The Ritual Bronze Vessels of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties

      Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin with lower melting point and a higher degree of hardness than those of copper. When it is cast, bronze has the advantages of minimum air bubble production and maximum flow quality and can produce objects with razor-sharp edges or exquisite decoration, thus making it a suitable material for durable weapons, tools, and containers. China employed bronze objects as long as four thousand years ago in the period of the Lungshan culture and brought the use of bronze ceremonial vessels to a peak in the Shang and Zhou dynasties.

     The spiritual practices of the Shang dynasty people arose from the belief that the spirits of ancestors in the supernatural world were forever in control of Man's earthly well-being, and it was therefore necessary that offerings of prayer and food constantly be made to them. From the evidence of oracle bone inscriptions we know that not only did the people of the Shang dynasty offer sacrifices to a wide range of phenomena, but their ceremonies were varied and complex. The vessels used by the ruling house and nobility to offer food or wine in these sacrificial ceremonies were cast of bronze. Their types were extremely varied; many had their origin in everyday objects of pottery or wood.

     An ancient text records that "the Zhou followed the rituals of the Shang." Taking the Shang ceremonies as a base, the Duke of Zhou established a canon of rituals and music and founded the orthodox hierarchy of social rank within the feudal clans. Together, these constituted the system of rites responsible for maintaining social order. In the performance of rituals, the types and numbers of vessels employed-whether food, wine, water, or musical vessels-were functions of the position or rank of the personage conducting the ceremony. Under the system of ceremonial procedures, bronze "ritual objects" were generally referred as "ritual vessels" as a reflection of this.

     Bronze ritual vessels were often cast with extraordinary kinds of engraved decoration. Whether expressing the religious aspirations of the Shang people or reflecting aspects of the lives of the Zhou people in the earthly realm, they are able to capture for us the spirit of the times that produced them. It was also customary to cast inscriptions in bronze ritual vessels to record some recognition of meritorious achievement, bestowal of imperial favor, appointment of office, settlement of a contract, proclamation of a new statute, taking of an oath, or other such occasion. A distinguishing characteristic of the bronze collection of the National Palace Museum is the number of vessels bearing lengthy inscriptions, such as the Maokung ting, the San p'an, the Sung hu, the Tsung-chou chung, and the Tzu-fan chime. Documents on bamboo strips or classics written on silk from the pre-Han period have been reduced to ashes by the ravages of time, and only the inscriptions on bronze vessels have come down to us as one kind of contemporaneous record of so ancient period of history.

     The Shang archaeological excavations at An-yang in Honan province testify to references by the ancient philosopher Hsun-tzu to the use of molds in the casting of bronze implements. These molds were made of pottery, and they supported the vessels inside and out with a precision that made possible the most beautiful achievements in bronze casting. The term "pottery casting" was coined to emphasize the nature of the "piece-mold process" in ancient bronze casting.

     In western Asia, the Sumerians were already familiar with the "lost-wax process" for casting bronze vessels by the middle of the third millennium, B.C. The bronze age in China may thus be said to have arrived comparatively late, but the piece-mold process borrowed from indigenous pottery production methods in the Neolithic period developed independently.

     The bronze vessels that have survived from the Shang and Zhou dynasties were by no means handed down from generation to generation right down to the present. Rather, they emerged at one time or another from the ancient tombs or storage pits in which they had been buried. Sometimes topsoil would become eroded after a heavy rainstorm or washed away by the flow of a river, forcing the earth to give up its treasures, or perhaps ancient vessels might have turned up accidentally when peasants plowing a field or excavating a well uncovered an ancient tomb. Because a tomb is essentially a storage place for precious objects, there have been those who have excavated graves in search of treasure. In fact, ever since the early Western Zhou dynasty there has never been a time when grave-robbing was unknown. Of the bronze vessels of the Shang, Zhou, Ch'in, and Han dynasties that have emerged from tombs, some have been scattered into the hands of collectors, where they have been devotedly maintained, and some have assembled within the inner court of the imperial palace, where they have been preserved and cataloged. Part of National Palace Museum's bronze collection came directly from the Qing dynasty imperial household collection, and part of it was purchased from the private collections of Mr. Liu T'i-chih and Mr. Jung Keng. Of all the items in the collection, none has the precise record of a scientific archaeological excavation. Concepts of connoisseurship among people of former times were different from those of today. Collectors often used to take the soiled and rusted curios they acquired of the earth and grind them down or pick out the bits of green mottled oxidation and cover the outside with wax. These kind of "doctored" objects are commonly called sku-k'eng, or "boiled excavated objects," and an abundance of them is another characteristic of the bronze collection of this Museum.

     Other ancient civilizations of the world, such as Egypt and Assyria, have left majestic architectural and sculptural ruins for people to admire, while China's legacy of ancient greatness is her bronze ritual vessels. Harmanizing form, decoration, engraving, and inscriptions, Chinese bronzes surely epitomize the highest level of technological and artistic expression in ancient times. They furthermore can be spoken of in socio-political terms, for it was society and politics that, because of the bronze ritual vessels played within them, were the impetus behind the development and evolution of bronze art.

( extracted from exhibition catalogue of  National Palace Museum )


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