The Great Bronze Age of China:
An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Teacher's Guide to the Exhibition

Student Reading

The Bronze Age

Pronunciation Guide

Shang = shah + ng
Han = hahn
(rhymes with "lawn")
Zhou = joe
taotie = tow-teah
Qin = chin
Fu Hao = foo how

The Bronze Age was the time when men learned how to mine and smelt copper and tin to make bronze weapons and tools. These activities required an organized labor force and skilled craftsmen. In Neolithic times (before the Bronze Age), people had made tools out of stone and hunted and gathered their food. However, in the Bronze Age people learned how to farm and produce enough extra food to feed other workers — such as miners, bronze-smiths, weavers, potters and builders who lived in towns — and to feed the ruling class who organized and led society.

The Chinese Bronze Age had begun by 1700 B.C. in the kingdom of the Shang dynasty along the banks of the Yellow River in northern China. At times the Shang kings ruled even larger areas.

Contrary to common notions about the Chinese, the Bronze Age Chinese did not drink tea or eat rice. Both these commodities came from the south and were not popular in the rest of China until hundreds of years later. Instead the ordinary people consumed cereals, breads and cakes of millet and barley and drank beer. Members of the royal court could afford to vary their diet with meat and wine.

The Shang kings spent most of their time riding forth from their walled cities with their nobles and knights to hunt and fight wars. The farmers were peasants who belonged to the land and were supervised by vassals of the king. In many ways society in Bronze Age China resembles society in Medieval Europe. In the centuries after the Zhou dynasty (11th century B.C. to 221 B.C.) replaced the Shang kings, the lords and barons seized more and more power and became more and more independent.

The Bronze Age Chinese held extraordinarily different ideas about kingship and religion from Medieval Europe. They believed the king's right to rule was based on his good relations with the spirits of his ancestors who controlled the destiny of the domain. The king continually posed questions to his ancestors about policy. He did this by instructing his scribe to write the question on an "oracle bone" — that is, an animal shoulder blade or the breast bone of a turtle. A priest then held a hot rod to the bone until it cracked and interpreted the pattern of the cracks for the answer.

It was also the king's duty to please the great forces of nature — the sun and rain gods — who controlled the outcome of the harvest. So that these gods and his ancestor spirits would look favorably on his kingdom, the king made regular sacrifices of wine and cereals, which were placed in elaborate bronze vessels and heated over the fires on the temple altar. During the Shang dynasty bronze vessels were the symbol of royalty, just as the gold crown became the symbol of royalty in Europe. [Paragraphs 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the exhibition pamphlet (reproduced below) describe the history and use of these bronzes.]

At times the Shang kings make animal and human sacrifices as well; and when the king and powerful members of the royal court died, it was not unusual that their wives, servants, bodyguards, horses and dogs were killed and buried with them. During the Zhou Dynasty people gradually turned away from this custom and substituted clay figures for real people and animals.

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The Importance of Archaeology

Until less than a hundred years ago the Shang Dynasty was only legend. In 1898, a few oracle bones were found accidentally. Two scholars recognized that the scratches on the bones were an ancient form of Chinese writing and managed to decipher the inscriptions. In 1928 the first scientific excavations of an ancient Chinese site began at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Within the beaten earth walls of the city archaeologists uncovered hundreds of oracle bones. In the tombs of kings and nobles they found magnificent bronzes, fine grey pottery, marble figures of animals and jade carvings. What has not survived and what must be filled in with the imagination are the colorfully painted wooden palaces and temples, the royal gardens, royal zoo, the silk robes, flags and trappings of the court, the earth and thatch huts of the townspeople and peasants and their rough clothes made of hemp and leather.

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Treasures from the Bronze Age of China

Most of the 105 objects in the exhibition have been excavated in China in the last 25 years. Besides the bronzes, there are jade pieces and one iron object — a belt buckle. (Iron did not appear in China until the 5th century B.C.)

At the entrance to the exhibition is a wine cup made in the 17th century B.C. which is one of the earliest known Chinese bronze vessels. At the far end of the first gallery is an alcove where seven jade carvings and six bronzes belonging to Fu Hao are displayed. Her tomb excavated at Anyang in 1976 is the only intact undisturbed royal tomb to be discovered to date. From inscriptions on the nearly 200 bronzes packed in the tomb archaeologists identified the occupant as Fu Hao. Dozens of oracle bone inscriptions found at Anyang refer to Fu Hao's many activities. She was a wife of a Shang king and not only bore him children but also led his armies in battle and represented him at state ceremonies.

Within her small rectangular tomb (26 feet deep) were remains of her lacquered wood coffin set inside a larger wooden container, 16 sacrificial victims and 6 dogs. There were also more than 200 bronze weapons and tools, 600 small sculptures and ritual objects of jade and stone, ivory cups inlaid with turquoise, several bronze mirrors, 500 carved bone objects and about 7,000 cowrie shells, which were used for money.

