Chinese started to cast bronze wares about 5,000 years ago. However, bronze vessels were commonly used till the Shang and Zhou dynasties by aristocrats in daily life and ancestral rituals. Thus, the Shang and Zhou bronze vessels were the most highly esteemed objects of their time.
The ancients believed that their deceased ancestors would intercede on behalf of the living, provided they were honored and respected. The bronze vessels were kept in ancestral halls and used during a variety of feasts and banquets.
Most bronze vessels were used for cooking food or to heat a millet wine. However, certain huge vessels usually symbolized power and status. For example, Ding, a tripod caldron, some having 4 legs, was originally cooking vessel and ritual vessel inscribed with memorial address, and gradually transferred into a symbol of state and power.
Owing to their importance, bronze wares exemplified the most advanced technical and artistic developments. Early bronze vessels, including Jue (wine goblet), Zhi (wine goblet), Zun (wine beaker) and Ku (wine goblet beaker) except Ding, were the most advanced developments in shape and decoration up to that point in world history.
In 1976, at Anyang in Henan province, capital of the Shang dynasty, archaeologists uncovered a Shang tomb, the burying chamber of Fuhao who was Emperor Wuding's consort and a female general who leaded troops and helped her husband in wars. The tomb was the only Shang imperial tomb found intact. Many bronze vessels were found, including those she used before and those specially cast as her burial vessels.
Many famous Shang bronze vessels currently displayed around the world are all the legacy of Fuhao's grave. Most of the Shang vessels are shaped into animals and decorated with motifs of Taotie, a kind of legendary vicious beast and other zoomorphic designs.
The Bronze Tripod or Cauldron
The bronze ding, a cooking utensil in remote times, was used like a cauldron for boiling fish and meat. At first, about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the ding was made of fired clay,usually with three legs, occasionally with four that is why it is loosely referred to as "tripod" in English. It stands steadily and has a nice shape.
With the advent of the slavery system, China entered the bronze age, and the earthern ding was gradually replaced by the bronze one. In time, it assumed the role of an important sacrificial vessel used by the slave-owning aristocrats at ceremonies of worship.
Leading among the bronze ding that have been discovered to date, and by far the largest, is the "Si Mu Wu" ding which dates to the late Shang Dynasty (c.17th to 11th Century B.C.). Weighing 875 kilograms, it is 133 centimeters high and rectangular in shape, standing on four legs. It was made for the King of Shang to offer sacrifices to his dead mother Wu. Exquisitely cast, it is considered a rare masterpiece of the bronze culture the world over. The ding of this historical period have a unique shape and are often decorated with patterns of animal masks and other distinctive features characteristic of animal masks and other distinctive features characteristic of the period. They are important material objects for the study of the ancient society concerned. Towards the end of the slave society, the ding became a vessel which, by its size and numbers, indicated the power and status of its aristocrat owner. At rites, the status of its aristocrat owner. At rites, the emperor used a series of 9 ding, the dukes and barons 7, senior officials 5, and scholarly gentlemen 3. From the number of ding yielded by an ancient tomb, one can tell the status of its dead occupant.
Today visitors to palaces, imperial gardens and temples of the Ming and Qing courts can still see beautiful arrays of bronze tripods which were, in their time, both decorations and status symbols. In the periods when Buddhism was the predominant faith in the country, the ding was also used as a religious incense-burner. Such burners, made of bronze, iron or stone in various sizes, can still be seen in many old temples. In Yonghegong, the famous Beijing lamasery, there is a large bronze ding with an overall heigh of 4.2 meters, cast with the inscription "made in the 12th year of Qianlong(1747). It was in this ding that Qing Emperors, which they went to the temple for worship, were believed to have offered bundles of burning joss sticks.
Bronze tripods and cauldrons have always fascinated people with their heirachical associations and their simple but stately forms. So there has always been a thriving craft devoted to the making of copies or imitations of them. Normally they are miniatures for table-top decoration often made of other materials such as jade, agate, lacquer and so on. They represent an important branch of Chinese arts and crafts.
Musical Bells and Chime Stones
These are percussion musical instruments unique to ancient China. The zhong are made of bronze while the qing generally of stone. They may be played either individually or in groups. In the latter case, they are hung in rows on wooden racks and known respectively as bianzhong and bianqing. Struck with wooden hammers, they produce melodious sounds of various notes. In their time, they were the important instruments played-either in solo performance or in ensemble or as accompaniment-during imperial audiences, palace banquets and religious ceremonies.
1. Stone and Jade Qing
It can be easily imagined that the stone qing must have been one of the earliest musical instruments in China. During the Stone Age, the Chinese forefathers, working with stone implements, founds out that certain sonorous rocks, when knocked, produced musical sounds and that, by knocking at rocks of different sizes, they could make music. So the earliest sizes, they could make music. So the earliest man-made chime stones were born out of those natural rocks. In 1973 a Shang Dynasty(c.17th-11th century B.C.) chime stone was discovered from the ruins of that age in Anyang, Henan province. It is grey-coloured and has tiger patterns engraved on it, showing that it had been used by the imperial court.
