THE GREAT BRONZE AGE OF CHINA
||China today is one of the largest countries
in the world, possessing one quarter of the world's population.
It also possesses the world's oldest living civilization.
For centuries, however, ancient Chinese civilization has
been known only through written records. Now modern archaeology
is revealing the secrets of this ancient world through
dramatic discoveries of bronzes and other treasures from
||The development of bronze metallurgy in
ancient civilizations meant a settled and organized society,
for bronze-making required locating, protecting, mining,
and smelting the ores that contain copper and tin, the
two metals that are alloyed to produce bronze. Bronze
was customarily used to make better tools for agriculture
and better weapons for waging war. 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
||Chinese civilization in the early Bronze
Age was a highly stratified slave society ruled by an
all-powerful king and his nobles. According to the religion
of the Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC), the king derived
his power from his divine ancestors, whose spirits could
influence the course of events if they were propitiated
with offerings and sacrifices. Bronze vessels were used
to contain the wine and food which were offered up in
ceremonies performed at the altar of the ancestral shrine.
Their possession and use seems to have been restricted
to the king, the royal family, and the aristocracy.
||Bronze thus was related to power and divinity.
According to legend, King Yu, founder of China's first
dynasty, the Xia, around 2200 BC, had nine monumental
food cauldrons cast to symbolize the nine provinces of
his realm. when the Xia dynasty fell, the nine vessels,
the "Auspicious Bronzes of the State," passed
to the victorious Shang dynasty and then, in the 11th
century BC, to the Zhou. In 1976 a bronze vessel was discovered
whose inscription records that it was commissioned only
eight days after the defeat of the Shang and the capture
of the Auspicious Bronzes. These bronzes, however, have
not yet been discovered. The oldest vessels discovered
thus far are dated to 1800 BC.
While retaining their significance as symbols of power,
the bronze vessels changed in form, purpose, and decorative
style during each succeeding dynasty. The Shang are
reputed to have made much use of wine in their rituals,
and they had many wine vessels created. The Zhou, who
felt that overindulgence in wine offended Heaven, made
fewer wine vessels and produced new types of food cauldrons
The decorations on vessels from the Shang seem rich
with meaning, yet they resist our attempts to identify
their inspiration or meaning. Often the emphasis is
on a protruding eye, which seems to animate the vessel.
The most frequently used decoration is the "animal
mask," which actually is composed of two creatures
shown head-to-head in profile. Each contributes an eye,
an ear or horn, and a jaw to the frontal presentation
of a mysterious, awe-inspiring "animal." In
succeeding ages, this powerful form became increasingly
abstract, sometimes dissolving into elaborate ornamentation.
Gradually the religious significance of bronze artifacts
decreased, and they were used as symbols of personal
wealth and prestige--as homage to the living. By 210
BC, bronze craftsmanship was turned to making luxury
items in complex shapes that were inlaid with silver
A second great art form of Bronze Age China was that
of carved jade, which actually was shaped by the use
of abrasives, the pieces being sawed, drilled, and then
laboriously ground down. Jade was already a valuable
substance at the begining of the Bronze Age, reserved
for purely ceremonial functions in rituals and burials,
as sacrificial gifts to spirits for as funerary offerings.
Later pieces, which were made into jewelry, ceremonial
plaques, or even human or animal figurines, continued
to possess almost magical properties when used in rituals
or as tomb furnishings.
