Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Bronze Age by Chen Wang Heng

Depicted from Chinese Bronzes

        When did China enter the Bronze Age? Most scholars believe it was during her first dynastic rule, the Xia dynasty, which lasted approximately from the 21st to the 16th century BC (some say the Xia dynasty was from the 23rd to the 17th century BC). Both historical writings and archaeological excavations contain evidence of the use of bronze during the Xia dynasty, but historical writings on this subject are relatively new.
        Perhaps the most interesting and noteworthy account is the story of how Great Yu, the first king of the Xia, met with his feudal vassals at Tushan and had a bronze ding (tripod) cast to mark the event. According to legend, after the founding of Xia, King Yu fought against the San Miao, formed an alliance with the Eastern Yi (both San Miao and Eastern yi were minorities), enfeebled feudal lords and greatly expanded his power. To consolidate his rule over the country and portray himself as a supreme ruler, King Yu summoned all feudal lords and clan and tribunal chiefs to a meeting at Tushan while on an inspection trip to the south. At the end of the meeting, he ordered that the tributes which were paid in ‘gold’ (bronze) by his vassals be cast into nine ding to symbolize a united country of nine administrative divisions. Those ding became symbols of Xia’s authority over the country.
        Archaeological discoveries provide more substantial evidence that China’s Bronze Age began in the Xia dynasty. The principal site of ancient Xia culture, as confirmed by experts, was at Erlitou, Yanshi, Henan Province, where many bronze vessels have been unearthed. Naturally, these cannot match the bronzes of early Shang in either quality or quantity. Nonetheless, these Xia bronzes signified the end of the infinitely long Stone Age and the beginning of a new era, serving thus as an imperishable landmark in the history of human evolution.
        The zenith of China’s Bronze Age was in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The infinite variety of bronze objects from these periods, their unusual shapes, complex designs, and mystifying decorative touches have rendered them peerless in the history of world art and culture. However, bronze art continued to develop for many centuries thereafter. The Han dynasty in particular boasted numerous exquisite works in bronze. By the Eastern Han, bronze art was nearing its end, yet some of the finest Chinese bronzes were made during this period. The galloping horse treading on a flying swallow, is an example of an exquisite and ingenious conception of the Eastern Han.
        The Bronze Age was the first phase of Chinese civilization. It witnessed the birth, rise, and decline of China’s slavery society- her first class society – and the transition to the feudal society. It was a period of unprecedented development of productive forces and one in which art truly achieved self-realization and made great progress. Chinese bronze art rivaled Greek sculpture and architecture in beauty and timelessness, but both gloriously heralded the dawning of human civilization.

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