The key step in the making of a chime stone is to give it the right note. Artisans learned long ago how to achieve this. If the pitch of a Stone was too high, they would grind the two flat faces of the slab, making it thinner if the pitch was on the low side, they would grind the ends and make the slab shorter, until the right tone was arrived at.
The jade qing was made much later, following the same idea as for chime stone but using the more valuable jade as the material. In the hall of Treasures of the forbidden City can be seen a chime consisting of 12 iade qing. They were made during the reign of Qianlong(1736-1795) of a previous black jade exquisitely finished on both sides with gold-painted dragons playing with balls. It is said that the twelve were chosen out of 160 pieces made at the time by the jade carvers of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, involving 90,000 workdays and untold costs.
2. Chime of Bells Bianzhong
To make the chime of bells, an important metal instrument in ancient times, bronze was invariably used for the best acoustic effect. Early bells are called yongzhong, rather flat in shape and very much like two concave tiles joined face to face. Later, however, people stressed the beauty of their shape and gave them a more and more round body, at the expense of the tonal qualities.
It seems that there was fixed number of bells for each chime. Judging by those unearthed to date, a chime may be very simple, consisting of 3,6 or 9 bells, or very complicated, with 13,14,16 or as many as 36 bells.
The most elaborate ancient bianzhong, a set of 65 bells, was unearthed in 1978 in Suixian County, Hubei Province, from the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng dating from the Warring States Period(475-221 B.C.). Their total weight is over 2,500 kilograms, and they were found hung on a three-tiered rack. The biggest of the bells has an overall heigh of 153.4 centimetres and a weight of 203.6 kilograms. The whole chime, unprecedented discovery in the history of musical instrument ever brough to light-not only in China but in the world as a whole.
Although buried underground for over 2,400 years, the bells still produce fine tones. Ancient and modern music, including tunes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, revived ancient tunes of the Tang Dynasty and them tunes of modern Chinese Operas, has been played on them with satisfying results.
Careful study of the bells has revealed that they were cast according to the 7 tone scale with 5 semitones in between, completing a well-integrated system of 12 tones. The scale of the whole chime agrees with the modern 7-tone scale in C major, and its range covers 5 octaves, just two octaves less than the modern piano. What is more amazing, each bell can produce two different tones, a unique feature in percussion imstruments.
An inscription of 2,500 characters engraved on the bells tells of the musical theories and the names of the tones prevalent at the time as well as the positions where the tones can be produced. The unearthing of this set of bells has proved beyond all doubt the application of the twelve-tone equal temperament in Chinese music as early as the 5th century B.C., providing one more evidence of the antiquity of the Chinese Civilization.
The 65-bell bianzhong can be seen at the Provincial Museum of Hubei in the Central China city of Wuhan.
Another bianzhong worth seeing is one of 16 bells made of pure gold during the Qianlong period in the 18th century, now displayed in the Forbidden City's Hall of Treasures. Cast in unique forms and about the same size, the 16 bells are of a uniform height of 23.8 cenimetres, but their weight ranges from 4,703 to 14,316 grams. Round in shape, they produce a rather than monotonous ring, but they were meant during the heyday of the Qing Dynasty, to impress viewers with the wealth and extravagance of the imperial house. And they are indeed very much valued being cast in dazzling gold and engraved with lively patterns of ball-playing dragons.
The bronze ware were unique national treasures for China n ancient times for their impressive designs, classical decorative ornamentation, and wealth of inscriptions. The ancient Chinese society fell into the Stone Tool Age and the Iron tool age. The earliest stoneware in China was found in 3000 B.C. The Shang and Zhou dynasties ushered China into the height of the Bronze Age. During this period the making of bronze ware reached its zenith. After the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods China entered the Iron Tool Age. Bronze is the alloy of cooper and zinc or copper and lead that is bluish grey. The museums across China and some important museums outside China, have all collected Chinese Bronze ware dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Some of them are part of the cultural heritage passed down through the generations, but most of them were dug up from underneath the earth. Ancient Chinese Bronze ware fall into three types: ritual vessels, weapons, and miscellaneous objects. Ritual vessels refer to those objects employed by aristocrats in sacrificial ceremonies or audiences. Therefore there is something distinctively religious and shamanist about them. These vessels include food containers, wine vessels, water pot and musical instruments. Bronze weapons come in such varieties as knife, sword, spear, halberd, axe, and dagger. The miscellaneous objects refer to bronze utensils for daily use. In ancient China the making of bronze ware was dominated by the imperial families and aristocrats. And the possession of such wares was regarded as a status symbol. In comparison with counterparts in other parts of the world, the Chinese Bronze ware stand out for their inscriptions which are regarded as major chapters in the Chinese history of calligraphy.
>> View More of Chinese Neolithic Bronze
Eastern Curio Shanghai Ltd