Chariot Harnesses of the Shang Dynasty
In the Shang Dynasty, the construction of chariots represented one of the high technologies of the period. Everything from the selection of wood to the design and production of these vehicles was complex and precise in terms of processes and techniques used. In addition to the woodworking tradition, which had focused on carving since the Neolithic period, the production of chariot wheels also required the development of wood-bending techniques. In order to ensure that the assembled structure would remain stable and hold together, precise calculations were needed along with tenon jointing techniques.
An important object in the life of nobility at the time, the chariot also had to be opulently decorated. After the chariot was constructed, it required cushioning to make riding in the carriage more comfortable. Colored lacquer could also be painted on the wood of the body to make it appear livelier, and special cast bronze ornaments were made to beautify it. These decorative pieces, when placed in appropriate and obvious places on the chariot, highlighted the importance of the vehicle.
A fully decorated chariot might include more than a hundred bronze ornaments. Fixtures were mainly for decorating the ends or edges of certain parts of the vehicle. Some fixtures functioned to stabilize the chariot, while others were purely decorative in nature. Regardless of function, the external parts of chariot fixtures were all decorated with elaborate and beautiful forms of decoration.
The bridle worn on the head of the horse was used to control the horse’s movements. The ancient Chinese form of the bridle consisted of leather straps assembled together. The bridle bit was held in the mouth of the horse, and both ends of the bit were bound to a connector on either side of the horse’s head. In the Shang Dynasty, it was common to sew many small bronze buttons and shells onto the leather straps. Sometimes a very large and refined ornament was used to decorate the forehead of the horse, substantially increasing its beauty.
The leather of the bridles originally in the Hsiao-t’un chariot pits have long since disintegrated, but many bronze buttons and shells were discovered, providing evidence of their original purpose and arrangement.
Three sets of weapons were excavated from Tomb 20 at Hsiao-t’un, offering superb evidence of the weapons and tools used by chariot soldiers in the Shang Dynasty. A complete set usually consisted of long-distance bows and arrows as well as defensive dagger axes, knives for a variety of functions, and a whetstone for sharpening. The knives and whetstones formed a set, including a jade loop to hang them.
Since the Neolithic Age, jade had been considered a material representing the essence of the heavens and earth. Many ritual objects were made from jade. Even by the Bronze Age, when bronze was the main medium for making ritual objects, jade managed to hold its lofty ceremonial status. In the Shang Dynasty, craftsmen instinctively embellished beautiful forms of decoration on bronze weapons to highlight the important tradition of ritual weapons. The set of jade ceremonial weapons excavated from Tomb 20 represents a good example of giving ceremonial significance to practical weapons.
Ornaments for decorating horse-drawn chariots were made from such materials as shell or bronze. Bronze ornaments were usually round and occasionally designed into the form of an animal or a flower, with turquoise used as inlay for detailed decoration. This type of ornament varied in name depending on the part of the chariot decorated, for example the carriage basin, carriage mount, bridle etc.
The spiritual element that pervades the late Shang Dynasty transformed imaginary animals and images of unique content in nature into opulent and rich forms of decoration that were used to adorn chariots.
Human images were also a focus of attention. We see stylized figures with wide and short heads, complemented by a large nose, ears, and eyes inlaid with turquoise. With hair parted down the middle, what does this figure remind you of?