Chinese Ritual Bronzes

Wine vessel (zun), in the shape of an owl, late Shang dynasty, 13th/12th century BC, Bronze, 31.75 x 20.96 cm. Bequest of Alfred F Pillsbury. All photos: Minneapolis Institute of Art

This an exciting and rare exhibition of archaic bronzes and later related material because of two reasons: the fact that they are long-famous and that they have never been exhibited outside of the halls of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). Now they are being exhibited at the Ringling Museum of Art, having travelled from their home in the far north to a venue in the deep southeast, providing an easier access for a large part of the country.

The exhibition comprises over 80 works of art from the MIA’s collection of archaic material. Not only are they remarkable for their quality and range, but because there are so many of them in one location. They comprise 71 archaic bronzes vessels and related works of art as well as 12 later works of art in bronze, jade and porcelain, created in imitation.

The subject of the exhibition, archaic Chinese bronzes, is highly complex because of its ritual, societal and other functions and as a brilliant introduction and explanation of China’s first great culture. Due to the studious and highly academic work by the curatorial staff at the MIA, there is a number of highly informative wall texts that are displayed with the bronzes. They cover all the categories of works of art displayed in the exhibition, principally as explanatory text to the various uses these bronzes had in early Chinese culture as well as an introduction to the culture at the time. There are sufficient details contained in them to satisfy even the most knowledgeable of visitors, but at the same time the texts are clear enough and welcoming enough to visitors who may never have encountered archaic bronzes before.

Some of the categories covered are their role in ancestral rites, as symbols of power and supremacy, as vessels for burial, as luxury items and art objects. Fortunately for us, there is a most welcome explanation on how inscriptions on bronzes can reveal more detail on the nature of rituals in which they were actually used. In addition there will be a section that explains the procedure of creating these bronze objects, a visual ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ It is a complicated and a fascinating procedure and one that is largely unchanged today.

Even though the shapes of archaic vessels are normally given names in their English equivalent, the Chinese actually have precise names for 96 specific shapes. There are 26 of these specific shapes in this exhibition and these do not include names for objects such as spearheads, ritual knives, supports, belt hooks, clothing buckles and the like. The shapes represented are: libation vessel: jue; wine vessels: you, zun, gong, gu, lei and fangijia; food vessels: gui, li, li-ding, xu, fang-ding, dou, yu, and shengding: steamer: yan; water vessels: pan, yi and jian; storage vessel: hu; bells: bo and yongzhong.

China was not the first culture to discover how to make bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and lead, but was the first to create numbers of bronze objects, objects that soared to heights of size, design, sophisticated manufacture and quality. Bronzes first appeared in the Erlitou Culture (circa 2100-1600 BC), mainly in the form of libation vessels, jue, of rather spindly form and most lacking any decorative motifs. The Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) followed and 500 years later, without much evidence of development of bronze forms and decorations, gloriously large and highly sophisticated bronze vessels appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

Attention should be called to two types of symbolic decoration which is seen on many Shang and later bronzes. Lei wen are square, concentric spirals arranged in rows as background for other designs. They were probably derived from Neolithic petroglyphs and incisions on pottery, probably as ancient protective symbols that are found worldwide. The other is tao-tieh, or ‘monster mask’ as it is sometimes called. It is the ferocious, snarling face of a leonine type beast and is a powerful protective symbol. It probably derives from the ancient Hindu demon, Kirtimukha, who was created as something of a super-demon to destroy the demons rampaging on earth. Having done his job, Vishnu was concerned that it itself may become unreliable, so Vishnu ordered the demon to devour itself. It began with its own feet and continued until it reached its armpits, at which time Vishnu ordered him to desist because he decided that the demonic face could be used over doorways and in other places to protect all of those within. It would appear that the Kirtimukha belief and iconography travelled to China and was incarnated as tao-tieh. It can be seen frequently on the sides of bronzes with a vertical flange depicting its nose

This ‘bronze age’ lasted through the late Shang dynasty, Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC), the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-256 BC), which included the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) when the empire began to crumble, the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) with its wars of competition, the brief Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) of unification and modernization of society, and the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), after which works of art in bronze changed to small, rather simple utilitarian objects or large sculptural works, such ‘money trees’ chariots with drivers and quadriga of horses as well as the prancing ‘heavenly horse’ in the exhibition. The preceding Qin dynasty is known for little art-wise, except for the well-known ‘terracotta army’ which is sculpturally remarkable, but static, as opposed to the dynamic sense of movement in the bronze ‘heavenly horse’, important as a vehicle for transportation in the afterlife.

