Wednesday 24th May 2017


Chinese Ritual Bronzes

The Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty (Chinese: 商朝; pinyin: Shāng cháo) or Yin dynasty (殷代; Yīn dài), according to traditional historiography, ruled in the Yellow River valley in the second millennium BC, succeeding the Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian. According to the traditional chronology based on calculations made approximately 2,000 years ago by Liu Xin, the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the “current text” of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 to 1046 BC. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated them from c. 1600 to 1046 BC.

The Shang dynasty is the earliest dynasty of traditional Chinese history supported by archaeological evidence. Excavation at the Ruins of Yin (near modern-day Anyang), which has been identified as the last Shang capital, uncovered eleven major royal tombs and the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and remains from both animal and human sacrifices. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts have been found.

The Anyang site has yielded the earliest known body of Chinese writing, mostly divinations inscribed on oracle bones – turtle shells, ox scapulae, or other bones. More than 20,000 were discovered in the initial scientific excavations during the 1920s and 1930s, and over four times as many have been found since. The inscriptions provide critical insight into many topics from the politics, economy, and religious practices to the art and medicine of this early stage of Chinese civilization.

Before the 20th century, the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) was the earliest Chinese dynasty that could be verified from its own records. However, during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), antiquarians collected bronze ritual vessels attributed to the Shang era, some of which bore inscriptions. These types of early inscriptions were later traced to the Yinxu site in the Yellow River valley.

Yinxu site
In 1899, it was found that Chinese pharmacists were selling “dragon bones” marked with curious and archaic characters.[12] These were finally traced back in 1928 to a site (now called Yinxu) near Anyang, north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province, where the Academia Sinica undertook archeological excavation until the Japanese invasion in 1937.

Archaeologists focused on the Yellow River valley in Henan as the most likely site of the states described in the traditional histories.

Huanbei site
The remains of a walled city of about 470 hectares (1,200 acres) were discovered in 1999 across the Huan River from the well explored Yinxu site. The city, now known as Huanbei, was apparently occupied for less than a century and destroyed shortly before the construction of the Yinxu complex.

Zhengzhou Shang City
After 1950, the remnants of the earlier walled settlement of Shang City were discovered near Zhengzhou. It has been determined that the earth walls at Zhengzhou, erected in the 15th century BC, would have been 20 m (66 ft) wide at the base, rising to a height of 8 m (26 ft), and formed a roughly rectangular wall 7 km (4 mi) around the ancient city. The rammed earth construction of these walls was an inherited tradition, since much older fortifications of this type have been found at Chinese Neolithic sites of the Longshan culture (c. 3000–2000 BC).

There are two important archaeological sites near the modern city of Yanshi: Erlitou site, and Yanshi Shang City. Yanshi lies on the Luo River, which is a tributary of the Yellow River.

In 1959, the site of the Erlitou culture was found in Yanshi, south of the Yellow River near Luoyang.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the Erlitou culture flourished ca. 2100 BC to 1800 BC. They built large palaces, suggesting the existence of an organized state.

In 1983, Yanshi Shang City was discovered 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) north-east of the Erlitou site in Yanshi’s Shixianggou Township. This was a large walled city dating from 1600 BC. It had an area of nearly 200 hectares (490 acres) and featured pottery characteristic of the Erligang culture.

Panlongcheng site
The Panlongcheng site in the middle Yangtze valley was an important regional center of the Erligang culture.

Chinese historians living in later periods were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, and readily identified the Erligang and Erlitou sites with the early Shang and Xia dynasty of traditional histories.

The actual political situation in early China may have been more complicated, with the Xia and Shang being political entities that existed concurrently, just as the early Zhou, who established the successor state of the Shang, are known to have existed at the same time as the Shang. It has also been suggested the Xia legend originated during the Shang dynasty, the Shang having a myth of a people preceding them who were their inverse.

Related and contemporary sites
Shang dynasty is located in China ErlitouErlitou ZhengzhouZhengzhou PanlongchengPanlongcheng AnyangAnyang SanxingduiSanxingdui WuchengWucheng
Major archaeological sites of the second millennium BC in north and central China
The Erligang culture represented by the Yellow River sites is found across a wide area of China, even as far northeast as the area of modern Beijing, where at least one burial in this region during this period contained both Erligang-style bronzes and local-style gold jewelry. The discovery of a Chenggu-style ge dagger-axe at Xiaohenan demonstrates that even at this early stage of Chinese history, there were some ties between the distant areas of north China.

Accidental finds elsewhere in China have revealed advanced civilizations contemporaneous with but culturally unlike the settlement at Anyang, such as the walled city of Sanxingdui in Sichuan. Western scholars are hesitant to designate such settlements as belonging to the Shang dynasty. Also unlike the Shang, there is no known evidence that the Sanxingdui culture had a system of writing.

In contrast, the earliest layers of the Wucheng site, pre-dating Anyang, have yielded pottery fragments containing short sequences of symbols, suggesting that they may be a form of writing quite different in form from oracle bone characters, but the sample is too small for decipherment.

