The history of China is universally considered one of the most complex and fascinating, and as an historic centre, China is responsible for some of the most important ancient artifacts in the world. Material culture has existed in China for thousands of years, and despite the Bronze Age arriving relatively later in China than most of the world, China soon became a country of master bronze craftsmen with their own unique moulding technique, eventually leading to the mass production of elaborate material goods.
Bronze was initially used to craft weapons from in China, and was first found being used for this in the Shang dynasty, where the main weapons that were made and used were bronze halberds (axe-like weapons) and spears (Tregear, 2003: 21). Weapons began to be made from bronze at this time as this made the weapons considerably more effective than their stone predecessors. Bronze soon became popular for creating decorative and ritual items, and as it was a relatively scarce material at the time, owning several bronze items clearly displayed power, and bronze quickly became a symbol of wealth and status.
The casting method used in ancient Chinese bronze-making was unique, and it is not known where this technique originated, though since it has not yet been found in other cultures, it is quite likely that it may have been conceived in China itself. This technique involves moulds made from several different independent pieces, which may be a more elaborate extension of China’s method for casting bronze weapons (Rawson, 1992: 55). This method was used for a very long time in China, and the simpler ‘lost wax’ method of casting used in most other countries only became popular relatively late through Chinese history (Tregear, 2003: 22). Another individual aspect of the Chinese bronze casting technique is that many artifacts have been found with traces of lead within the bronze alloy, often creating a grey appearance to the sheen (Tregear, 2003: 21). It is not known why this lead was included in the alloy, though some have suggested that it was intended to make the liquid metal a thinner texture which would make it easier to pour (Tregear, 2003: 21). These original factors of the Chinese bronze casting technique suggest that the method used was not brought to China with the Bronze Age itself, which is likely to have been caused by cultural drift from another country (Tregear, 2003: 22).
The design and decoration of many of the bronze wares discovered in China are also fairly unique to China, and have particularly distinctive motifs, styles and shapes. The shapes of several bronze vessel types are very similar to the pottery objects that came before them, such as three-legged cooking pots intended for heating wine and food (Rawson, 1992: 56). It is clear that many of the items made from bronze, as well as jade, are elaborate, ceremonial versions of everyday items, which also explains some of the complex design features seen in these objects (Rawson, 1992: 56). However, as bronze became a more and more popular material for decorative items, the idea of merely copying a ceramic object became less popular, with craftsmen striving for exciting and more obviously elaborate shapes and designs. The changes in details happened over time, and the shapes of pots’ legs, mouths and handles became more explicitly valued for rituals (Rawson, 1992: 56). One mystery, which still lies unsolved, of bronze use within China, is the ‘Jue’ design of vessel. It is angular and lacks a clear ceramic predecessor, yet has existed since the earliest use of bronze in China (Rawson, 1992: 56). This anomaly with no clear line of descent is not a rare occurrence within the subject of Chinese bronze, and combined with the mystery of where the ancient Chinese bronze-making technique came from, shows there are several unsolved mysteries surrounding the subject.
The decorative motifs found when looking at ancient Chinese bronze vessels are very distinct, and two of the most popular repetitive motifs are ‘Taotie’ faces (that come in several different individual designs themselves), which are faces appearing within the general patterns on objects, and ‘Kui’ dragons, mainly appearing in pairs to make the vessel symmetrical (Tregear, 2003: 28). These motifs are found on numerous wares and probably do have ritual meaning, though their exact significance is yet to be discovered. The ‘Kui’ dragons, rather two-legged creatures with snouts, tails and ears, are a main feature in many vessels, and may be representative of blood sacrifices during the rituals the vessels were used within (Tregear, 2003: 28)
Some people believe the faces may have been to represent gluttony and indulgence (Tregear, 2003: 28), as the ritual feasts they would have been used at must have been plentiful (Rawson, 1992: 59). The ‘Taotie’ face motif may also have become as popular as it did due to its versatility, as it can be found on a variety of different shaped and sized vessels (Rawson, 1992: 59), allowing a repetitive motif throughout a ceremonial dinner set. Additional to the common motifs found on ancient Chinese bronze vessels, the vessels are heavily decorated with angular spirals (Ledderose, 2000: 32). These spirals fill the entire outside of the vessel, and are of varying size so as to fit into particular places on the object. The spirals however are often unforgiving to the asymmetry of an object, and upon closer inspection, the differences between each part of the vessel are clear from the spirals alone (Ledderose, 2000: 32). They do still somewhat provide a sense of continuity around each side of the vessel, even if it has differently placed motifs, and the spirals also provide continuity between numerous objects, as they appear on almost all bronze ritual vessels of the time.
