Ancient Chinese Bronzes in Ritual and Society: A Brief Introduction

Ancient Chinese Bronzes in Ritual and Society: A Brief Introduction

Bronze has played a significant role in Chinese culture for over three millennia. Ahead of Ritual and Reality, Marian Ang explores the role ancient bronze vessels played in rituals and everyday life.
Bronze has played a significant role in Chinese culture for over three millennia. Ahead of Ritual and Reality, Marian Ang explores the role ancient bronze vessels played in rituals and everyday life.

Ritual and Reality (4-17 April) presents a remarkable selection of more than 80 Chinese bronzes. Ahead of the specially curated online sale opening for bidding this week, we take a closer look at the remarkable heyday of ancient bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty to the Warring States Period.

“The durability of bronze has put it right at the centre of all historical and modern understandings of early art in China” 
- Craig Clunas

The unearthing of archaic bronzes at Anyang – the last capital of the Shang Dynasty – in 1928 by the first generation of professional Chinese archaeologists working under the aegis of the Republican government was a highly symbolic occasion. It linked modernity, in the form of archaeological scientific progress, with ancient Chinese cultural and written heritage.

According to the American scholar Robert Bagley, bronze working technology first developed in 1500-1300 BCE around the Yellow River valley in northern China. From there early Shang political power spread southwards. The early Shang dynasty enjoyed an unusually large quantity of copper and tin deposits (bronze being an alloy of both) at their disposal, compared to the Middle East and Greece. Only the rich and powerful had the means to make bronze vessels, to obtain the raw materials and to support the complex operations and many workers required to cast the metal. Because of this, bronzes were initially reserved for use as ritual vessels, other objects connected with the rites such as bells, weaponry and chariot fittings. Like jades, these precious objects became important signifiers of social standing, and were passed down through generations of the ruling elites.

Oracle bone inscriptions contemporary with the Anyang bronzes tell of ceremonial banquets or ritual meals for ancestor worship, some of which were performed almost daily to invoke the goodwill and protection of the ancestral spirits. Bronze vessels, some excavated with traces of soot and bone fragments, were reserved for sacrificial offerings of food or wine at these banquets. The tripod ding vessel, a ritual food cauldron with a deep body supported on tall legs, is perhaps the most important shape. It features prominently in the legend of China's first dynasty, in which King Yu the Great of the Xia divided the realm into nine provinces, each represented by a ding. The idea of possessing a bronze ding thus became synonymous with political legitimacy and sovereignty well into the Warring States Period. Emperors were customarily buried with nine ding, feudal lords with seven, ministers with five, and so on. Gu and jue ritual wine vessels were also popular during the Shang dynasty. The jue’s tripod shape enabled its wine to be heated. The gu is a tall chalice that flares elegantly at the rim like a trumpet. The zhi first appeared in the middle of the Yinxu period, and became an important ritual wine receptacle by the early Western Zhou dynasty.

Other ritual wine vessels included the zun, a tall cup with no handles or legs whose lip is broader than the rest of the vessel. The hu is a pear-shaped wine vessel whose production continues to this. A cylindrical container with a cover called a lian was used for food offerings, whilst a gui was a bowl-shaped vessel probably used to hold grain. Other ritual food vessels included the li, a cooking vessel supported by three legs shaped like pointed lobes. The yi was a half-gourd shaped pouring vessel with a handle (often in the shape of a dragon) and usually supported by four legs. It is believed to have contained water for washing hands before sacrificial rituals.

Ritual bronze vessels have been preserved over the millennia largely due to the fact that many were buried in tombs with their wealthy owners, in order to continue their sacrificial duties in the afterlife. Although most of these larger tombs were looted as early as the Zhou Dynasty, the 1976 discovery in Anyang of the untouched tomb of Lady Fu Hao (dating from around 1200 BCE), consort of King Wu Ding, fourth Shang ruler, demonstrates the enormous wealth of bronze possessed by even lesser members of the Shang royal families. Some 210 ritual bronze vessels were counted amongst a haul of 468 bronze artefacts, altogether weighing 1,625 kg (not including bronze buttons).

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Early bronze wares were cast through a complex process: a clay mould of the finished vessel made in sections would be joined together, then a clay core would be fitted into the mould and molten metal poured into the space between. Once the external moulds were removed, the surplus bronze was filed away, revealing the final product. Without the customary green oxidised patina of their present-day appearance, these objects would have shone brightly. Bronzes were typically created in sets, differing in size and elaborateness in accordance with their owner’s status. Their makers developed a modular system of design using a small repertoire of motifs and compartments. One of the most common motifs on Shang bronze vessels became known by the late Zhou period name of taotie, or “glutton”. With horned symmetrical faces and bulging eyes, these mysterious creatures are regarded as terrifying monsters but also as protectors. One hypothesis is that the motif derives from the monster mask found on some Liangzhu jades, but this connection has not been proven. Little information also exists about the makers of such vessels, since they never carried the names of individual makers or workshops, although some sources point to hereditary groups of specialised artisans.

Shang political power began to wane at the beginning of the Anyang period (1300-1000 BCE), contracting back towards its base in Henan before being destroyed by the Zhou, people from the west of the Shang kingdom, around 1050 BCE. After taking over Shang territories, the Western Zhou inherited their predecessors’ traditions and culture, including the production of Shang-style ceremonial bronzes. The Zhou kings gifted bronzes and raw materials for bronze-making to their followers, and bronzes became accoutrements of a conventional aristocratic lifestyle alongside jades, weapons and chariot fittings. The earliest bronze inscriptions state that such “precious vessels” are to be “treasured forever by sons and grandsons”. Around 900 BCE, bronzes became simpler in decoration and more extensively inscribed, with inscriptions rather than design indicative of an owner’s power and prestige. They were still buried in tombs, but as part of a motley hoard of bronze wares rather than a ritual set.

Bronze vessels became further detached from their original religious and ritualistic purposes as time went on. The increasingly constant state of conflict and competition as the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) turned into the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) manifested itself in ostentatious soft power displays of material wealth and prestige amongst rival regional courts, with bronze craftsmanship at the heart of this. As bronzes became coveted luxury items, independent workshops flourished, ready to service an eager and growing clientèle outside of the ruling courts. Whilst some shapes of bronzes fell out of use completely, a diverse variety of bronze vessels appeared to cater to a wider market. As well as offering bronze inlaid with precious materials such as gold and silver, foundries also produced cheaper consumer goods and exotic designs to cater to local tastes, such as animals in combat. Technical adjustments to maximise production, such as reusing mould pattern blocks, are evidenced in archaeological finds from the period.

A bronze 'kneeling figure' lamp, Eastern Han dynasty | Estimate: 80,000 - 120,000 HKD

Anyang is often called the cradle of Chinese civilisation because, as the earliest capital of China in written record, the treasures unearthed in its vicinity have become part of the essential narrative of ancient China. But this notion of a homogeneous “Chinese-ness” centred around Shang culture has evolved with subsequent archaeological discoveries, not only around Anyang, but at places such as Guanghan Sanxingdui, near modern-day Chengdu in Sichuan province. Each item discovered adds more colour to the story of modern-day China, providing a fascinating insight into the technological achievements as well as the cultural and artistic diversity of ancient Chinese civilisations.

Chinese Works of Art The Hong Kong Sales

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