Sunday, 24 November 2013

Classifications of Chinese Bronze

Compiled from Origins of Chinese Art and Craft & Chinese Bronzes
        Bronzes were indispensable to the ancient Chinese in their ritual practices such as offering sacrifice to deities and ancestors, and praying for favourable weather. That was also why some of them were known as ‘ritual vessels’. Based on their differing usages, Chinese bronzes can be divided into food vessels, wine vessels, musical instruments, weapons, farming implements and miscellaneous articles.
1.              Food Vessels
        Common bronzes include ding, dou, gui, zeng, li, pan and dui.
Ding was a cauldron-like vessel used for cooking or storing meat. It may be three-legged or four-legged, and also the most common and most mysterious ‘ritual vessel’. As time passed, its original function as food vessels was reduced and its symbolic function as an emblem of state power was highlighted.
        Simuwu rectangular ding is the largest and also the heaviest bronze object unearthed so far. It is the king in the realm of ding. It is 875kg in weight, 133cm in height and 110cm in length. It was cast by Emperor Wen of the Shang Dynasty in memory of his mother. Dou is a small vessel designed specially for storing pickles, minced meat and sauces. Gui is a large bowl-liked food vessel.

Dahe square ding

Yu gui 

        Yan is a steamer. The upper part for holding the food is called zeng while the lower part for holding water is termed ge. Ge is also used for cooking porridge. Dui functions very much like gui. As it’s also used for holding food, it usually comes with a lid. Pan is a water vessel. Bronze pan appeared in the early Shang Dynasty and became popular during the late part of the dynasty. Guo Ji Zi pan is the biggest unearthed thus far. This big pan, San Shi pan and Mao Gong ding are collectively called the ‘Three Major Bronze Vessels of the Western Zhou Dynasty’. Dui is used for storing food made from millet, rice and sorghum.
2.              Wine Vessels
        A Chinese saying says that ‘rituals can’t be carried out without wine.’ Bronze wine vessels are an integral part of ancient China’s ritual vessels. Bronze vessels like jue, gu, zhi, jia and gong can be used for pouring and drinking wine. Bronze vessels for holding wine include mainly zun, you, fang, yi, lei and he. Jue, which appeared in the Xia Dynasty, is China’s earliest bronze ritual vessel. Jue and gu form a simple pair of wine vessels. Heavenly gu and dragon jue are both wine vessels used in the early Western Zhou period. A Chinese idiom reads, ‘One cannot use gu randomly for drinking’, implying that the number of gu one has related to one’s status, integrity and drinking capacity. Only a high-ranking man was entitled to use this type of wine vessel.

Zizheng jue


        Zun and you are both exalted wine vessels. The phrase ‘zun gui’ (honourable/respected) is said to originate from this vessel. The square Zun with four sheep was cast in the late Shang Dynasty. It is the largest zun discovered in China so far. Four sheep facing four dragons are carved on the vessel, a perfect embodiment of the noble spirit possessed by this wine vessel.


3. Musical Instruments
        Many kinds of bronze musical instruments have been unearthed in China. The earliest were bronze bells. Bronze bells with petal patterns were cast in the late Shang Dynasty. The original bell was 12.12cm in height, and its clapper 10.3cm long. Shaped like a trumpet, it has an upper hold, four petals and a clapper hanging inside. Other bronze musical instruments include nao, zheng, bo and chun. Bian zhong or a chime of bells, which prevailed during the Spring and Autumn Period, were a very important type of ancient Chinese musical instruments. Placed on a wooden rack from the smaller to the bigger, these bronze bells are capable of producing clear and penetrating sounds. The best known set of bells was unearthed from the mausoleum of Marquis Yi of Zeng who had them cast about 2,400 years ago. They are the largest chime of bells ever discovered in China, and they can produce a wide range of sounds on a grand scale. They are famed as the ‘King of Bronze Bells’.

4. Weapons
        ‘The major state affairs consist of offering sacrifices to deities and ancestors, and in waging wars.’ Bronze ritual vessels and weapons appeared almost simultaneously in the Xia Dynasty. Bronze weapons include battle-axe, dagger, sword, dagger-axe, lance and halberd.
Dagger-axe: As one of the unique Chinese bronze weapons, it was widely used during the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. It evolved out of farming tools.
Lance: A thrusting weapon that prevailed during the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period.
Halberd: A highly effective weapon made by mounting the danger-axe on the upper end of the lance, it was capable of thrusting and hooking.
Battleaxe: This was the most common weapon used for cutting.
Sword: Often used for defending oneself, and also for stabbing and chopping. During the Han Dynasty, iron swords became popular and took the place of bronze ones.

5. Farming Implements
    Major bronze farming tools are shovels and adzes for reclaiming land.
6. Miscellaneous Bronzes
    Besides the above major categories, there were also other bronze objects for daily domestic use. Bronze mirrors originated from the Qijia Culture which existed in China 4000 years ago. Bronze mirrors made at that time were very rough. By the Warrring States Period and the Western and Eastern Han Dynasties, mirror-making technologies had improved significantly. People also started to cast all kinds of designs and patterns on mirrors. Other daily bronze objects included incense burners, staff heads, bronze coins, combs, figures and facial masks. 

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