These motifs along with general decoration can be described as being laid out in registers and compartments (Ledderose, 2000: 32), however this layout decision is possibly due to the unique use of multiple moulds during casting, to make the areas where each mould meets less obvious, but it does provide an interesting and appealing aesthetic. The decorations of bronze vessels in China are as close to symmetrical as they could have been made with this multiple mould technique (Ledderose, 2000: 33), and one tends to only realise the designs are not perfectly symmetrical upon close examination. The discovery of the China’s ancient bronze casting method only came about partly from the fact that so many finds were asymmetrical, along with the finding of several unused bronze casts.
The use of bronze in ancient China soon became associated with China’s religious and political structure, with the ownership of many extravagant bronze objects reflecting one’s high status (Rawson, 1992: 56). Bronze as a material was relatively hard to find at the time, and as it was the premium substance for weaponry, it was a very sensitive commodity (Ledderose, 2000: 29). The fact that bronze was in fairly short supply, yet the Chinese leaders still insisted thousands of vessels were made from it, suggests that the vessels were at least as important as bronze weapons. This suggests that the vessels were seen as the Chinese leaders as being associated with the wellbeing of the state (Rawson, 1992: 61), as using valuable bronze to create purely aesthetic objects could have meant a potential sacrifice of weapon material. This must also mean the vessels the bronze was used for must have been used for more than just aesthetic decorative purposes. As well as being found used within ritual practice in ancient China, the decorative bronze vessels began to replace ceramic grave goods (Rawson, 1992: 56), and as bronze was rarer and more difficult to work than ceramics, the people of ancient China must have felt it was important to provide the most extravagant grave goods possible for high-status burials.
As mentioned earlier, bronze was first used in the Shang dynasty to make new, more effective weapons, but soon became a highly sought after material for decorative and ritual goods. Bronze was often discovered alongside jade, and both of these materials came to be associated with power in ancient China, reflecting and reinforcing the status of their owners (Rawson, 1992: 56). It is possible that jade had been associated with China even before the Bronze Age and the Shang dynasty, however, the two came together in the Shang dynasty and were often found alongside each other in Shang tombs (Tregear, 2003: 35). The ideas behind several Chinese ritual wares were based on well-known everyday objects, and many objects were just extremely elaborate versions of normal items, which were used during rituals and were recognised as outstanding achievements in craftsmanship (Rawson, 1992: 56).
The bronze ritual objects discovered in China are mostly vessels of varying size and shape, commonly obviously intended for food and drink, and would have been of the highest quality, for their value must have been extremely high due to the important alternative uses of bronze. The forms are derivative of pottery, and the intended uses remain the same – vessels for cooking – however, these items are ceremonial, and would have been used very rarely, in some cases not at all (Tregear, 2003: 28). The different shapes and sizes found within the spectrum of these Chinese bronze vessels are possibly due to them being intended for use with specific foods or drinks (Rawson, 1992: 56). The rituals the items were produced for are not completely clear, however a strong idea is that the items were used for ceremonial meals to honour ancestors (Ledderose, 2000: 29) because of their forms.
The use of bronze in ancient China was undoubtedly a luxury, outside of bronze being used to make the most effective weapons. Obviously, not all families could afford it, and it was exclusively used within the households of the royal and the wealthy, for rituals and for elaborate decoration. The factors which were required for the ritual usage of the material such as the methods used to make vessels, and the designs behind them, are important. They are distinctively Chinese and are very individual, so it is actually appropriate that the country’s leaders would use the vessels created from bronze, and the weapons made from the scarce material would have been used to fight for the country of China.
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Ledderose, L., Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese
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Rawson, J., The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, 1992, London.
Tregear, M., Chinese Art, 2003, London.
Naomi Powell – 211712
Introduction to the Art and Archaeology of East Asia – 15 490 0103