The Bronze Sculptures of China

In the Western world people do not consider bronze sculptures to be the finest type of artwork. However, when one understands the ancient history of Chinese art it is obvious that bronze works held a unique importance in their culture. So it is very possible that people in the West may be missing something of great value and interest. It should be understood that Chinese bronze art of the second and first millennia BC was one of the most important discoveries in the whole scope of worldwide art. It all began a very long time ago with the invention of an interesting new material. This new material was “bronze.” It proved to be a useful alloy made of copper and tin. Through the careful mixing and melting of certain ores in different proportions, this material was carefully fashioned. It turned out to be harder, more enduring, and more colorful than anything previous!

Today, no one is completely certain if the secret of creating bronze was indeed exported to China from the West and Central Asia. In these regions, the material bronze seems to have appeared earlier than it did in China. Regardless of its origin, the Chinese used bronze differently than in other places. In the West bronze was used for weapons and production tools. However, in the Middle Kingdom bronze was used for rituals and elegant vessels. This fact gives us an entirely unique perspective to the western concept of the “Bronze Age.”

The early Chinese bronze sculptures were constructed by using what has become known as the “piece-mold method.” This innovation in technology generally involved a clay model accompanied by a number of ceramic molds and cores. From a technical viewpoint, it was very closely associated with pottery traditions of an even earlier period. The pot makers of the Neolithic cultures were adeptly skilled in shaping and firing a variety of pottery vessels. These included vessels like cups, jars, ewers, bowls, and tripods. These elegant vessels were liberally decorated by either painting or incising. They also appeared in several unique motifs.

While these techniques laid the foundation for the development of bronze artwork, the manufacture of a bronze vessel was very special compared to mere pottery. Bronze art required a great amount of resources, particularly the organized mobilization of skilled craftsmen. The elaborate, organized effort involved in fashioning these bronze vessels indicates that they were intended for distinctive ceremonies and religious rituals. They were certainly not for common, everyday use. Therefore, while the modern scholar tries with great effort to appreciate the Chinese bronzes he comes up against a tall obstacle almost immediately. What exactly was their function?

In the classification of bronze art this problem is directly reflected. In the classical Chinese texts on the subject they are assigned names such as “ding,” “gui,” “hu,” “jue,” “dou”, “you,” and “zun.” These classical records also give us descriptions of how the bronze vessels of ancient China were used in the early rituals of the period. As an example, in the Zhouli (or “Rites of Zhou”), the ding-tripod is described as a meat offering vessel. The stemmed dou-bowl was referred to as a vessel for meat sauces and certain kinds of vegetables. Some of the other texts, like the Yili (“Book of Rites”) and Liji (“Records on Rites”) contain lengthy details of the way in which these ritual vessels were used. While all this is true, it is important to consider that the ancient texts tells us how the ritual vessels “should” be used. Their actual use is something more difficult to establish with a hundred percent certainty.

With even further study of this interesting archeological subject, it is not an exaggeration to say that bronze sculptures are a very old and significant part of Asian art. This is very easy to establish from the evidence provided in the past culture and history of ancient China. Therefore, if one is to create a comprehensive Asian decor the inclusion of some bronze sculptures seems to be called for. Bronze art gives the room a very historic appeal right beside more contemporary home furnishings. A talented Asian decorator will want to make selective and premeditated use of bronze art!

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