Ancient Chinese Bronzes Term Paper

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Ancient Chinese Bronzes

The existence of the believed first prehistoric Chinese dynasty of Xia from the 21st to the 16th century was assumed a myth on account of scientific excavations at early bronze-age sites in Anyang, Henan Province in 1928 (Crystal 2004) (Poon). But archaeological finds in the 1960s and 1970s, consisting mainly of urban sites, bronze implements and tombs, provided evidence to the existence of a Xia civilization in the locations mentioned in ancient Chinese manuscripts. These new finds theorized that the probable Xia period to be between the Neolithic culture and the urban Shang dynasty. The one evidence shared by these ancient civilizations was bronze metallurgy (Crystal, Poon), which could have been a prehistoric activity before the 22nd century BC (Lees 2004).

The assumed connection between the two dynasties was the founding of the Shang dynasty by a rebel who overcame the last Xia ruler in the 17th century. The Shang dynasty, also called the Yin in its later stages, has been credited by thousands of archaeological discoveries as the cradle of Chinese civilization that reigned from 1700 to 1027 BC (Crystal 2004) (Poon). These discoveries indicated that Shang's economy was basically agricultural, complemented by hunting and animal husbandry, and marked out two important events of the period. The first of these events was the development of a writing system, as evidenced by ancient Chinese inscriptions on tortoise shells and flat cattle bones, called oracle bones. The second was the use of bronze metallurgy. Recovered ceremonial bronze vessels with inscriptions dating from the Shang times attested to the workmanship and high level of civilization of the period (Crystal) (Poon).

Historians inferred that an ancient Neolithic dynasty could have preceded the Xia and existed between 12000 and 2000 BC in ancient China and that a Western Zhou dynasty replaced the Shang from 1027 to 771 BC (Emuseum), followed by an Eastern Zhou 770-476 BC and by a warring states period from 475-221 BC. Early imperial China was ruled by the Qin dynasty from 221-207 BC; Western Han, 206-9 AD; Hsing, 9-25 AD; and the Eastern Han, 25-220 AD (Emuseum). Under the reign of the Easter Han dynasty were the Western Chin, 220-265; Eastern Chin, 317-429; and Southern and Northern, 420-588. The Southern dynasties were the Song, 420-478; Qi, 79-501; Liang, 502-556; and Chen, 557-588. The Northern dynasties were the Northern Wei, 386-533; Eastern Wei, 534-549; Western Wei, 535-557; Northern Qi, 550-577; and Northern Zhou, 557-588. Classical Imperial China was ruled by the Sui and Tang dynasties, 580-618 and 618-907, respectively. The five dynasties during the Liang period were the latter Liang, 923-936; Latter Jin, 936-946; Latter Han, 947-950; and the Latter Zhou, 951-960. These were replaced by the Northern Song, 960-1125; Southern Song, 1127-1279; Liao, 916-1125; Western Xia, 1038-1227; and Jin, 1115-1234. And later Imperial China was ruled by the Yuan, 1279-1368; Ming, 1368-1644; and Qing, 1644-1911 (Emuseum).

Ancient Chinese art spanned the First Bronze Age from the Shang to the Han periods and the Second Bronze Age of the Han dynasty. The First Bronze Age was more concerned with securing immortality and safe transition into the afterlife and observed the "Cult of the Dead" theme (Kupp). For this reason, kings and their officials built and ornamented their tombs buried underground and placed intricately designed bronze vessels and weapons close to the coffins, supposedly to comfort and protect their dead on their way to the next world. Historical records showed that members of the Shang dynasty were buried not only with their bronzes, ceramics, weapons and amulets, but also with their servants, bodyguards, horses, chariots and charioteers (Sano). Shang queen Fu Hao, wife of the king, who shared state honors with him, was buried along with more than 200 bronze pieces, 16 human sacrifices and six dogs (Sano). The Second Bronze Age, on the other hand, stressed a "Celebration of the Living" and aesthetic brilliance. These two opposing Ages constitute the Early Chinese Bronze period (Kupp).

