National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Exhibition Brochure
Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline

Bronze Age China

Two achievements stand out among the accomplishments of Bronze Age cultures in China: the development of writing and the discovery of bronze, produced on a massive scale for weapons and ritual vessels used by the ruling class. This strong alloy of copper mixed with small amounts of tin and lead was heated to a liquid state and poured into clay molds that were formed in sections mirroring the different parts of the object to be cast. The first known bronze vessels were found at Erlitou near the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern central China. Most archaeologists now identify this site with the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 B.C.), the earliest of the Three Dynasties -- Xia, Shang, and Zhou -- mentioned in ancient texts. Modern scholars had dismissed the Xia as the legendary invention of Zhou historians until the excavations at Erlitou provided strong evidence for their existence.

Bronzecasting reached new heights during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 B.C.), whose kings ruled over much of northern China from their capitals at Zhengzhou and Anyang on the Yellow River. The royal tombs of the Shang were all thought to have been looted in antiquity until 1976, when archaeologists at Anyang discovered the intact grave of Fu Hao, a consort of the Shang king. Fu Hao was buried around 1200 B.C. in a tomb of moderate size that also contained sixteen human skeletons (probably sacrificial victims), ivory goblets, seven hundred jades, and more than two hundred ritual bronze vessels. Together, the bronzes weigh 1.6 metric tons, indicating that enormous wealth was concentrated in the hands of the elite. The many objects from Fu Hao's tomb in the exhibition include a wine container in the shape of a horned owl (no. 48). It exemplifies the skill of Shang bronzecasters at transforming functional objects into works of sculpture. Most of the bronzes would have been used in life, but some were probably made specifically for the grave. Inscriptions cast into the walls of the vessels show that they were intended for ritual offerings of food and wine to the spirits of ancestors.

Chinese history has traditionally been viewed as a succession of dynastic rulers whose culture was the radiating source for the entire country. Recent excavations at sites outside the Shang sphere of influence, however, reveal that Bronze Age civilization was more varied and complex than had been thought. In 1989 archaeologists digging at Dayangzhou south of the Yangzi unearthed a tomb filled with intricately patterned bronzes in imaginative shapes as well as a double-sided human mask without precedent in Shang centers in the north (no. 57). Such finds show that the long-held view of the south as a cultural backwater is no longer tenable.

Even more unexpected were finds made in 1986 at Sanxingdui, a site in southwestern China on a tributary of the Yangzi. Outside the walls of an ancient city, workers from a local brick factory discovered two large pits filled with sixty elephant tusks, more than fifty life-size bronze heads (no. 67), twenty bronze masks, gold and silver objects, ritual vessels, jades, and, astonishingly, the first and only life-size human figure known from Bronze Age China (no. 65). No ancient texts identify with any certainty this previously unknown culture, which is roughly contemporary with the tomb of Fu Hao. The pits were not graves, as they contain no trace of human skeletons. The fact that many of the objects had been burned before burial suggests that they could have been offerings to deities or ancestral spirits. Sacrificial pits filled with burnt offerings of humans and animals have been found elsewhere in China. Perhaps the figural sculpture at Sanxingdui was a substitute for actual human sacrifice. It is also possible that the statue and bronze heads are images of the spirits or deities worshiped by the people of Sanxingdui, who may have buried them to prevent their most sacred objects from falling into the hands of invaders.

The last of the Three Dynasties, the Zhou, overthrew the Shang royal house about 1050 B.C., justifying their conquest by citing the weaknesses and excesses of late Shang kings. The Zhou accused them, among other things, of overindulgence in alcohol, possibly explaining why most bronze vessels found in Zhou tombs were for preparing or serving food rather than wine. Recent Zhou finds in the exhibition include the largest and, at five hundred pounds, the heaviest Zhou food container known to date (no. 76); vessels from a hoard of bronzes commissioned by five generations of the same family; and elaborate pendants of jade, agate, and faience (no. 86) found in 1993 in tombs of the lords of Jin, a vassal state under Zhou control. Laid over the body of the deceased, these magnificent ornaments include jades dating back to the Shang dynasty, indicating that the Zhou, for all their criticism of their predecessors, admired Shang works of art.

Introduction | Late Prehistoric | Bronze Age | Chu Culture | Early Imperial | Timeline