On the Study of Ancient Chinese Bronzes

28  bar rises 30.35 2mph N dewpoint 25   Spring

                    Full Moon of Winds

“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.” – Germaine Greer

This quote names the feeling I get when I study, not only in libraries.  It identifies the peculiar thrill I got while investigating Chinese bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

The Chinese have had advanced material culture for over 3,500 years.  In the Neolithic they developed a potter’s wheel (not the first, that was Egypt 4000bce) and an updraft, underground kiln capable of 1250 degrees.  Hot enough for stoneware (holds water) and almost hot enough for porcelain.  In the MIA’s collection is an early hand-built bowl from Pan-po that captures the viewer with its shape, a gentle half-sphere, and its color, a delicate tawny clay.  This is a work both ordinary in appearance and extraordinary in its execution.  Nearby are three thin walled ceremonial cups, so thin that none of them weighs more than an ounce.  These were wheel thrown in sections, then joined and fired and burnished.  The Neolithic case also contains ceramic ancestors to the bronze hu, the tripod vessels like the tings and the ku which resembles the ceremonial stem cups.

The Xia dynasty, a matter of conjecture since there is no archaeological evidence for it, but a dynasty most scholars do think existed, saw the transition between pottery and bronze because the Shang dynasty has a functional metallurgical industry from the beginning.  The Shang dynasty ushers in the age of bronze for China, a reign that will last almost fifteen-hundred years from the Shang through the Warring States Period of the late Eastern Zhou. 

Shang bronze vessels have three primary functions:  to hold wine, food, or water.   The wine, often warmed on tripod lifted beakers, played a key role in Shang devotion to the Shang-ti, a god of all power.   The various food containers from the giant ting to the delicate tou held sacrificial grains, millet at first, later rice and meats.  Humans died as sacrifice to the Shang gods though there is no mention of cannibalism.  Flat vessels and vessels shaped like gravy boats facilitated ablutions in preparation for sacrifice.  The bronze used in these ceremonial vessels had lead as an alloy with copper.  This made the metal softer, easier to cast.

Weapons, also made from bronze, had tin alloyed with copper, a harder metal, better for cutting and slicing.

The Zhou dynasty, borne from a clan rival to the Tzu, the clan of the Shang kings, continued much of Shang culture.  The emphasis on  ritual continued and with it the need for the bronze ritual vessels.  There was an important difference, however.  Where the Shang worshiped a supreme god and their ancestors as divine, the Zhou had a heaven with many gods and their ancestor worship revered ancestors as mediators with the realm of heaven, not divine in themselves.  The Zhou also believed that their conquest of the Shang occurred for moral reasons.  They thought the Shang had become corrupt and that they were drunkards.  The mandate of heaven, a Zhou concept, presented the long lasting notion that rulers did not rule by right, but by the will of heaven.  This meant that rule could be lost if the king let his realm fall into disorder or the peasantry did not flourish.

Over time this meant that the characteristic Shang decorative symbol, the T’ao T’ieh, began to disappear.  Birds began to fill the same, main spots on Zhou bronze.  Also, where Shang inscriptions were usually terse, often only one or two characters indicating ownership or clan names, the Zhou began to create longer and longer inscriptions, commemorating military victories, political events, seal power transfers. 

During the Western Zhou, because of the continued centrality of ritual, the need for bronze vessels continued and their assocation with the conservative realm of ritual meant that the changes from the Shang vessels tended to disperse over the whole Zhou realm consistently.  Many of the wine vessels used by the Shang did drop away, possibly because of the moral concerns.  In 711 bce the Zhou dynasty suffered a military defeat.  They closed their western capital and moved east where they served, for the 450 or so years as titulary kings, but had no actual political power. 

The time of the Eastern Zhou, 711-256 bce, saw China splinter first into many small states during the Spring and Autmn period, then consolidate into a few states, more like contemporary Europe, during the Warring States Period.  Bronze continued to be important throughout the Eastern Zhou, but it took on a different cultural role.  The violence and public disorder of the Eastern Zhou called into question the mandate of heaven and the ritual practices associated with it.  Bronze vessels began to move out into the public sphere where they celebrated weddings, became opulent gifts and sometimes came as gifts to children or relatives with the intention of inheritance. This meant they were no longer exclusively grave objects, and, in fact, in the Eastern Zhou ceramic imitations of the bronze vessels become more and more common in graves.

More on this after my tour.  I gotta get ready and go check out my route.

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