The Chinese emperor was the most frequent patron of the arts and professional artists were often employed by the government and produced works by royal order. New or individual artists were usually retired officials who could design their own and differently from imperial styles. Despite their differences in artistic preferences, dynasties sought to preserve tradition as a common objective and to secure support from their subjects by perpetuating the achievements of previous dynasties. Innovations, such as those coming from India or the Middle East, were accepted and incorporated into the then existing Chinese culture pattern (Kupp).

Harmonious balance was the underlying principle in Chinese art and culture. Chinese bronze art delicately expresses that careful balance of local tradition and innovations and of religious and secular concepts (Kupp). Since 1500 BC, bronze was produced by mixing copper and tin and considered a fluid superior to copper when hot and harder when cold. It was also easier to cast than copper and produced better tools, weapons and art. Eventually, the mix was improved wherein copper was smelted separately and then melted with tin in controlled proportion. Artists used simple tools, like bamboo brush or a wooden beater, the design or construction of their looms, kilns and foundries hints at their understanding of complex production processes. The enduring quality and resulting fame of bronze casting point to the technical prowess of these ancient artists even then. They used the "lost wax" process in casting magnificent bronze works. Beginning with a model cut and incised on the inner face with precision, the model was afterwards coated with solidified wax, encased in a two-layer mold of plaster or clay. It was melted or removed from the mold, into which metal was poured in that space. After it had cooled, the model was broken to obtain the metal object (Kupp).

Ancient Chinese were well acquainted with the art of molding and chiseling bronze. Surviving examples reflect their history, culture and superstition (Light of China 2004). From the third millennium BC, technical methods of bronze casting were gradually improved until the Xia dynasty. During the Xia, bronze was cast and used as tribute by nine Xia provinces into tripod caldrons of bronze. These tripods were shaped with maps and figures of natural scenery and then preserved as palladium of the kingdom, but disappeared during skirmishes at the end of the Zhou dynasty (Light of China).

Bronze was prehistorically known as tong, meaning "mixed metal." A process called cire perdue was used in producing large pieces of Chinese bronze with a hammer, burin and chisel (Light of China 2004). Records on the Wei dynasty show that the emperor of the Tian An period kept a cast figure of Sakyamuni at his Buddhist Temple in its second year in 467 AD. The figure was made up of 100,000 lbs of copper, overlaid with 600 lbs of gold bells or zhong and caldron or ding. It was top-quality bronze in those ancient Chinese times that expressed the old saying, "the bell sounds, the food is in the caldron." The typical figure was a round and swollen figure of the body on three curved legs and two upright handles or "ears" as seen as the bas relief of the Han dynasty. The figure was prominently placed on the mat circle for guests to see during a banquet (Light of China).

The oldest mirrors in China were called jing and made of bronze (Light of China 2004). These were generally round, molded at the back with mythological figures, animals, floral scrolls and other decorative designs. The myth or cult of the time was inscribed at the back of many of these mirrors, such as Daoist gods, grotesque monsters and natural marvels like bas relief, astrological images and the 12 zodiac signs. The bronze mirrors of the Tang dynasty, that dated back from 618-906, mostly had the 28 animals of the lunar zodiac, their corresponding asterisms and other stellar signs and symbols. After the 10th century, the decorations became less ornate with sprayed images of natural flowers, birds and butterflies, fish, moss, water weeds and a lion trainer with phoenixes in the midst of arabesques (Light of China).

Social conditions dictated the production of ancient Chinese bronzes, which went through a long series of adaptation and change (Lees 2004). From a few small tools and decorative pieces in prehistoric times, these bronzes were in the form of containers of basic wine and food during the Xia era. In went through another long period of change during the Shang period from 1400-1200 BC when it reached prominence. It had varying realistic and imaginary animal designs during the period. With the disappearance of the Shang culture, bronze art reflected the decorative values and motif of the succeeding Zhou culture (Lees).

The discovery of ancient bronze works and other past treasures has revealed the secrets of ancient Chinese civilization in addition to written records already recovered. An already well-developed bronze metallurgy indicated the existence and level of activity of a settled and organized society (Sano), as the bronze production…

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