Bronzes have been cast in China for about 3,700 years. Most bronzes of about 1500–300 BC, roughly the Bronze Age in China, may be described as ritual vessels intended for the worship of ancestors, who are often named in inscriptions on the bronzes. Many were specially cast to commemorate important events in the lives of their possessors. These ritual vessels of ancient China represent possibly the most remarkable achievement in the whole history of metalcraft before modern times.
In the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), the right to cast or possess these vessels was probably confined to the royal house itself originally but later was bestowed upon local governors set up by the ruler; still later, in the Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 BC), the right was claimed by rulers of the feudal states and indeed by anyone who was rich and powerful enough to cast his own vessels. 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.
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.
Already by late Zhou times, the more expensive medium of lacquer was often used in place of bronze. Under the ultimate unification of Qin (221–206 BC) and Han (206 BC–AD 220), 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.
The vessel types are known today either by names given them in Shang or Zhou times that can be identified in contemporary inscriptions, such as the li (鬲), ding (鼎), and yan (甗), or by names such as you (卣), jia (斝), and gong (觥) that were given to them by later Chinese scholars and antiquarians. The vessels may be grouped according to their presumed function in sacrificial rites. For cooking food, the main types are the li (鬲), a round-bodied vessel with a trilobed base extending into three hollow legs; its cousins the ding (鼎), a hemispheric vessel on three solid legs, and the fangding (方鼎), a square vessel standing on four legs; and yan (甗), a steamer consisting of a bowl placed above a li (鬲) tripod, with a perforated grate between the two. For offering food, the principal vessel was the gui (簋), a bowl placed on a ring-shaped foot, like a modern-day wok.
The word zun (尊) embraces wine containers of a
variety of shapes. Among vessels for heating or offering wine are the
you (卣), a covered bucket with a swing handle; the jia (斝), a round
tripod or square quadruped with a handle on the side and raised posts
with caps rising from its rim; the related jue (爵), a smaller beaker on
three legs, with an extended pouring spout in front, a pointed tail in
the rear, a side handle, and posts with caps; the he (盉), distinguished
by its cylindrical pouring spout; the gong (觥), resembling a covered
gravy boat; and the elegant trumpet-mouthed gu (觚). Vessels for
ablutions include the pan (盘), a large, shallow bowl. The shapes of the
round-bodied vessels were often derived from earlier pottery forms; the
square-section vessels, with flat sides generally richly decorated, are
thought to derive from boxes, baskets, or containers of carved wood or
bone. Other objects connected with the rites were bronze drums and
bells. Weapons and fittings for chariots, harness, and other utilitarian
purposes also were made of bronze.
In the Zhou Dynasty, bronze bells emerged. Perhaps the oldest class is a small clappered bell called ling (鈴), but the best known is certainly the zhong (鐘), a suspended, clapperless bell. Zhong were cast in sets of eight or more to form a musical scale, and they were probably played in the company of string and wind instruments. The section is a flattened ellipse, and on each side of the body appear 18 blunt spikes, or basses, arranged in three double rows of three. These often show marks of filing, and it has been suggested that they were devices whereby the bell could be tuned to the requisite pitch by removing small quantities of the metal. The oldest specimen recovered in a closed excavation is one from Pudu Cun, dating from the 9th century BC.
The finest example discovered so far is an orchestral set of 64 bells, probably produced in Chu (楚) and unearthed in 1978 from a royal tomb of the Zeng (曾) state, at Leigudun (擂鼓墩) near Sui Xian (隨縣) in Hubei Province. The bells were mounted on wooden racks supported by bronze human figurines. They are graded in size (from about 20 to 150 cm [8 to 60 inches] in height) and tone (covering five octaves), and each is capable of producing two unrelated tones according to where it is struck. Gold-inlaid inscriptions on each bell present valuable information regarding early musical terms and performance, while a 65th bell with flat bottom called bo (镈) is dedicated by inscription from the king of Chu to Marquis Yi of Zeng (Zenghou Yi, 曾侯乙), the deceased, and bears a date equivalent to 433 BC.
Bronze mirrors were also used in the Zhou Dynasty, not only for toiletry but also as funerary objects, in accordance with the belief that a mirror was itself a source of light and could illuminate the eternal darkness of the tomb. A mirror also was thought of as a symbolic aid to self-knowledge. Ancient Chinese mirrors were generally bronze disks polished on the face and decorated on the back, with a central loop handle or pierced boss to hold a tassel. The early ones were small and worn at the girdle; later they became larger and were often set on a stand. Mirrors, however, were not widely used until the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The present day Changsha of Hunan Province, which was in the state of Chu, was a center for the manufacture of late Zhou mirrors, the designs on which consist chiefly of zigzag lozenges, quatrefoil petals, scallops, a hooked symbol resembling the character for “mountain” (shan, 山), and sometimes animal figures superimposed on a dense allover pattern of hooks and volutes. These mirrors are often thin, and the execution is refined and elegant.