The Qin/Han periods are being brilliantly covered now, through 6 July, in the Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC-AD 220) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It received extensive coverage in the recent April 2017 issue of the Asian Art Newspaper.

With the advent of the Zhou dynasty, bronzes took on another purpose, that as symbols of display to show the ranks of the owner. In Shang bronzes, the decoration was limited to the surface and served as the symbolic elements connected to the vessel itself. In Zhou, the decoration became something in and of itself, comprising elements such as openwork edges to legs and flanges, small sculptural elements that rose well above the surface and the like. Decoration created by engraved designs filled with gold or silver foil came into fashion, but the result was a complex interference with the purity of the shape of the vessel itself.

Also during Zhou, especially Western Zhou in the Warring States period, taste and demand arose for personal jewellery and ornaments, especially garment clasps and belt hooks in gold and gilt bronze with inlays in gold and silver and applied stones, especially turquoise, probably imported along the Silk Road from modern-day Afghanistan.

In ancient China, the practice of worshipping ancestors was almost a daily activity because the belief that there was life after death meant that there was a vital connection between the deceased and the living. Communal temples were built for ritual ancestor worship and bronzes were created to serve in these ceremonies. These formal affairs honoured the lives and virtues of the deceased, but also the debt that the living owed the dead for serving as examples on how to lead a correct and virtuous life. Bronzes, such as the ding, had powerful symbolic meanings. Legend had it that the Yu the Great, ruler of the Xia dynasty which preceded Shang, had nine ding cast to represent the nine states of ancient China so that the ding itself became a symbol of state power and the right to rule.

Besides their use in ancestral worship, rites of spirit worship and as symbols of status and power, bronzes could, it was believed, that when buried with the deceased, continue to serve in the afterlife. We are familiar with archaic bronze vessels as burial objects, but some aristocrats and all commoners at the time could not afford the expense of bronzes. Frequently complete sets of ritual vessels were made in fired pottery. There is, however, one complete set made of lead, which I have personally seen, at the Heritage Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

Until the emergence of Buddhism as a strong factor in Chinese beliefs during the Eastern Han dynasty (88-220), the main belief during Shang and Zhou was spirit worship and the hierarchy of beings. This concept was based on the belief that the ‘best’ (or ‘anointed’, as it were), sat at the top of the social pyramid in order to help and protect those below. In China it meant that hierarchy began in the heavens and descended to the people through the conduits of the king and the royal court. Bronzes in this case served the purpose of maintaining this order on earth and in the afterlife and these bronzes of multiple forms and decoration also served the purpose of acknowledging, through ceremonies, offerings and sacrifice, the powers invested in those of high rank. Hence the great variety of bronzes in this exhibition.

Bronze musical instruments, especially sets of bells, became important accompaniments to rites connecting the living to the dead. Inscriptions on these bells, particularly during the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC), are great indicators of the culture of the period. One such inscription reads, ‘I made this set of harmonically tuned chime bells. Use it so as to please and exalt those who arrive in splendour [the living] and to let the accomplished men of former generations [ancestors] rejoice’. They were also important in regulating the social order because it was believed that without musical harmony, different social classes would not be harmonious, with each knowing his

‘place’, and that society itself would be in peril. There is a set of bells in the exhibition with reconstructed racks and in front is a kneeling musician who wears a headdress with antlers, indicating his status as a shaman, not just an ordinary musician.

The part of this exhibition which is of extreme importance is the study of inscriptions, a subject that does not appear to have ever been addressed in a public venue before now. The curatorial staff at the Minneapolis Institute of Art has done a brilliant job in their wall texts to explain the importance of these inscriptions, illustrating that these ritual bronzes, besides being remarkable works of art, are also vehicles of information about the past.

The early Shang inscriptions were usually that of a name, but by the end of the period there were a few inscriptions that recorded them as gifts and which allow modern scholars to more closely pinpoint their dates due to their references to specific events. By the Western Zhou inscriptions began to provide rather detailed information to describe gifts from the king as reward to officials and nobles for services rendered. Some inscriptions declare that certain bronzes were commissioned to declare proudly that they were tokens of praise and thanks to the king for honours bestowed and the ceremonial circumstances of the honours bestowed.

