Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Evolution and History

The history of China and its metallurgical advancements in the area of making and appreciating ritualistic Bronzes starting around 2,000 BC is a fascinating one. Over the centuries these powerfully shaped marvels have become a symbol of antiquity and art for the culture.

Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty
Ancient Chinese bronze ware fall into three category's: ritual vessels, weapons, and then miscellaneous objects.

Ritual vessels are genrally those objects employed and used by aristocrats in sacrificial ceremonies or presented before guests. Many are deeply religious and have shamanist uncharacteristic's to them. These include food containers, wine vessels, water pots and a wide range of musical instruments.

Bronze weapons come in many varieties such as the knife, sword, spear, halberd, axe, and dagger. The miscellaneous objects generally are bronze utensils made for daily use.

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In ancient China the casting of bronze ware was predominantly for the imperial families and aristocrats. The ownership of bronzes was looked upon as a status symbol. When compared to bronzes in other parts of the world, the Chinese bronzes distinguished themselves for their inscriptions which are revered as an important reference point in the Chinese history of calligraphy. Understanding the basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, shapes, uses; ancient to Qing Dynasty is only the start, but a crucial one to learning.

Below are listed over 60 of the bronzes held in the collection of the Chinese Government in Mainland China. They are truly among the finest in the world spanning 4,000 years. 

(Check back....we have a lot more to add...)

Images: Basics on Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Forms, Shapes, Uses; Ancient to Qing Dynasty

Chinese bronze Ding Massachusetts collection
Ding is one of the most important types of bronzes used for rituals and cooking meat. It may be three-legged and round or four-legged and rectangular. It may have a lid. In most cases, the rank of the owner can be judged by the number of pieces used. Its size varies from very small to extremely large. Inscriptions engraved on Dings are sometimes very long.
Chinese bronze Hamilton Mass collection
Li is another kind of cooking vessel with pouchlike hollow legs. Like Ding, Li is used to cook food, mostly congee but sometimes meat. Lis are generally round although some are rectangular. Most have no ears. On most occasions Lis are used in pairs.

Chinese Bronze Dui
Close to Gui, Dui is used for cooked cereal. After the middle Spring and Autumn Period, Dui gradually came into use. Their shapes had regional characteristics that varied greatly from the Central Plains to the southern states.
Chinese Bronze Yan
Yan is a type of cooking vessel for steaming. Its belly is composed of two rooms. The upper room is Zeng for food, and the lower one is Li for water. The two rooms connect with each other with a Bizi, a kind of grid. Bizi, linked to the body, lets steam pass and can be turned upwards to clean the inner part of the Li.
Chinese bronze xu
Xu is a type of container for cereal. Sometimes Xu is taken to be a variation of Gui and it has a similar function. Its belly is usually a cuboid with a vertical wall or an ellipsoid with a curvy wall. The use of Xu lasted only for a very short period.
Manchester Mass Chinese Bronze collection Gu
Gui is the most common food vessel. It is a container for cooked food. It appeared in the early Shang Dynasty and gradually became the basic ritual vessel. Usually it is used in pairs with Ding. It has either two or four ears, three or four assorting legs and sometimes a ring foot upon a square stand.
Warring States period bronze collection North SHore of Boston
The Chinese character Dou is a pictograph whose shape comes from the bronze vessel Dou. Dou is used for keeping minced meat or vegetables. Bronze Dous unearthed or retained to the present day are relatively rare. It is probable that people usually used potteries, lacquerwares, bamboo or wooden Dous that were not very durable.

 Wine Vessels

Ancient Chinese Bronze Gu Collection wanted
Jue has a spout at the front like a beak, a tail at the back and three slender legs below the belly. Most Jues have two small pillars on the mouth, but a few have one pillar or none. Until today experts are not able to get a concensus on the difinite function of Jue for drinking or filtering.
Jia neolithic period Boston collection wanted
Jia is an important type of bronze ritual vessel. It has a very long history: a pottery Jia was unearthed at a Longshan Culture site that dates back to the Neolithic Age; a bronze Jia was found at an Erlitou Culture site of the Xia Dynasty; and it was very popular in the early and middle Shang Dynasty. Usually a Jia has a broad mouth and a tubular body which bears a slight resemblance to a Jue. With a handle, two pillars, three legs and four times the capacity of a Jue, Jia is rather big and could not be used for drinking but only for rituals.
Chinese bronze Gu Boston MA
Gu has a simple shape, usually with a broad mouth, a tube-shaped body and a high ring foot. Generally speaking, Gu in the early years is rather plump and only later becomes slender and elegant.
Chinese bronze Zhi
Zhi is a type of goblet for drinking wine. Its body is flat or round, with an open mouth, a deep belly, a ring foot, and sometimes a lid. Zhi came into use only in the late Shang Dynasty. Later, it replaced Gu on some occasions and joined the Jue to form a fixed set. But with the decline of drinking vessels in rituals, Zhi never got a chance to be fully developed.
Boston collection CHinese bronze wine
The earliest Hu we know today dates back to the middle Shang Dynasty and it was still widely used until the Han Dynasty. The basic shape of Hu is round, sometimes flat or rectangular. Most have ring handles or tubular ears on the shoulders through which a cord can be threaded for carrying.
Boston Collection Chinese Western Zhou Bronze
According to historical documents, You is a container for a certain kind of precious wine. It generally has loop handles for carrying. The shapes of You commonly seen are elliptical, tubular, rectangular or more specially, animal-like which could be an owl, a rooster, a pig or a tiger. You gradually disappeared during the middle Western Zhou Dynasty.
Chinese Shang dysnasty Bronze Zun
Zun and You are usually used together and date back as early as the beginning of the Shang Dynasty. Zun is one of the bronzes that existed for a long time until the Warring States Period. It is normally round or square in shape. There also exist animal-like Zuns that could be in the shape as follows: elephant, rhinoceros, ox, goat, tiger, pig, horse, owl, duck or fish.
Shang Dynasty Chinese Lei Bronze
Lei originated from the late Shang Dynasty. Usually it has a lid, a small mouth, a short neck, a round shoulder, a deep belly and vertical or diagonal walls. The stand can be a flat or loop foot. Some have a nose in the lower part of the belly for holding when pouring wine.
Chinese Bronze Western Zhou Dynasty Ling Lei
Ling and Lei both have small mouths and big bellies, and sometimes they are not easily distinguishable from each other. Ling was developed from Lei, and gradually replaced it. Ling came into use in the late Western Zhou Dynasty and passed into oblivion in the Warring States Period.
Boston Collection Shang Bronze
Pou is perhaps only used in the middle and late Shang Dynasty. It has a short neck, a low body, a broad mouth and a ring foot. Some have round shoulders and others flat shoulders. Some Pous have lids and some are decorated with three or four goat heads or heads of other beasts on the shoulder.
Gong Bronze Massachusetts collection
Gong emerged in the late Shang Dynasty. Its body normally is elliptical or rectangular. It has a lid, a spout at the front and a handle at the back. At the base, it has a square stand or several legs. Some Gongs are elaborately decorated, mostly with lively animal designs.
Chinese Shang Bronze Square Yi
Square Yi was popular from the middle Shang Dynasty through the early Western Zhou Dynasty. The distinct characteristic of Square Yi is that its lid and sometimes its knob is cast in the form of the roof of a house. It has a rectangular belly and loop foot.

Water Vessels

new England Collection Western Zhou Bronze Pan
Pan is a type of water container. Research shows that, around the middle Western Zhou Dynasty, Pan is originally coupled with a He. In the Shang and early Zhou dynasties Pan generally has no ears. After the middle Western Zhou Dynasty Pan has beast-like ears or attached ears. Attached under the ring foot are feet in the form of beast legs or people supporting the Pan.

Shang Dynasty Bronze
He appeared as early as in the early Shang Dynasty. It was popular in the late Shang and early Western Zhou dynasties. A round mouth and a deep belly are commonly seen in the He. Pan and He always accompany each other in ceremonial ablutions. He is also used as a container for water to dilute wine.
Yi Bronze
Yi's body is like half of a gourd, having an open sprout, a handle and a ring foot, all of which help to pour the water. In ancient times, while offering sacrifices to ancestors or entertaining guests, people were expected to wash their hands in these water containers to show their respect.
Chinese Bronze Jian
Jian is a large basin with two or four ears. When filled with clear water, Jian can be used as a mirror. So the Chinese character Jian has the same meaning as Jing (literally, mirror) in ancient times. People can also put ice into the Jian for cooling wine. A big Jian can be used for bathing.

Weapons and Other Items

Han Dynasty Bronze Sword
Sword originated from nomadic tribes in the north. As early as the first period of the Western Zhou Dynasty, its form attained maturity and became popular over a large area. Usually a sword was in the shape of a willow leaf accompanied by a sheath. The bronze sword disappeared when the iron sword came into use during the Han Dynasty.
Chinese Bronze Yue Axe Blade
Yue is a long-stock and arc-blade weapon for chopping and killing as well as an instrument of torture. The blades of large Yues were capable of cutting a man in half at the waist. They were also commonly carried by guards of honor during rituals as it normally symbolized rulers' political authority or military power.
Chinese Bronze Zhong
Zhong is the most widely used bronze percussion instrument. Its form was developed from Nao and was hung on a wooden hanger, at least three in a set, with mouth facing downwards. It can produce a sound clearer than Nao. It appeared in the early Western Zhou Dynasty and fully developed after the late Western Zhou Dynasty. Through the years, the number of bells in a Bian Zhong (a chime of bells) gradually increased and allowed more complicated tunes.

Chinese Bronze nao
Nao is a kind of bronze percussion instrument appearing early in ancient China. It usually has a flat bottom, a concave mouth and a short hollow handle. While playing, people hold it and strike it with a wooden mallet in hand or set it on a wooden stand with its mouth facing upwards. Nao could be used singly or in a set of several pieces. Typically three pieces can constitute a set. Sets of five and nine pieces have also been discovered before.
Chinese Bronze Drum

The bronze drum is not covered with skin but made entirely of hollowed bronze, and it is the most popular instrument among the ethnic minorities in the south and southwest of China. Its beginning may be traced to be bronze cauldron, a cooking utensil in ancient times.

It was used in its time as a sacrificial vessel at offerings and rituals, or as a percussion instrument to give the signals to summon the people of the tribe. In battles it was struck to direct the fighting. For this reason, it was in the possession of the clan headman or tribal chief as a symbol of ruling power. With the decline of chieftain dominance, the bronze drum usually fell into the hands of powerful or rich families.

Today the drum is still a favourite instrument with the Zhuang, Buyi, Dai, Dong, Miao and Yao minorities of China. At festival celebrations or other important activities such as a horse race or a singing competition, the drum is usually played to add to the fun.

Up to now, a total of 1,300 bronze drums have been collected and unearthed in China, which are displayed in museums at various places. By far the richest collection of them is at the Museum of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in Nanning, which has a special pavilion devoted to them.

The oldest bronze drum unearthed so far dates from the Warring States Period more than 2,600 years ago.

The average size of the drums of this type is about one metre in diameter, and most of them are decorated on the surface with cloud and thunder patterns, characteristic of ethnic arts.

The biggest bronze drum unearthed up to the time of writing saw the light in 1972 in Beiliu, Guangxi. It has a diameter of 1.65 metres, a height of 37.5 centimetres and a weight of 300 kilograms, and is now exhibited in Nanning Museum.
Western Han bronze Pillow
Using a pillow to support the head when sleeping began no later than the Western Zhou Dynasty in the Central Plain area. But bronze or stone pillows used as grave objects appeared only in the Western Han Dynasty. According to archaeological findings, more bronze pillows were excavated on the site of the Dian Culture, Yunnan Province, than the Central Plain area.
Cowrie Bronze
The cowrie container is a unique type of bronze of the Dian Culture. It is designed for keeping cowries, so it is perhaps a symbol of wealth and social status. Usually it is shaped in a tube with a lid or is transformed from a drum. For both types, the waist and the lid are all decorated with lively designs of human activities and animal figures.

Chinese bronze wares, which are also called bronzes for short, mainly refer to the utensils and vessels alloyed from the red bronze and some other chemical elements such as tin, nickel, lead, phosphorus, etc during Pre-Qin Period (Dynasties before 221BC). From the time when bronze wares were invented, they became very popular in ancient China and there came a brand new age---the Bronze Age in the history of China.

The Chinese people used rare and precious bronze to cast large quantities of ritual vessels, musical instruments, and weapons that were elegant in form, finely decorated, and clearly inscribed with Chinese characters. They affirm the artistic achievement of ancient China, and demonstrate how early Chinese used their ingenuity to create works incorporating both science and art from resources in nature.

The Beginning of Bronze Casting in China

Bronzes were quite popular from the late Neolithic Age (10,000 years ago) to the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-220AD), during which the bronze wares made in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (from 17th century BC to 3rd century BC) were extraordinarily well known for their exquisite qualities and beautiful designs. The earliest bronze wares were mainly small tools and ornaments. In the Xia Dynasty (Between 21th century BC and 17th century BC), bronze vessels and bronze weapons were invented.