Late Shang at Anyang

Oracle bones pit at Yin
The oldest extant direct records date from around 1200 BC at Anyang, covering the reigns of the last nine Shang kings. The Shang had a fully developed system of writing, preserved on bronze inscriptions and a small number of other writings on pottery, jade and other stones, horn, etc., but most prolifically on oracle bones.
The complexity and sophistication of this writing system indicates an earlier period of development, but direct evidence of that development is still lacking. Other advances included the invention of many musical instruments and observations of Mars and various comets by Shang astronomers.

Their civilization was based on agriculture and augmented by hunting and animal husbandry. In addition to war, the Shang also practiced human sacrifice.
Crania of sacrificial victims have been found to be similar to modern Chinese ones (based on comparisons with remains from Hainan and Taiwan). Cowry shells were also excavated at Anyang, suggesting trade with coast-dwellers, but there was very limited sea trade in ancient China since China was isolated from other large civilizations during the Shang period. Trade relations and diplomatic ties with other formidable powers via the Silk Road and Chinese voyages to the Indian Ocean did not exist until the reign of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty (206 BC–221 AD).

Court life

Bronzewares from the excavated tomb of Fu Hao
At the excavated royal palace of Yinxu, large stone pillar bases were found along with rammed earth foundations and platforms, which according to Fairbank, were “as hard as cement.” These foundations in turn originally supported 53 buildings of wooden post-and-beam construction. In close proximity to the main palatial complex, there were underground pits used for storage, servants’ quarters, and housing quarters.

Many Shang royal tombs had been tunneled into and ravaged by grave robbers in ancient times, but in the spring of 1976, the discovery of Tomb 5 at Yinxu revealed a tomb that was not only undisturbed, but one of the most richly furnished Shang tombs that archaeologists had yet come across. With over 200 bronze ritual vessels and 109 inscriptions of Lady Fu Hao’s name, archaeologists realized they had stumbled across the tomb of the militant consort to King Wu Ding, as described in 170 to 180 Shang oracle bones. Along with bronze vessels, stoneware and pottery vessels, bronze weapons, jade figures and hair combs, and bone hairpins were found. Historian Robert L. Thorp states that the large assortment of weapons and ritual vessels in her tomb correlate with the oracle bone accounts of her military career and involvement in Wu Ding’s ritual ancestral sacrifices.

The capital was the center of court life. Over time, court rituals to appease spirits developed, and in addition to his secular duties, the king would serve as the head of the ancestor worship cult. Often, the king would even perform oracle bone divinations himself, especially near the end of the dynasty. Evidence from excavations of the royal tombs indicates that royalty were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of northern China, and Shang troops fought frequent wars with neighboring settlements and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes. The Shang king, in his oracular divinations, repeatedly shows concern about the fang groups, the barbarians living outside of the civilized tu regions, which made up the center of Shang territory. In particular, the tufang group of the Yanshan region were regularly mentioned as hostile to the Shang.

Apart from their role as the head military commanders, Shang kings also asserted their social supremacy by acting as the high priests of society and leading the divination ceremonies.
As the oracle bone texts reveal, the Shang kings were viewed as the best qualified members of society to offer sacrifices to their royal ancestors and to the high god Di, who in their beliefs was responsible for the rain, wind, and thunder.


Chinese Shang dynasty bronze face masks, 16th–14th century BC
Shang religious rituals featured divination and sacrifice. The degree to which shamanism was a central aspect of Shang religion is a subject of debate.

There were six main recipients of sacrifice: (1) Di, the High God, (2) nature powers like the sun and mountain powers, (3) former lords, deceased humans who had been added to the dynastic pantheon, (4) predynastic ancestors, (5) dynastic ancestors, and (6) dynastic ancestresses such as the concubines of a past emperor.

The Shang believed that their ancestors held power over them and performed divination rituals to secure their approval for planned actions. Divination involved cracking a turtle carapace or ox scapula to answer a question, and to then record the response to that question on the bone itself. It is unknown what criteria the diviners used to determine the response, but it is believed to be the sound or pattern of the cracks on the bone.

The Shang also seem to have believed in an afterlife, as evidenced by the elaborate burial tombs built for deceased rulers. Often “carriages, utensils, sacrificial vessels, [and] weapons” would be included in the tomb. A king’s burial involved the burial of up to several hundred humans and horses as well to accompany the king into the afterlife, in some cases even numbering four hundred. Finally, tombs included ornaments such as jade, which the Shang may have believed to protect against decay or confer immortality.

The Shang religion was highly bureaucratic and meticulously ordered. Oracle bones contained descriptions of the date, ritual, person, ancestor, and questions associated with the divination.
Tombs displayed highly ordered arrangements of bones, with groups of skeletons laid out facing the same direction.