Also beginning in Western Zhou, however, announcing one’s status became more common. This ties in with the increasing tendency to praise oneself and to begin using bronzes in one’s lifetime as status symbols, hence the tendency to create bronzes as vehicles of self-promotion. This self-promotion resulted in longer and longer inscriptions which are invaluable today to scholars of the period for the information they hold, providing contemporary evidence of ancient political events and ritual activities. At the same time, the promotion of one’s ego was on the rise and the decorations in Western Zhou bronzes as time progressed became more outrageous, practically negating the beauty of form.

By the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771-256 BC), bronzes basically lost their lofty and sacred purposes which began during the Shang and continued somewhat into the Western Zhou dynasty, but by the time of Eastern Zhou, the nobility of bronzes had been degraded to the status of luxury goods, as parvenu display of wealth and status. It was now that the trend to unnecessary decoration reached new heights with greater ornamentation and extensive use of three-dimensional pendants. Decoration as pictures began to appear, depicting sporting events such as archery contests, as well as hunting scenes, feasting and battles. Many look at this development as a new approach, but many question the premise that new is better.

The Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) was the end of this glorious age of bronze production. By this time Daoism had become extremely popular with its concept of immortality and an eternity spent in the Garden of the Western Paradise. It had tremendous impact on society as a hold, including the arts. The jade arts flourished because the belief that jade was a stone of immortality and wonderfully large bronze sculptures were created, such as the ‘heavenly horse’  in this exhibition.

There is a brilliant exhibition now at the China Institute Gallery in New York, Dream of Kings: A Jade Suit and Afterlife Objects from Xuzhou, through 12 November, which extensively covers the Han belief in immortality, reviewed in the May 2017  issue of the Asian Art Newspaper.

The acquisition and study of ancient Chinese bronzes and the rubbings of their inscriptions and exterior details began over one thousand years ago during the Song dynasty (960-1279). At that time it was mainly the acquisition of them and appreciation of them as art forms. Calculated study of the inscriptions would begin later. Because of the keen appreciation of the arts at the time, most famously by the Huizong Emperor (1101-1125), the penultimate emperor of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). This study and appreciation of things ancient is referred to as antiquarianism, now the correct name for this intellectual pastime.

During the Song, small versions of bronze vessels and animals were created and not always as exact copies, but as versions that may/may not have added decoration or highlights inlaid in gold or silver. This semi-revival has always been known as archaizing and later proved to be extremely strong during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795) when archaic shapes were recreated in bronze, porcelain, lacquer and jade. There are 12 such archaizing works of art in the exhibition and the inclusion of them demonstrates the powerful influence that excellence of form exerted long after it original creation.

Ink rubbings for the Chinese were not an entertainment, but a reliable means of recording the carved inscriptions of imperial pronouncements and other important declarations carved on stone and cast inscriptions and decorations on bronzes. This method of using paper and ink arose during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and has been in constant use ever since. In use not just for anarchic bronzes, but for then unimaginable uses – recording signatures on Japanese swords, copying old gravestones and any other need to make portable copies of words or designs on a flat surface. One of the most ingenious uses of rubbings was by European armour makers in the late Mediaeval and early Renaissance period because of the wish to create designs on armour, particularly breastplates. They knew that lemon juice could etch steel with a design that could be filled with a black pigment to make it visible. The piece of steel would be coated in wax and then the desired design would be cut through to the metal below and then the surface was continually bathed in lemon juice. Yet there was no way to ascertain if the etched surface were deep enough to hold a colorant until someone came up with the idea of covering the surface with paper and dabbing it with ink. Not only did it facilitate the armour maker’s work, but it later led to the invention of etching as an art form in Europe.

The gathering of like-minded scholars to view and appreciate both bronzes and their inscriptions was an intellectual pursuit through the end of the Empire, but still exists today in a smaller way when the descendants of these like-minded scholars gather. In the imperial days, these groups were referred to as an ‘elegant gathering’, the title of many Chinese classical paintings depicting this ancient scene.

The importance of this exhibition cannot be stressed enough. It is not just because the works of are of such quality and variety, but also because, through the extensive information provided by the wall texts, that this is really the first time that this age of bronzes has been so completely and carefully explained with the actual objects of these texts being present.


By Martin Barnes Lorber


Eternal Offerings: Chinese Ritual Bronzes from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ringling Museum of Art, from 9 June to 10 September, Sarasota, Florida,

The museum is also hosting Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animal/Zodiac Heads installation of 12 monumental bronze sculptures inspired by the Yuanming Yuan in Beijing, in the