaced the favorite Shang
shapes with new types of cooking and storage vessels.
After the Shang period, ritual vessels became more important as
expressions of personal prestige than as vehicles for pious offerings.
This is evident from the changing content of bronze inscriptions. Cast
into the surface of a vessel, these inscriptions first appeared during
the last Shang dynasty as a terse identification of the vessel's owner
or of the ancestor to whom it was dedicated. During the Western Zhou
period inscriptions became increasingly common and lengthier, extolling
the achievements of the owner and expressing the poignant wish that the
piece might not only honor his forebears, but also recall his own merits
to his descendants "for generations without end." By the end
of the Bronze Age, the vessels became worldly status symbols, more important
in celebrations of the living than in rituals for the dead. Inscriptions
all but disappeared, replaced by rich surfaces inlaid with gold, silver,
and precious stones.
[Paragraph 7] In ancient China, bronze vessels were cast by an indigenous
process that employed a mold made of sections (see diagram, right). After
fashioning a clay model of the object, the founder packed it with another
layer of clay that was allowed to dry, cut into sections, pried off,
and fired. The model was then shaved down to become the core of the mold,
the sections assembled around it, and the molten metal poured between
the two. Once the bronze had cooled, the mold was removed and the surface
of the vessel burnished smooth.
The decorations of early Chinese bronzes was executed directly into
the model or modeled and cast into the bronze, not worked into the cold
metal afterward. Undoubtedly the section-mold casting method influenced
the nature of decorative designs: Shang decor is distinguished by symmetry,
frontality, and incised ornament, usually arranged in horizontal bands
that complement the vessel contours. The most frequently encountered
decoration in the Shang period is a frontal animal mask (see illustration,
below). During the Western Zhou period zoomorphic forms become more and
more abstract, as the Shang motifs dissolve into linear elaboration.
A new vocabulary of wave and interlace patterns based on serpentine shapes
evolves during the Eastern Zhou era, and these, along with purely geometric
patterns, cover the vessels in overall designs. At the same time, handles
become sculptural, depicting tigers, dragons, and other beasts in poses
that emphasize the swells and curves of the body's musculature.
|Detail of rectangular food caldron (fang ding) no. 32. Shang dynasty, 12th century B.C. From Tomb No. 5, Anyang, Henan Province. Institute of Archaeology, Beijing
We owe the preservation of these ancient bronzes to their
burial, either in storage pits, where they were hastily hidden by fleeing
members of a defeated elite house, or, more commonly, in tombs. During
the Shang dynasty, members of the royalty were accompanied in the afterlife
by their bronzes, ceramics, weapons, amulets, and ornaments, and even
the human and animal entourage that surrounded them in life: servants,
bodyguards, horses, chariots, and charioteers. During the Zhou and Han
periods sumptuous burials continued, but human sacrifice was rarely practiced,
although the custom was preserved by the substitution of figurines of
wood or clay intended to resemble the retinue of the deceased.
Perhaps the most startling examples of this practice are the more
than 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses made to accompany
the First Emperor of Qin to his grave in about 210 B.C. Just 11 years
before his death the Qin ruler had united all of China under his leadership.
Defeating and absorbing a series of rival states, he brought an end to
centuries of disorder and laid the foundations for the unified empires
of later Chinese history. Vast labors, such as the 1,500-mile-long Great
Wall, rapidly exhausted the new state's resources, however, and Qin rule
collapsed shortly after the First Emperor's death. Not the least of his
prodigious undertakings was the construction of his own mausoleum, a
task employing some 700,000 laborers. In 1974, farmers sinking wells
came upon evidence that led to the discovery of an entire army of clay
figures buried to the east of the First Emperor's tomb site as an eternal
sentinel. The spectacle of this imperial bodyguard emerging from the
earth is awesome beyond imagination. Individually modeled with great
attention to facial features, details of dress, armor, and coiffure,
they bring to life the Chinese people who created the works of art in
this exhibition, and suggest the untold riches that still await the archaeologist
in Chinese soil.
[Shown] On the cover [of the original brochure but not reproduced here]:
Striding infantryman no. 98. Qin dynasty, 221-210 B.C. Excavated 1976-77
from Trench 5, Pit No. 2. Lintong, Shaanxi Province. Shaanxi Provincial
The exhibition was made possible by grants from The Coca-Cola Company;
the National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C., a federal
agency; and The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust. Under the Arts
and Artifacts Indemnity Act, indemnity was granted by the Federal Council
on the Arts and Humanities.
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