China’s bronze culture dates back thousands of years. As known from ancient Chinese literature, sacrificial activities and warfare were top on the agenda of ancient governments. It follows that the flourish and decline of the art of bronze were closely connected with the ritual system adopted by different political entities.
In the early and mid-Shang dynasty, or the Erligang period in archeology, ritual bronzes began to emerge in large numbers. A typical find from the period is the jue, a ritual tripod wine vessel, which, together with the jia, zhi, gu, zun and you, forms a complete wine set that was essential in sacrificial ceremonies performed by the aristocracy. By the late Shang, decorations on bronzes had become more elaborate as typified by the so-called “triple bands”, marking a zenith in bronze casting.
Preference for elaborate decorations such as raised flanges and nipple protrusions continued into the early Western Zhou. Necessitated by modification in rites, wine vessels gave way to containers for food and led to the appearance of new forms such as the pu and yi. By the mid- and late Western Zhou, bronze decorations took a turn for the simple although there were still relatively sumptuous examples.
Used increasingly as funerary objects, ritual bronzes of the Spring and Autumn period are artistically akin to those of the late Western Zhou. The complex rites practiced by a new class of aristocrats in various feudal states were reflected in the complex decorations on the ritual bronzes and musical instruments of the time. A predominant characteristic is the interlaced hydra design. Certain new forms, such as the fu and fou, also became popular during this period.
The Warring States period witnessed parallel development in elaborately decorated and undecorated bronzes, evidencing that some of them were beginning to serve functional rather than ceremonial purposes. A contributing factor is naturally the decline of the aristocratic class. By the Han dynasty, ritual bronzes had remarkably dwindled in number. In their stead,delicately designed bronzes were produced to meet daily needs. The new demand for censers, buckles, weights, staff heads andthe likes, sometimes with gold and silver inlay, was indicative of not just political changes but also advancement in bronze casting for secular purposes. A testimony can be found in the making of bronze mirrors, an item that was highly popular during the Warring States and Han periods. Among bronze mirrors dating from the Tang dynasty, those decorated with auspicious sea monsters and grapes are most notable for their craftsmanship.
With warfare came the bronze chariots, harnesses and weapons. In ancient times, as emblems of the owner’s aristocratic origins, weapons were produced with state-of-the-art techniques such as openwork and inlay for exuberance. Hence, more than just weapons, these were indispensable ritual bronzes for any army. Wars were waged in so different a fashion from ours that chariots, harnesses and combat weapons formed an important category in bronze culture. By the Warring States and Qin-Han periods, with chariots exiting the scene, it was infantries and cavalries armed with crossbows that determined the outcome of a war.
The bronze culture of the Pre-Qin period encompasses the making of not only bronzes but also gold and silver ware. Culturally speaking, informed also by far-away exotic regions, the bronze culture of China Proper actually embodied Chinese culture over a vast area and a long period of time. Utilitarian as well as artistic, Chinese bronzes are remarkable works of art and technology and are at the same relics of immense historical and cultural importance.
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