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A Brief History of Chinese Bronzes

December 28, 2011 | Comments: 0 | Views: 151

Chinese bronzes were the pinnacle of ancient Chinese art. They can be divided into a number of categories namely; food containers, wine vessels, water vessels, weapons, tools, musical instruments, coins and seals.

Their history can be broken down into a number of stages:

Xia Dynasty (2100 to 1600 BC)

The first recorded mention of bronze objects in Chinese history comes with in the story of semi-mythical Emperor Yu (c2100 BC) who, after the conquest of the nine provinces, ordered that nine huge bronze cauldrons be cast to commemorate the event. Legend has it that these were eventually lost in the Si River in about 300BC.

The earliest archaeological site where bronze vessels have been found in numbers is at Erlitou. This site dates to around 1800 BC in the Xia Dynasty. These vessels tend to be practical, although some can be fairly complex in design and decoration.

First half of the Shang Dynasty (1600BC to 1300BC)

The archaeological finds from this time are dominated by wine vessels. In terms of style they tend to be heavily decorated and with very frequent use of taotie motifs. They very rarely feature inscriptions and they are generally restricted to comparatively simple shapes and forms.

Second half of the Shang Dynasty and into the early Zhou Dynasty (1300 to 750 BC)

There is now an explosion in the variety of bronzes. While wine vessels remain common now nearly two-thirds of the bronze vessels that have been uncovered are food containers. The variety of the designs also begins to proliferate and more techniques are introduced; in particular those related to inlay and engraving. Inscriptions become more common. The decorations are dominated by images of real and mythical animals and there are complex layers of symbolism loaded onto them.

End of the Zhou and Early Spring and Autumn Period (750 to 500 BC)

It was at this time that there is a marked shift in the design and the animal designs and motifs which had been the hallmark of bronze vessels is now replaced by abstract designs and patterns. Bronzes from this time are especially valuable to the historian as inscriptions are common. The remarkable Sword of Goujian dates from this period.

Late Spring and Autumn and the Warring States (500 to 220 BC)

This period sees bells, such as that seen in the British Museum, come to the fore and is developed into an art form to the extent that the manufacture was consistent enough for them to be used as weights in trade. The lost wax technique of casting is one of the developments which allows for more delicate bronzes. In style they tend to feature less decoration but human and secular images do appear for the first time in this period.

Qin and Han Dynasties (220 BC to 220 AD)

It is around this time that Chinese bronzes fall into a decline as other art forms and technology begins to take its place. Ritual vessels almost disappear as ancestor worship replaces the older forms of god and spirit worship. As bronze items lose their status then there is a decline in the quality as skills are slowly lost.


It is impossible to discuss ancient Chinese bronzes without mentioning taotie. These are images which have a human face and a simplified animal body - often represented by just two claws. To this day the meaning of these symbols are not fully understood but they are very common in bronzes from Xia up to the start of the Zhou Dynasty. They may be a symbolic representation of Chiyou (who was beheaded by the legendary Emperor Huangdi) or it may be a spirit monster:

'the taotie is a beast that eats people. It has the face of a human and the body of an ox, with the eyes in the armpit' Zi Bu Yu (Qing Dynasty)

There is a thought that the body of the taotie is destroyed while in the process of devouring a human. Sadly the few bronzes of this period which feature inscriptions shed no light on the meaning or significance of the taotie.

Peter Geer is a partner of Crazy Dragon Books which specialises in books relating to all aspects of Chinese History and Culture. Please visit Crazy Dragon Books if you would like more information about Chinese Bronzes or books about Chinese Art.

Source: EzineArticles
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