The bronze and jade pieces from ancient China have
been preserved because they were buried, sometimes in
storage pits, but more often in tombs. During the Shang
dynasty (1600-1100 BC), members of the royalty were
buried not only with their bronzes, ceramics, weapons,
and amulets, but also with their servants, bodyguard,
horses, chariot, and charioteer. Fu Hao, the wife of
a Shang king, who led armies in battle and represented
him on state occasions, was buried with more than two
hundred bronze pieces, sixteen sacrificial victims,
and six dogs. In the succeeding Zhou and Han dynasties,
burials continued to be sumptuous, but human sacrifice
seems to have been rarely practiced. Instead, figurines
of wood or clay--representations of the human retinue--were
buried with the dead
||An imperial version of this practice was
unearthed in 1974 by Chinese farmers who were digging
a well for their commune. To their surprise, they uncovered
part of a vast subterranean vault strewn with a host of
life-size clay warriors and horses. The figures, buried
less than a mile from the tomb of the First Emperor of
Qin (221-210 BC), are part of one of the most astonishing
discoveries in the whole history of archaeology. The First
Emperor went to his grave escorted by more than 7,000
terracotta figures of men, horses, and chariots. They
were not stamped from molds but were individually modeled,
fired, painted, and equipped with actual weapons and gear
to represent the Emperor's earthly army.
The awesome bronzes from the People's Republic of China
represent the most brilliant discoveries made in recent
Chinese Bronze Age archaeology. In many instances, they
confirm the truth of ancient legends, as they shed light
on a civilization long eclipsed and obscure. Their discovery
is a great contribution to Western understanding of
the splendor and greatness of ancient Chinese civilization.
|Chronology of Bronze Age China
||21st century—16th century BC
|Period of Erlitou culture
||19th century-16th century BC
||16th century-11th century BC
|Period of Erligang culture
||16th century-14th century BC
|Period of Yinxu culture
||13th century-11th century BC
||11th century-256 BC
||11th century-771 BC
|Spring and Autumn period
|Warring States period
||206 BC--AD 220
|Suggestions for Reading
Bagley, Robert W. "Masterworks of China's Bronze
Age Begin a Tour of the U.S." Smithsonian, Vol.
11, no. 1 (April 1980), 62-71.
Chang, Kwang-chih. The Archaeology of Ancient China.
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977.
Chelminiski, Rudolph. "China Unveils a Breathtaking
Show of Its Archaeological Treasures." Smithsonian,
Vol. 4, no. 6 (Sept. 1973), 24-35.
Cook, Stanton R. "China: A Photographic Portfolio."
Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin, Vol. 50,
no. 3 (March 1979), 12-19.
Fung, Yu-lan. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy,
ed. Derk Bedde. New York: Free Press, 1966.
Goodrich, L. Carrington. A Short History of Chinese
People. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
Hall, Alice J. "A Lady from China's Past."
National Geographic, 145 (May1974), 660-681.
Hearn, Maxwell K. "An Ancient Chinese Army Rises
from Underground Sentinel Duty." Smithsonian,
Vol. 10, no. 8 (Nov. 1979), 38-51.
Hiller, Audrey. "China-Watchers of Yesteryear."
Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin, Vol. 49,
no. 10 (Nov. 1978), 10-15.
Li, Xueqin. The Wonder of Chinese Bronzes. Beijin,
China: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.
Montebello, Philippe de. "The Great Bronze Age
of China." Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin,
Vol. 51, no. 7 (July/Aug. 1980), 11-17.
Sickman, Laurence, and Alexander Soper. The Art and
Archaeology of China. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974.
Topping, Audrey. "China's Incredible Find."
National Geographic, 153 (April 1978), 440-459.
Watson, William. Early Civilization in China. London:
Thames & Hudson, 1966.
Wen Fong, ed. The Great Bronze Age of China. New
York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Alfred A. Knopf,
_______, ed. Treasures from the Bronze Age of China.
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ballantine
For Younger Readers
Fawdry, Marguerite. Chinese Childhood. New York:
Fitzgerald, Patrick. Ancient China: The Making of
the Past. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979.
Glubok, Shirley. The Art of China. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Co., 1973.
Kublin, Hyman. China. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Moore, Janet Gaylord. The Eastern Gate: An Invitation
to the Arts of China and Japan. Cleveland: William
Collins Publishers, 1979.
Nancarrow, Peter. Early China and the Wall. Cambridge
Introduction to the History of Mankind. Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978.