Bronze working
Chinese bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty, with bronze typically being used for ritually significant, rather than primarily utilitarian, items. As far back as c. 1500 BC, the early Shang dynasty engaged in large-scale production of bronze-ware vessels and weapons. This production required a large labor force that could handle the mining, refining, and transportation of the necessary copper, tin, and lead ores. This in turn created a need for official managers that could oversee both hard-laborers and skilled artisans and craftsmen. The Shang royal court and aristocrats required a vast number of different bronze vessels for various ceremonial purposes and events of religious divination. Ceremonial rules even decreed how many bronze containers of each type a nobleman or noblewoman of a certain rank could own. With the increased amount of bronze available, the army could also better equip itself with an assortment of bronze weaponry. Bronze was also used for the fittings of spoke-wheeled chariots, which appeared in China around 1200 BC.


The taotie is both one of the four evil fiends in Chinese mythology and a motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasty.

The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, bilaterally symmetrical, with a pair of raised eyes and typically no lower jaw area. Some argue that the design can be traced back to jade pieces found in Neolithic sites such as the Liangzhu culture (3310–2250 BCE).

In ancient Chinese mythology like “Classic of Mountains and Seas”, taotie (饕餮) is one of the “four evil creatures of the world” or four fiends along with Hundun (混沌), Qiongqi (穷奇) and Taowu (梼杌). On the opposite side, there are Four Holy Creatures in Chinese mythology which are called Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger and Xuanwu. Four fiends are also sometimes juxtaposed with Four Benevolent Animals which are Qilin (麒麟), Dragon (龍), Turtle (龜) and Fenghuang (鳳凰)

Scholars have long been perplexed[7] over the meaning (if any) of this theriomorphic design, and there is still no commonly held single answer. The hypotheses range from Robert Bagley’s belief that the design is a result of the casting process, and rather than having an iconographic meaning was the artistic expression of the artists who held the technological know-how to cast bronze,[8] to theories that it depicts ancient face masks that may have once been worn by either shamans or the god-kings who were the link between humankind and their deceased ancestors (Jordan Paper).

The once-popular belief that the faces depicted the animals used in the sacrificial ceremonies has now more or less been rejected. (Although some faces appear to be oxen, tigers, dragons, etc. some argue[who?] that the faces are not meant to depict actual animals, feline or bovine.) Most scholars favor an interpretation that supports the idea that the faces have meaning in a religious or ceremonial context, as the objects they appear on are almost always associated with such events or roles. As one scholar writes “art styles always carry some social references.” It is interesting that even Shang divination inscriptions shed no light on the meaning of the taotie.


It is not known what word the Shang and Zhou used to call the design on their bronze vessels; as Sarah Allan notes, there is no particular reason to assume that the term taotie was known during the Shang. In fact, the first known occurrence of this word is in Zuo Zhuan, where it is used to refer to one of the four evil creatures of the world Chinese: 四凶; pinyin: sì xiōng: a greedy and gluttonous son of the Jinyun clan, who lived during the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The word taotie itself was glossed by a Zuo Zhuan commentator as “glutton”.

Nonetheless, the association of the term taotie with the motif on the Zhou (and Shang) bronzes is sufficiently ancient. It comes from the following passage in the Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals (16/3a, “Prophecy”): The taotie on Zhou bronzes [ding] has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them.

(In another translation, given in Allan 1991, p. 145, the second sentence is translated as follows: “It devoured a man, but before it could swallow it, its own body was damaged”.) In Sarah Allan’s view, association between gluttony (the meaning in Zuo Zhuan) and the dings’ use for food sacrifices to the “insatiable” spirits of the dead is significant.[

Li Zehou comments on the description of the taotie in the Spring and Autumn Annals as follows: It is hard to explain what is implied in this, as so many myths concerning the taotie have been lost, but the indication that it eats people accords fully with its cruel, fearful countenance. To alien clans and tribes, it symbolized fear and force; to its own clan or tribe, it was a symbol of protection. This religious concept, this dual nature, was crystallized in its strange, hideous features. What appears so savage today had a historical, rational quality in its time. It is for precisely this reason that the savage old myths and legends, the tales of barbarism, and the crude, fierce, and terrifying works of art of ancient clans possessed a remarkable aesthetic appeal. As it was with Homer’s epic poems and African masks, so it was with the taotie, in whose hideous features was concentrated a deep-seated historic force. It is because of this irresistible historic force that the mystery and terror of the taotie became the beautiful—the exalted.

Li Zehou further notes, “Some scholars consider that the meaning of ‘taotie is not “eating people” but making a mysterious communication between people and Heaven (gods).”

The Bronze Age

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In ancient China, bronze vessels were cast by an indigenous process that employed a mold made of sections. 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.

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.


The pain is greatest for a poet
When the words are mush inside his head
When the subject is too painful to form
Today the words are crushed
I am collapsed inside my thoughts
The news
The news
I cannot bear it
Yet I must
So must they
Strength beyond strength I wish them
It’s only words I have lost
Its only words I cannot find
They have lost everything
Now the words have gone again
I have to stop here for writing more is stupid



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