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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 past.  
  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 rituals.  
  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 and containers.

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 and gold.

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

Xia dynasty 21st century—16th century BC
Period of Erlitou culture 19th century-16th century BC
Shang dynasty 16th century-11th century BC
Period of Erligang culture
(Zhengzhou phase) 16th century-14th century BC
Period of Yinxu culture
(Anyang phase) 13th century-11th century BC
Zhou dynasty 11th century-256 BC
Western Zhou 11th century-771 BC
Eastern Zhou 770-256 BC
Spring and Autumn period 475-221 BC
Warring States period 475-221 BC
Qin dynasty 221-206 BC
Han dynasty 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, 1980.

_______, ed. Treasures from the Bronze Age of China. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ballantine Books, 1980.

For Younger Readers

Fawdry, Marguerite. Chinese Childhood. New York: Barron's, 1977.

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 Co., 1976.

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.