The Great Bronze Age of China
For centuries, ancient Chinese civilization has been known only through written records. However, the dramatic discoveries of bronze vessels and other treasures from the past are revealing the secrets of ancient Chinese world. The ancient Chinese society fell into the Stone Tool Age and the Iron Tool Age. The earliest stoneware in China was found in 3000 B.C. The Shang and Zhou dynasties ushered China into the height of the Bronze Age. During this period the making of bronze ware reached its zenith. After the Spring & Autumn and Warring States periods China entered the Iron Tool Age.
Bronze is an alloy, the chief elements being copper, tin and lead, which is copper and tin with lower melting point and a higher degree of hardness than those of copper. Bronze-making required a settled and organized society to finish the process like locating, protecting, mining, and smelting the ores that contain copper and tin, the two metals that are alloyed to produce bronze. The exquisitely crafted and decorated bronze object was customarily used to make suitable and durable weapons, tools, and containers.
In ancient China, the talents of bronze workers were put to a third, very special use: the casting of drinking vessels and food containers which played central roles in ancestor worship and state rituals. Thus bronze retained its significance as symbols of power divinity in the early Bronze Age of Chinese civilization. Tradition ascribes the casting of bronze to the Xia Dynasty of 4000 years ago (the dynasty may or may not have existed). Emperor Yu, the founder of the dynasty, is said to have divided his empire into nine provinces and then cast nine bronze tripods to symbolize his dynasty. But it was the discovery of the last Shang Dynasty capital at Anyang in Henan Province in 1928, which provided the first evidence that the ancient Chinese had developed a bronze technology.
It is believed that a large number of bronze vessels were used for ceremonial purpose, for preparing or holding offerings of food and wine in sacrificial ceremonies performed by the ruler and the aristocracy. Through ritual sacrifices the spirits of the ancestors were persuaded to look after their descendants. The spiritual practices of the Shang dynasty people arose from the belief that the spirits of ancestors in the supernatural world were forever in control of man's earthly well-being, and it was therefore necessary that offerings of prayer and food constantly be made to them. The people of the Shang dynasty offered sacrifices to a wide range of phenomena. The cast of auspicious bronze vessels were used by the ruling house and nobility to offer food or wine in sacrificial ceremonies. Their types of ceremonial procedures were extremely varied and complex under the slavery and feudal social system.
The bronze vessels changed in form, purpose, and decorative style during each succeeding dynasty. China employed bronze as auspicious objects in the period of the Longshan culture brought the use of bronze ceremonial vessels to a peak in the Shang and Chou dynasties. The vessels were often buried with the deceased, along with other earthly provision. Most of the late Shang funeral vessels have inscriptions which are usually short and pictographic, recording the names of the clan, the ancestor, the maker of the vessel, or recording events, wars. Zhou Dynasty bronze vessels tend to have longer messages and the characters are ideographic, relating wars, rewords, ceremonial events, the appointment of officials. The early bronzes were cast in sectional clay moulds, an offspring of the advanced pottery technology with high temperature kilns and clay-mould was covered with the required designs which were either impressed, incised or carved. During the eastern Zhou period (771-256BC), by the 5th century BC geometric designs and scenes of hunting and feasting formed using inlays of precious metals and stones were introduced.
Bronze mirrors were used as early as the Shang Dynasty and had already developed into an artistic form by the Warring States Period. Ceramics gradually replaced bronze utensils by the Han Dynasty, but bronze mirror were not displaced by glass mirror until the Qing Dynasty. In China, the mirror is metaphor for self inspection in philosophical discussion. The wise man has three mirrors: a mirror of bronze in which he sees his own physical appearance, a mirror of the people by which he examines his own inner character and conduct, and a mirror of the past by which he learns to emulate successes and to avoid the mistakes of earlier recorded history. The backs of bronze mirror are decorated and inscribed: the inscriptions express wishes for good fortune and for protection from evil influence. Post-Han writings are full of fantastic stories f the supernatural powers of mirrors. One of them relates the tale of Yin Zhongwen who held a mirror to look at himself but found that his face was not reflected; soon after he was executed. The ancient bronze wares were unique national treasures for China for their impressive designs, classical decorative ornamentation, and wealth of inscriptions.
Appreciation of Bronze
Because a tomb is essentially a storage place for precious objects, there have been those who have excavated graves in search of treasure. In fact, ever since the early Western Chou dynasty there has never been a time when grave-robbing was unknown. Of the bronze vessels of the Shang, Chou, Ch'in, and Han dynasties that have emerged from tombs, some have been scattered into the hands of collectors, where they have been devotedly maintained, and some have been assembled within the inner court of the imperial palace, where they have been preserved and cataloged. Part of the Museum's bronze collection came directly from the Ch'ing dynasty imperial household collection, and part of it was purchased from the private collections of Mr. Liu T'i-chih and Mr. Jung Keng. Of all the items in the collection, none has the precise record of a scientific archaeological excavation. Concepts of connoisseurship among people of former times were different from those of today. Collectors often used to take the soiled and rusted curios they acquired out of the earth and grind them down or pick out the bits of green mottled oxidation and cover the outside with wax. These kind of "doctored" objects are commonly called shu-k'eng, or "soiled excavated objects," and an abundance of them is another characteristic of the bronze collection of this Museum.
An exhibition of this sort covers a very long time span of bronze art, so an effort has been made especially to select those pieces representing clan or national significance, as well as those displaying rare and important inscriptions. They have been arranged according to period and category in the hope that this will allow the viewer to acquire more easily an overview of the bronze art of China. The ancient bronze art of China is a mirror of men's creative talent and moral system in slavery society. It saw a splendid culture in history.