Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Designs on Bronzes by Chen Wang Heng

        The designs of motifs and patterns constitute a principle part of bronze art, for they mirror the spirit of the Bronze Age vividly and comprehensively. The motifs are numerous, but the bronzes of the early Shang and middle and late Western Zhou are dominated by designs of animals, especially imaginary animals, such as the taotie, kui dragon and phoenix, which are regarded as representative of bronze design. Bronze designs are derived and developed from pottery designs, but the two differ in basic aesthetic style. Pottery designs are mostly geometric patterns, but the animal motifs on some pottery are real animals such as fish, birds, frogs, pigs, dogs, deer and geckos.   
Totemic Symbols
        A very salient feature in bronze decoration is the images of weird animals. Among them are the dragon, phoenix and unicorn which are worshipped by the Chinese nation as sacred and auspicious creatures. Why did our ancestors create such images? What are their implications? To answer this question, we have to go back to primitive society. The Bronze Age was the earliest stage of civilization. The image of weird animals are obviously a legacy of primitive society, where they were widely used as totems in the worship of nature. A totem was believed to possess extraordinary power. As such, people feared, worshipped and relied on it. 

The Deified Dragon
        The dragon motif is regarded as the most auspicious and sacred by the Chinese. The image of the dragon appeared long before the Bronze Age. As early as the Neolithic Age, an image resembling a lizard or a gecko came into existence. This was the dragon in its embryonic form. Designs of this form were found on the pottery of Yangshao culture unearthed at Xiping, Wushan, Gansu Province and Miaodigou, Shanxian, Henan Province. It was not until the Bronze Age that the dragon developed into a definite shape.
        There are several dragons on bronzes. The most common one is the crawling dragon pattern (below), in which the creature looks most vivacious, with an open mouth, bulging eyes, claws and an upturned tail.

Crawling dragons

        The kui motif is very similar to the dragon motif. Many scholars regard the kui as a variant of the dragon. Like the dragon motif, the kui motif shows a mythological creature with parts of several animals. Some variants of the kui motif delineate a bird-like head with a curved, pointed bill, a body that is shorter and sturdier than that of the dragon, and feet that are like the hoofs of a beast rather than the talons of an eagle. In short, it looks like a ferocious beast. According to Chinese mythology, the dragon is mainly derived from reptiles, including the snake, lizard and crocodile. Since the snake was the prototype of the dragon, there was a theory in ancient China that the two creatures merged.

Variations of the kui-dragon motif

The Auspicious Phoenix
          The phoenix motif is the most elegant and beautiful of bronze designs. Its embryonic form can be found in the pottery of primitive society, but, like the dragon motif, it was not until the Bronze Age that the phoenix motif was largely finalized. Though the motif continued to be enriched and improved and became more varied after the Zhou Dynasty, its basic form remained the same as that on Shang-Zhou bronzes.
        There are two basic forms of the phoenix motif on Shang bronzes. One is more like the swallow painted on the pottery of primitive society. It has a round head with a streamer-like plume on its back and a hooked bill. Its body and tail are just the same as those of an ordinary bird (Below: Fig 1). The other form has a body resembling that of a snake or beast rather than a bird (Below: Fig 2).

Fig 1: Phoenix crowned with a plume

Fig 2: Weird designs of phoenixes

        Of these two forms, the former has the simple, clear quality of primitive, painted pottery and an archaic naivety. The latter, having been absorbed into Shang-Zhou bronze designs, is a little awe-inspiring, though far from being as mystic and terrorizing as the taotie and kui-dragon motifs. The phoenix motif of the Western Zhou is much more graceful. Its head is crowned with several plumes floating in the air like so many streamers. Its tail feathers are like those of the peacock when they are spread out, showing a beautiful pattern (below).

Phoenix crowned with several plumes

         Like the dragon, the phoenix is a creature of the imagination of ancient people, a mythological bird combining the features of several animals. The phoenix, second only to the dragon in status, served as a totem in remote antiquity. Its origins can be traced to the swallow, which was the totem of the Eastern Yi tribe, one of the three leading tribes in ancient times, the other two being the Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) and Yandi tribes. The Eastern Yi tribe lived mainly in southeastern China, whose agricultural technology was the most advance in the country.
        Because the Shang people were descendents of the Yin tribe, (which mainly inherited the Eastern Yi culture) the image of the phoenix held an important place in Shang culture. And since the rites of the Zhou followed those of the Shang, it was believed that the rise of the Western Zhou had something to do with the phoenix. The image of the phoenix therefore became more prominent and abundant in Western Zhou bronze designs. While the dragon connotes religious dignity and the majesty of royal power, the phoenix is like a goddess bestowing peace, beauty and happiness on humans.