In 1974, farmers sinking a well made an even more extraordinary discovery. Close by the tomb of China's first emperor, the ruler of Qin, they happened upon an underground chamber which lead to the discovery of some 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors, charioteers and cavalrymen. (Eight of these figures are in the exhibition. Look at the cover of the grey pamphlet [image not included here] which shows a striding infantryman and the postcards of the kneeling archer and the cavalryman. Their costumes, the armor made of pieces of bronze and leather and their military gear are shown in exact detail.) The Qin emperor had led an exceedingly active life [see the last paragraph of the exhibition pamphlet]. The pits were situated to the east of the emperor's tomb, the direction from which his enemies would attack.

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The Bronze Vessels

The first long gallery of the exhibition contains Shang ritual bronze containers, two bronze axes, an enormous bell and a bronze drum. The three- and four-legged cauldrons and cups were designed to heat wines and cereals. The handles and the capped posts on the rims may have been used to lift the vessels from the fire. Bowls, vases and jars held additional wine and cereal. It is not known exactly how any of these containers were used, since Shang ceremonies remain a mystery.

Many of the bronzes are amazingly heavy, suggesting a high level of technology. The four Shang bronzes on the postcards [not shown here] weigh as follows: the rectangular food cauldron, 181 lbs.; the square wine vessel with rams, 75 lbs.; the elephant, 6 lbs.; and the covered wine vessel, about 23 lbs.

Line Drawing of Bronze Vessel
Diagram prepared by Edith Watts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Design by Sue Koch

The designs on the bronzes are fascinating. Shang artists were obviously obsessed with real and imaginary animal forms. Use a magnifying glass to study the four bronzes on the postcards. In addition to the elephant (not native to northern China and probably brought from the south for the royal zoo) and the rams, find the birds, dragons and animal masks called taotie. In the exhibition even more animal forms can be found: owls, tigers, bulls, snakes and rhinoceros. The background for the beasts is a series of spiral patterns. The silhouettes of some vessels bristle with fin-like flanges.

Often one animal form flows into another animal form as they do in the animal mask. The masks facing the viewer can also be seen as dragons in profile looking at each other.

At the end of the Shang gallery a turn to the left leads into the Zhou and Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) gallery. Although the spiral patterns, the taotie masks, and dragon designs resemble Shang bronzes, later Zhou bronzes display patterns that are more open and flowing, the animals are less abstract, and the vessels are made in new shapes. Look at the rhinoceros poster, the postcards of the Zhou wine vessel, the Han incense burner, the bull and tiger ritual object. The Han lamp in the form of a servant girl holding a candle stand is one of the first clearly represented human figures in Chinese art. A close inspection of the 5th century B.C. bronze wine vessel nearby (#91 in the exhibition) reveals lively inlaid figures dancing, playing musical instruments and battling on land and water. They are among the earliest known attempts by the Chinese to show pictures of people.

Only one of the bronzes (#46 in the exhibition) has survived uncorroded. New bronze, being largely copper, is shiny like a copper penny, only slightly more yellow. When bronze has been buried a long time, it reacts to the minerals in the ground. The exact way it reacts depends upon the amounts of copper, tin and lead in its composition. As a result the surface colors, called "patinas," are variations of green, blue-green, blackish green, red, rust, and blackish brown.

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Bronze Casting

Study paragraphs 7 and 8 and the diagram of the section-mold casting technique shown in the exhibition pamphlet [reproduced below]. In the exhibition between the Shang and Zhou galleries there is a step-by-step display of the section-mold technique of casting. The surfaces of later Zhou and Han bronzes were often patterned with inlays of gold, silver or turquoise.

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Jade Carving

Jade is so hard that it cannot even be cut by steel. It is not actually carved, but is shaped by wearing away the surface of the jade with harder stones such as quartz sand, or crushed garnets. In such a way, very slowly, the jade is formed and smoothed. Jade is not indigenous to China but had to be carried great distances from Central Asia or Siberia. No wonder the ancient Chinese highly valued jade and thought it had magical properties!

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The Terracotta Warriors

Each figure in the Qin emperor's army was made by a combination of molds and individual modeling. The legs are solid. The torsos are hollow, built up from coils of clay. After the surface was finished in great detail with a finer clay, the figure was fired. The heads and hands were made and fired separately, and later attached with clay strips. Finally each figure was painted realistically and fitted with actual weapons and gear.

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The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China
(Exhibition Pamphlet)

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 and art.

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.

Line Drawing of Bronze Vessel
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.

Line Drawing of Bronze Vessel
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 Museum

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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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu