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Ancient Chinese ritual bronzes: the evidence from tombs and hoards of the Shang (c. 1500-1050 BC) and Western Zhou (c. 1050-771 BC) periods.

The great cast bronzes of China are today deservedly celebrated for their splendour and sheer size. By looking behind that surface impression, and into the characters of their find-contexts, one can -- as for any class of artefact -- see behind what they are for us towards what they were in their own time.


Cast bronze vessels were used in ancient China to hold food and wine at the ceremonial banquets, sometimes called sacrifices, offered to the ancestors. These bronzes have been collected and treasured over the last 500 years or more, first of course in China and then in the West. They are highly valued today. Were they also valued in their own day? Is it possible for us to assess what made certain vessels particularly valuable?

There are a number of straightforward reasons for thinking that the bronze vessels were among the most highly prized objects in the Shang and Western Zhou periods, about 1500-771 BC. In the first place they used up large quantities of bronze, the material essential for effective weapons. Cast vessels are extravagant, requiring more metal than the beaten vases and cauldrons of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean (Bagley 1987: 16-17). Ritual vessels were also made in large numbers. At any one time groups of vessels were employed in the ritual banquets. The components of these groups recur in different burials and will therefore be termed sets. However, the set has to be understood as flexible, varying slightly as the occasion demanded. A typical set of the Anyang period belonging to a Shang noble, c. 1200 BC, comprised 20 or more different vessel shapes; the tomb of a consort of the Shang king Wu Ding, the Lady Fu Hao, contained over 200 pieces (Beijing 1980a). Indeed, many thousands of ritual bronzes still survive today. Willingness to employ such large quantities of an essential material suggests that the vessels themselves were valuable. The ritual vessels could have been made of ceramic. Ceramics were widely available and were employed for ceremonial vessels before the invention of bronze. With the advent of bronze at first only a few members of the ritual vessel set were made of metal: over several centuries ever more ritual vessels were made in the much more durable material.

To the value of the material can be added that of the labour used in casting. Chinese bronze castings were made by a complex system of piece moulds rather than by the lost-wax process. A highly developed ceramic technology was involved; workshops were probably large, and the stages of work subdivided between many artisans. This work force, in making so many items, was producing bronzes to the orders of a complex society. Vessels were made in many different but distinctive and standardized shapes; they were made in different sizes and with different degrees of decoration, ranging from plain and undecorated to the dense intricate patterns, as shown in FIGURE 1. It is likely that the largest and most highly decorated were the most highly esteemed, owned by the highest-ranking in society.

Bronzes, and probably also jades, were among the first materials to be allocated to the aristocracy according to some notion of status and rank. Conspicuous in inscriptions of c. 1000 BC, which record gifts from the Zhou king to his nobles, are jades, weapons, chariot fittings -- and bronze as a raw material from which vessels were cast. Here seem to be the beginnings of the control of valuable items by the king, who would distribute them to nobles as he deemed fit. Treatises on ritual of the 1st century bc articulate the view that particular degrees of elaboration of ritual or court items -- including dress, chariots and jades -- were restricted to particular ranks (Chavannes 1967). Explicit links between dress and other ceremonial items and rank were to remain essential features of the Chinese official system down to 1911. It is likely that early manifestations of the practices are to be found in the Shang and Zhou periods. The inscriptions cast in some, though by no means all, bronzes give another dimension to their value. Texts, even quite brief ones, state firmly that the bronzes were to be treasured for ever (Hayashi 1993). The first characters, inscribed in ritual bronzes of the Shang period c. 1200 BC, simply record names. In the succeeding Western Zhou period, c. 1050-771 BC, the formula became current that the vessels were made so that they should be used and treasured for ever by the descendants of the person who commissioned them. In this explicit statement, the bronzes were valued for their continued use in banquets that would show respect to and indeed support the dead.

Bronzes have survived in great numbers, not because they continued to be used in the ancestral rites, but because they were sometimes carefully buried. Bronzes are found in two different circumstances: in tombs and in hoards. The majority have come from burials, where I assume they were interred so that the tomb occupant could continue after death, as in life, to offer ceremonial banquets to his ancestors. The hoards are more unusual. The largest were buried in 771 BC, when the Zhou had to flee from their capital at Xi'an in the face of invaders from the west.

These varied sites, the tombs of individuals of different ranks and the hoards, give several glimpses of the juxtapositions of bronzes one to another. Differences between the groups makes it possible to see which features of the bronzes were important in particular circumstances.

Shang bronzes

The majority of the discussion concerns the Western Zhou, because it is from that period that both hoards and tombs are available. But as the Zhou took over the practice of casting vessels from the Shang, some aspects of Shang bronzes will here be outlined.

Shang casters and their patrons seem consistently to have given emphasis to decoration. The simple, sparsely decorated bronzes of the first stages of bronze casting were followed by vessels with decoration that covered ever greater areas. This chronological progression suggests that a dense covering of a vessel surface was desired. At the height of the Anyang stage of the Shang period (see MAP, p. 823, which is common to this paper and Lu Liancheng's), the time of Fu Hao, c. 1200 BC, it seems that large numbers, very large dimensions and dense decoration were all features of the vessel sets of the highest-ranking elite. The correlation of dense decoration with large size and large numbers seems to indicate that it was similarly esteemed and similarly impressive. This is illustrated by a comparison between the contents of Fu Hao's tomb and that of a contemporary but lesser member of the elite, whose tomb has been given the number 18 (Kaogu xuebao 1981). Fu Hao had over 200 ritual vessels, many more than 60 cm in height and many elaborately decorated; Tomb 18 held only 24 ritual bronzes, of which many were less than half the height of the equivalent types in the tomb of the king's consort. A yet smaller tomb, Tomb 198 at Anyang held only three vessels, of which two were undecorated (Kaogu xuebao 1979). FIGURE 3 shows vessels of the same generic type from the three tombs. The vessel on the left belonging to Fu Hao dominates by its size and by its complex ornament. In the middle are two pieces from Tomb 18, and the smallest plain piece on the right is from Tomb 198.

This simple view, that the largest and most elaborate vessels belonged to the highest ranking, explains only some of the diversity of bronze vessels. Within any vessel set, there is considerable variety. The largest bronzes with the most elaborate decoration -- the most visually striking of all -- are often unparalleled in other tombs. These non-standard items are differentiated from the run of the mill by their appearance.

A pair of large wine vessels from Fu Hao's tomb in the shape of birds makes the point. They are large pieces, 45.9 cm high and weigh over 16 kg. (Some of the most unusual pieces in Fu Hao's tomb weigh over 70 kg.) The birds stand out for their unusual and, it must be said, conspicuous shapes. No others have been found. The realistic forms and multitude of other creatures, especially the small dragons on the backs of the heads, suggest that they may have been deliberately exotic, referring to decoration typical of southern China (Rawson 1992). Only the very highest members of the Shang elite seem to have owned such exotic items.

The wine vessel already mentioned is more standard, but still imposing for its size. Other pieces are, however, no more imposing than those in Tomb 18; the gu, for example. There are a very large number, over 50, as opposed to the five in Tomb 18, but they are all similar in size and in decoration. Three quite different criteria would appear to have guided the choice of decoration on these three categories of bronze: exuberant and exotic large items; large standard pieces typical of Fu Hao's status, but not of lower levels of society; and standard pieces common to several ranks of tomb occupants, but found in greater numbers in the high-ranking burial.

Finally, there is a fourth level of bronze design, which at first sight seems minimalist, even drab. A few of Fu Hao's bronzes are either undecorated or carry only narrow borders of design. Such bronzes are by and large in ceramic shapes; in lesser tombs they would have been made in ceramic (Beijing 1980a: plates 41:2, 41:3, 63:1). If one had been found in isolation, it would have appeared to have been a relatively poor-quality piece belonging to a lower level of Shang society. In their proper context, such bronzes are further evidence of the high standing of Fu Hao, for contemporaries would probably have recognized them as forms usually found in ceramic, but here transformed and enriched by being turned into metal. The visual appearances of bronzes can only be fully assessed in the light of their contexts.

A correlation between size, degree of decoration find status seems to apply to much of the Shang and the early part of the Western Zhou. A dramatic change in ritual vessel sets came in the late 10th or early 9th century, which I have elsewhere termed a ritual revolution (Rawson 1990: 93-110). An aspect of that revolution was the choice of simple rather than complex decoration. Large size remained a feature of bronzes belonging to members of the high elite.


At the end of the Shang and during the whole of the Western Zhou, inscriptions on the bronzes also contributed to an indication of status. As mentioned, the first Shang inscriptions consist simply of a name. By the end of the Shang, a few inscriptions record gifts to the owners of the bronzes and locate these gifts in time by reference to particular events (Bagley 1987: 520-23). Some long Western Zhou inscriptions describe in detail honours or gifts awarded by the king to his nobles and officials as recognition or reward (Shaughnessy 1991). As some inscriptions say the bronzes were cast to extol the king's beneficence in honouring the noble, and for this purpose record the events, the gifts and the ceremonies at which the gifts were made, they become explicit statements of increased status. Throughout the Western Zhou, and especially following the ritual revolution, inscriptions were increasingly important, while the use of decoration declined. Where, in the Shang, form and decoration announced status, for much of the Western Zhou and especially the late Western Zhou, this role was also sustained by inscriptions.

Western Zhou tombs and hoards, a comparison

The basic elements that were likely to be important to the owners of ritual bronzes now having been defined, it is useful to compare the contents of tombs and hoards. Two Western Zhou tombs and two hoards will be considered.

The tombs are Tomb 7 at Baoji Zhuyuangou in western Shaanxi (Lu Liancheng & Hu Zhisheng 1988) and Fufeng Qiangjia nearer Xi'an (Wenbo 1987b). The first, dating from the 10th century bc, is of a lord of a petty state to the west of the main Zhou territory, while the second is nearer to the centres of Zhou power. Dating from about the 9th century bc, it contains vessels of types belonging to the new range of forms that went with the changes in ritual.

In Tomb 7 at Baoji, a burial of a male accompanied by a female, most of the ritual vessels for the main occupant are set out at the head of the inner coffin and stand around a tray or stand in lacquered wood. Two wine cups, gu, lie on the coffin. The four vessels for the female are to the side of her coffin. The principal vessels in the main set are three food tripods, ding, and two food basins, gui. These five vessels are varied in decoration, although the two gui form a pair. Their inscriptions give several different names or titles, suggesting that they may have been gathered together from different sources (Lu Liancheng & Hu Zhisheng 1988: 92-113, 414). The most elaborate vessels are a matching group of two wine buckets, you, and a flask, zun, shown in the third row of FIGURE 7. From their decoration it would seem that these are the most unusual pieces in the set. Although not as rare in design as the bird-shaped flask in Fu Hao's tomb, these three bronzes are the most individual in the group, and the only ones to carry the name likely to have been the one used by the owner of the tomb in life. Alone among the bronzes, they may have been personally commissioned by the owner of the tomb. There is another wine vessel of the type zun, but this is a much older form, with a sharp shoulder, and its decoration is also archaic. The piece was, perhaps, made for a member of a much earlier generation, buried on this occasion for its family associations. The female also has an antiquity among her bronzes, a more modest undecorated example, of the wine bucket or you type (Lu Liancheng & Hu Zhisheng 1988: figure 89). The other vessels in the female's group are all very simple pieces. A short hierarchy is immediately evident: the bronzes belonging to the man are more elaborate in shape and decoration and significantly more numerous than those of the female. In addition, as with the Fu Hao tomb and probably many others, the decoration and shapes of the bronzes in the main set suggest a difference in appreciation, if not in value, between pieces. The tomb was also equipped with a set of three bells, weapons, tools, chariot parts and jades. The later tomb at Qiangjia was similarly equipped, its 18 vessels arranged as if for use, at the head of the coffin, ordered in neat rows. To the left are three tripods of the type ding and next to them four of the type li, while to the right are a set of four identical basins, gui, and large wine flasks, hu. While the visual effect of the set from the tomb at Baoji comes from variety, here the impact is the result of standardization, with identical items rather than diversity catching the eye. The four almost identical lidded basins with horizontal grooves, gui, in the third row of FIGURE 9, are of the new form, introduced with the ritual changes; there is also a gui of a rather earlier type, left over as it were from the previous period. It has two handles, an undecorated body and no lid. As with the antiquities in the Baoji tomb, its appearance is not particularly remarkable. It may have been available to make up the required number of items, and perhaps had some association. While in the Baoji tomb the most prized vessels were probably those with the most elaborate decoration, in the Qiangjia tomb the most valued were probably those with relatively long inscriptions. Two of the four almost identical gui carry quite long inscriptions recording a ceremony at which a gift of cowries was received (Wenbo 1987b: 9-10). Cowries were a form of exchangeable wealth and the gift made possible the casting of the bronze. As in the Baoji tomb, weapons, jades and lacquer items accompanied the ritual bronzes.

These two tombs offer the following evidence of bronze vessel use. At the two different periods, there were different prescriptions for numbers and types of bronzes (Rawson 1990: 96-110). Bronzes contemporary with the tomb occupant were generally used. Distinctions between the vessel types at the Baoji tomb are revealed by decoration and inscriptions. Where two or more contemporary burials are known, as in the case of the lord of the Yu state and his accompanying female, there is a clear hierarchy of value between the vessels supplied for individuals, which follows their social standing. Both tombs show the re-use of vessels older than the main group; the older pieces are standard unexceptional pieces, without very significant inscriptions. Vessels in both tombs include some inscribed examples, but most of the inscriptions are short. In addition, both tombs contain many other items necessary to their occupants after death, including weapons, chariot fittings and jade ornaments. Hoards show a very different situation. The majority come from the area known as the Zhouyuan, at the junction of two present-day counties, Fufeng and Qishan. The Zhou seem to have maintained a ritual centre here quite distinct from their capital near Xi'an. When they fled eastward in 771 bc to Luoyang in the face of invaders from the west, they buried their ritual bronzes in pits, hoping no doubt to return and retrieve them at a later date. They never did. Over several hundred years, rich finds have come to light, as farmers have dug to level steeply terraced or eroded land (Kaogu 1982; Wenwu 1979; Wu Zhenfeng 1988). The single largest hoard found in recent years is a group of 103 ritual bronzes found at Fufeng Zhuangbai in 1976. The numbers involved alone show how very different this hoard is from the Baoji find, with its two groups of 12 and four vessels and three bells and from the Qiangjia tomb with 18 vessels. There are no weapons, tools, chariot parts or jades in the hoard.

The method of burial was also and understandably quite different. The hoard was set in a pit, with the bronzes stacked one on top of another (Beijing 1992). Three drawings show how the bronzes were placed, in an arrangement that suggests storing away with care. At the bottom were some of the largest vessels, including basins, two deep and one shallow. Four large flasks stood at the corners. In the centre were massive bells: the hoard contained 21 in all, with the largest ones at the bottom (there were also seven small bells). In quite a number of cases, smaller items are stacked inside larger ones; small bells inside bigger ones, small tripods, li, inside larger food basins, gui. Although the Zhou must have been in very great danger or they would not have left such a revered area, they evidently had time to plan and hide their bronzes away. This hoard, one of more than 60 excavated over the last 20 years, shows the inhabitants of the area acting consistently and perhaps in concert. Indeed, where the archaeologists have published plans of the ways in which the hoards were disposed in the ground, they all show the same compact groups packed into small spaces comparatively neatly, with vessels resting one inside another (Beijing 1965: 12-15).

Inscribed bronzes are an essential element of this and many other hoards. In this case a large inscribed water basin pan identifies the owners of the vessels as belonging to four or more generations of the same family (Beijing 1992: 167-83). The inscription gives an account of the history of the Zhou up to the time of the casting of the basin and a history of the family. With 284 characters, it is one of the longest and most interesting inscriptions on an ancient bronze. On the basis of the inscriptions in the pan and many of the other bronzes, this remarkable hoard can be divided into two main sections: the vessels that seem to have been in active use at the time of flight to the east, and much more ancient vessels, that had been retained above ground by the family. The late vessels, belonging to one Wei Bo Xing, comprise a set of eight identical gui which were probably originally accompanied by nine ding. The absence of the ding is very pointed. Perhaps, too large to fit into this pit, they were put in another one, or perhaps they were taken eastward as the family fled. A few small tripods remain, as do a number of other bronzes, including four massive wine flasks, hu, and the bells. This appears to be the majority of a working set of ritual vessels and bells, but unlike a set in a tomb it is conspicuously not intact.

The other bronzes do not make up the missing portions. They are mainly of an earlier date, types that had gone out of use during the ritual revolution. FIGURE 11 arranges some of them by generation. All the vessels are inscribed. The vessels in the two first rows are in addition exceptionally elaborate in shape and decoration. The family had preserved, until the moment they had to flee, the most elaborate and beautifully made vessels and those with inscriptions recording the generations of the family. Such elaborate bronzes have not generally been found in tombs. Among recently excavated tombs, only that of Fu Hao can boast bronzes of such technical and aesthetic quality.

Other hoards illustrate similar practices. A hoard from Lintong near Xi'an contained one of the most famous of all early Zhou inscribed bronzes, the Li gui: its inscription mentions the defeat of the Shang (Wenwu 1977). Almost all the other bronzes in the hoard were late. This hoard, unlike most others, contained a few weapons, chariot fittings and tools. In the main, however, the Zhou probably took these utilitarian bronzes with them in flight or simply abandoned them.

A similar balance of vessels is found in a hoard from Qishan Dongjiacun, again in the Zhouyuan (Wenwu 1976). This more modest hoard contained 37 vessels, almost all of them inscribed, again at complete variance with the practice in tombs. Among them were three bronzes earlier than the rest, all with long inscriptions, presumably preserved because they were important family documents. These inscriptions are highly unusual, describing land transactions between two families that did not involve the king (Ma Chengyuan 1986: 128-30). The inscriptions may even have been the essential records that transfers had taken place. One of the later bronzes also contained a similar extensive and legally important inscription.

A special type of hoard seems to be that in which the principal item is a very large tripod, ding, or basin, gui. These large bronzes are often found alone or with only one or two others, and often contain very long inscriptions, made possible by the large surfaces inside them (Wenwu 1975). Large ding, not found in any Western Zhou burial, may have been communal vessels, shared by several members of a family, and too valuable to consign to a particular tomb. Discussion

We can draw conclusions from the patterns in tombs and hoards. The ritual vessels in a tomb, restricted in number and type, may represent the minimum number appropriate to a set for a particular social status: the male in Tomb 7 at Baoji was given 12, while the female had only four. A hoard contains more variety, displaying the interests of the family and especially their individually important inscribed bronzes.

The most exceptional vessels -- by size, by decoration, and by inscription -- appear in hoards, not tombs. And these exceptional bronzes in hoards are likely to be earlier than the rest. Tombs may also contain older bronzes, but these earlier pieces are generally inferior to the main tomb-set. Full bell-sets are found in hoards (Wenbo 1987a), but the most a tomb seems to have contained are three or five.

If attention is confined to individual bronzes, we get no picture of the range of interests that the bronzes represented for their owners. Tombs on their own contain also a rather restricted sample. A tomb of a king's consort, such as Fu Hao, seems to have been an exception, her rank making it imperative not to stint in the burial. Thus the hoards supply a much-needed corrective, giving us a picture of what appear to have been the most highly valued bronzes. Hoard evidence suggests that the bronzes in any family temple at any one time included a set for current use together with earlier pieces of especial value to the family. Meantime the other less important earlier bronzes were buried in tombs. Tombs might include bronzes that had some specific and perhaps personal connotations. Fu Hao's tomb contained many such pieces, while tomb 7 at Baoji held the set of the zun and two you which may have been prized personal possessions.

This discussion of bronzes of the Shang and Zhou periods suggests the usefulness of comparing the finds from two or more types of site. The regularities and differences make possible tentative suggestions about which bronzes were particularly important in the different contexts. It is likely that similar work on groups of items rather than on single pieces would be fruitful in a discussion of the high-quality metalwork and other materials employed by the elite in later periods of Chinese history.


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Date:Dec 1, 1993
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