Then during the mid-term of the Shang Dynasty (from 17th century BC to 11th century BC) there were relatively much more kinds of bronze wares, and inscriptions and delicate decorative patterns were carved onto the bronzes. From the late Shang Dynasty to the early Zhou Dynasty, it was heyday of the development of bronzes. There were various kinds of bronzes which were more colorful and solemn, with gradually more and more inscriptions, and complicated and beautiful decorative patterns. At that time, bronze wares could be used as ritual utensils exclusively by the aristocratic classes.

Later the main parts of the bronzes were made thinner and thinner, and the decorative patterns were gradually made simpler and simpler. From late Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period (476BC-221BC), as a result of the widely use of iron wares, there were fewer and fewer bronze wares used in people's life. Then in the Qin and Han Dynasties, porcelains and lacquer wares were invented and widely used in the daily life, therefore there were much fewer kinds of bronze wares, which at that time were also designed to be much simpler and thinner.

Characteristics of Chinese Bronzes and Discovery

First of all, they are very large in quantity and rich in categories. Nobody is able to tell how many pieces of bronze wares there are nowadays in China. According to statistics made by some experts, of all the bronzes wares excavated from Han Dynasty till now, just those with inscriptions could be numbered as large as above ten thousand in quantity. And there are also much more bronzes without inscriptions which have been excavated in China. In addition of the large quantities of the Chinese bronze wares, there are also abundant kinds of them. For example, there are drinking vessels, water vessels, food vessels, bronze weapons, sacrificial vessels, bronze utensils used in carriages, agricultural tools, working instruments, and many other bronze tools used in daily life. All the bronze wares have been made in vivid designs and colorful appearances, as a result visitors are always amazed and shocked when seeing them. What's more, as a result of large quantities and various kinds, it becomes much more difficult for experts to identify the detailed information about each of them. This is a very special characteristic of the Chinese bronze wares.

Secondly, the Chinese bronze wares which have been excavated are widely distributed all over the country and they are all in very good quality. The central parts of China have the largest and densest distributions of bronze wares in the country, however, in other parts of China including the northeast, northwest , Sichuan Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Tibet and even the small islands on the East China Sea, large quantities of bronze wares have been widely discovered and excavated. Different designs and art styles could be reflected from the various kinds of bronze ware excavated. The most prominent ones are those excavated from the tombs of the Shang Dynasty kings and aristocrats, with elegant and splendid quality and large quantity. The Simuwu Ding is one famous bronze work from the Shang Dynasty, and it is very big and heavy, with imposing designs, exquisite patterns, and excellent techniques. And it is also the biggest piece of bronze ware ever found in the world. King Wuding of the Shang Dynasty had his men make it as sacrifice to worship his mother.

Thirdly, the most prominent characteristic of the Chinese bronze wares is that inscriptions have been widely found on the bronzes. Most of the bronze wares ever excavated in other parts of the world have no inscriptions, and only a few of them excavated in India have been found with inscriptions. However, of all the bronze wares with inscriptions which have been excavated in the world, those from China have been made with relatively more characters. For example, there are as many as 497 Chinese characters on Maogongding, which was made in the Zhou Dynasty and now is placed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. All the inscriptions are rich in various writing styles, with great calligraphic values, and they are the most difficult and mysterious parts when experts identify the Chinese bronze wares.

Fourthly, the Chinese bronze wares dominated by bronze vessels have a very unique and special status in the bronze culture of the world. The ancient Chinese people have made a lot of bronze vessels with very complicated techniques and various patterns. Of all the bronze vessels, Ding was the most important kind and it played a very special role in the political life of the country in ancient times. As the Ding was always made with various designs and styles which could reflect different meanings and politics was also involved inside, experts nowadays always show great interest in the mysteries and riddles about the Ding. Moreover, the bronze culture in Europe is represented by bronze weapons, while the Chinese bronze culture is represented by bronze vessels, there comes the question whether the former is always aggressive while the latter is very conservative. Well, who knows!

Bronze Production Today in China

In the Republic of China today, the beauty of traditional bronze art is still to be found in incense burners and sacrificial vessels in temples, in statues on display in schools, or in decorative pieces in homes; all have been influenced by the art of China's ancient bronzes. Free application of traditional bronze designs has become an indispensable element of modern architecture, apparel, and furniture design. This is one way that the brilliance and artistry of the early Chinese continue their everlasting shine into the lives of Chinese today and of the future.

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