The Bronze Age in China began around 2000 BCE, and the earliest excavated ritual bronze vessels date to around 1600 BCE. Found in tombs, these vessels were made for use in rites performed on an ancestral altar or cast specifically for burial with the dead. Only Chinese kings and high-ranking nobility could afford such expensive and labor-intensive artifacts, which required a knowledge of mining, smelting, metallurgy, and casting to execute. From Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) records comprised of some 200,000 inscriptions on bone and turtle shells, we know that Chinese ancestors were propitiated with elaborate rites, feasts, and sacrifices. If ancestors were displeased with the activities of their descendants or the rituals offered to them, they might fail to act on their progeny’s behalf, or even cause their descendants harm. This could come in the form of poor harvests, drought, or famine. The Chinese believed in a complex world of spirits, which comprised a multitude of nature deities, royal ancestors, and others who controlled important earthly phenomena such as weather, harvests, births, deaths, and military campaigns.
Ritual bronzes were often made in sets, some for food and some for liquids. Toward the end of the Shang dynasty many also included short dedicatory inscriptions that became increasingly longer in the subsequent dynasty, the Zhou (1046–256 BCE). Most vessels are decorated with repeating spirals and triangular hooks as well as abstract animal forms or masks (taotie) formed from the same vocabulary of spirals. Identifiable animals such as cicadas and even the occasional human also appear on bronze vessels. Scholars disagree about what these designs may have meant or even if they were meaningful. The patterns are persistent for more than a millennium, which suggests they had meaning even if we cannot identify it.
The Chinese have been collecting and studying ancient Chinese ritual bronzes since the eleventh century, and much of the vocabulary that scholars and collectors developed is still in use today. Each shape has a name. For example, ding means “cauldron,” fangding is “square cauldron,” and liding means “lobed cauldron.” These vessels were used for food and stewing meats. Cylindrical-shaped vessels, such as the jue and zun, held liquids. The Chinese used piece molds rather than lost wax method, particularly in the Shang and early Zhou periods to cast the bronze vessels. The mold is broken to extract the bronze form, so each vessel is unique.
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art
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Stubbs, Judith. "Chinese Bronze Vessels: Elegant, Powerful, and Mysterious" Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/chinese-bronze-vessels.php.