Beautifying through decoration
        Bronze designs served more than religious functions. The elaborate decorations made by artists in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties suggest the pursuit of beauty. In other words, bronze artists created images quite conscientiously in accordance with aesthetic standards.
        The cloud-and-thunder design is abstract and geometric. The cloud design (Below: Fig 1) contains a few cloud-like lines, congregating and scattering. However, the thunder design has nothing to do with thunder at all. Thunder is audible but not visible. Since the thunder design is composed of several curving lines, it is probably the result of comparing the rolling of thunder to the rolling of wheels, yet only a few thunder designs look like wheels (Below: Fig 2). Thunder-and-cloud design, the most basic geometrical design on bronzes, often served as a background design.

Fig 1: Cloud Design


Fig 2: Thunder Design

Composition and Layout
        The sense of rhythm in bronze decoration results from strict composition and layout. The composition of bronze decoration falls into two categories: pictorial and relief. In pictorial composition, each decoration is like a picture, with a strong sense of plane. The composition can be subdivided into four different patterns:

  1. Composition in rows
    One or several patterns used as different units are connected in order to form a strip-like pattern. Fig 1 shows a strip of phoenixes forming a unit. Fig 2 is a variation of this pattern. The alternation of fire and kui-dragon patterns endows the design with a sense of movement and gives a stronger feel of rhythm to the pattern. Patterns in rows are generally used on the neck and ring foot of bronze-ware. As they contain a fairly strong sense of rhythm and regularity, the designs permeate the various complicated decorations on bronze-ware.

Fig 1: Composition in rows

Fig 2: Composition in rows

 B. Symmetrical composition
    This composition must have an axis, which is, in reality, either existent or non-existent and may be part of the motif, such as the bridge of the nose of a taotie motif or the folding rim and ridge of a vessel. The motifs on each side of the axis are similar in configuration but opposing in direction (below). Symmetrical composition attributes its aesthetic effect to the well-balanced designs, arousing a sense of beauty through sedateness, good arrangement and balance.

Symmetrical Composition

  1. Net composition
    This consists of fine and elaborate decoration (below), customarily covering most of the surface of bronze-ware. The commonly used designs are coiled serpents, and thunder and clouds.

Net composition

  1. Loose composition
        This composition run in complete contrast to the above three kinds of composition. The designs are not symmetrical and not arranged around a centre. Its layout is thus, comparatively vivid, such as Fig 1, which depicts a hunting scene. Fig 2 shows scenes of battles on land and in water. Though there is a central axis in this composition, the two sides are not symmetrical.

Loose composition

Loose Composition

        The above four kinds of composition – in rows, symmetrical, net and loose are all on a plane. The other type of composition, relief composition, refers to the sculptures on bronze-ware. Two features of patterns in relief on bronzes of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties are:
  1. Excellent coordination with the shapes of bronze-ware. Ancient Chinese bronze artists were good at decorating bronzes in line with their characteristics. For instance, they carved loop handles and the ear of vessels into images of a snake and a dragon, a lid into the image of a bird or the head of a beast, the column of a jue (a tripod wine vessel) into the shape of an umbrella or a bird. The protruding four corners of a vessel are locations where bronze artists displayed their talents.
  2. Relief décor linked with plane décor, creating an organic unity. For instance, on many bronze-ware, the head of an animal is in relief and its body is flat. The layout of designs on bronze-ware demonstrates the thought put in by the artists. Artists stressed the political and ritual significance of bronze-ware in view of its function and nature. At the same time, they would consider engraving a design in harmony with the shape of the bronze-ware and its contours.
     As for the selection of motif design, most of the ding (cooking vessel) utilizes the taotie design, which makes it sacred and dignified. Gui (food container) have thunder-and-cloud and ripple geometrical patterns. Sometimes, cicada and phoenix patterns were also used. The hu (wine vessel) which was widely used in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods were covered with highly intricate geometrical designs. With the addition of dragon and crane designs in bold relief, the wine vessel appears dazzling and amazing. The application of decorations on Chinese bronze-ware is one of the earliest examples of how humans had, in their adherence to aesthetic principles, transformed patterns from Nature into forms of life.  

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