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Rituals Cast in Brilliance: Masterpieces of Bronzes in the Museum Collection

  • #Bronzes


The Bronze Age of China started in the late Xia dynasty (c. early 17th B.C.E.), lasting about 1,500 years through several dynasties from Shang to Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou. Even after the subsequent emergence of iron in Qin and Han dynasties, bronzes continued to be in use.

During those remote eras, only the ruling class was allowed to commission and use the precious bronze vessels. As was said, "worship and warfare are the first and foremost affairs of a state". Bronze was mainly cast into ritual objects, in addition to weaponry, to offer sacrifices to ancestors for their blessing of an everlasting lineage. Further, from the arrangement and quantity of bronzes displayed in a given ceremony, one can discern the specific social status and position of that noble host. Bronzes were thus the most important ritual objects in the aristocratic Shang and Zhou (1600-220 B.C.E.).

In many aspects, these two early dynasties were crucial to the formation of Chinese culture. Politically, with a burgeoning humanistic awareness the rule by theocracy gradually transitioned to that of rituals and proprieties. Materially, the advanced bronze smelting and casting skills initiated a new age of ritual vessels and weaponry; the breakthrough in craftsmanship and technologies gave rise to a wide range of flourishing industries. Spiritually, the two primary affairs of the state, worship and warfare, conveyed via various shapes and patterns of ritual bronzes the awe for and communion with deities as well as ancestors. Last but not least, the bronze inscriptions recorded the ritual occasions these vessels were made for: feast rites, military action, and reward or conferment ceremonies.

The Bronze Civilization, extolled with the "Rites and Music" of bells and cauldrons, in the "Worship and Warfare" honoring ancestors, and by Zhou's "Newly Endowed Mandate" and "Elaborate Textual Repertoire", continued on through the renewed splendors during Eastern Zhou, all the way to the ultimate unification under Qin and Han. Bronzes gradually yielded its central role in the ritual system but transformed into a cultural archetype, deeply imbued into and manifesting the essence of Chinese thought and culture: extensive and elaborate, profound yet moderate.