The Art of Chinese Bronzes - ancient Chinese bronze artwork

chinese bronzesThere is a symbolic design used in Chinese sacrificial bronzes 3,000 years ago that combines all sorts of animal characteristics found in the natural world into one ferocious creature--the t'ao-t'ieh , or ``beast of gluttony.'' Set in a fiercely blazing fire, the beast's bulging eyes glared straight at the observer, his great mouth gaped in a wide grin, flashing saber-like teeth. His stiletto claws were exposed and poised for action, and a pair of ears or horns protruded from his head. Ferocious a sight as it was, it conveyed mystery and beauty. The t'ao-t'ieh design is one of the most fantastic and imaginative to be found among Chinese bronze designs. It uniquely communicates the religious and ritual spirit of ancient Chinese bronze vessels. Bronze is an alloy of copper, tin, and a small amount of lead. Its appearance signaled the advancement in human culture from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. For the approximately 2,000 years between the 17th century B.C. up until the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-200 A.D.), the Chinese people used rare and precious bronze to cast large quantities of ritual vessels, musical instruments, and weapons that were elegant in form, finely decorated, and clearly inscribed with Chinese characters. They affirm the artistic achievement of ancient China, and demonstrate how early Chinese used their ingenuity to create works incorporating both science and art from resources in nature.

In the ritualistic society of ancient China, bronze was employed primarily for the casting of ceremonial temple vessels used in sacrifices to the goods of heaven, earth, the mountains, and rivers. They were also used in vessels for banquets, honor awards, and funerals for the nobility. Because bronze is a durable material resistant to cracking and breakage, it was used by kings to cast inscribed vessels honoring the ancestors of dukes, princes, and ministers who had made a great contribution to their nation or sovereign, to establish a model and reminder for alter generations. The world-famous Mo Kung Ting , for example, a bronze tripod on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, was imperially commissioned. On the tripod interior is an inscription 497 characters in length, divided into 32 lines and two halves, extending from the mouth of the vessel to the bottom interior. The inscription is the imperial mandate for the casting of the vessel, written in a stately and powerful tone. The inscription on this particular vessel is the longest among bronzes that have been unearthed so far.

chinese bronzes

Bronzes can be classed into four main types, based on function: food vessels, wine vessels, water vessels, and musical instruments. Within each type, endless variation is to be found in form and design, fully demonstrating the rich imagination and creativity of the Chinese of the time. The kuei, for example, was a container for cooked millet that came in many different styles, equivalent to today's containers for cooked rice. Some had a circular base to stabilize the vessel belly; others had a heavy square base added onto the circular base, in a graceful contrast of geometrical form. The ting was a tripod vessel used for cooking, with a pair of knobs protruding from the mouth to facilitate handling. The three legs held the vessel at just the proper distance from the fire for cooking meat. The ch¹eh was a vessel especially designed for heating and drinking wine; it had a pour spout and side handles. The three legs facilitated warming the wine. The tsun was a major type of wine container that was either round or square in shape, or had a round mouth and square base. Ancient Chinese bronzes stressed balance and symmetry of form, and communicated solemnity and ceremony.

In most of the line designs used on bronzes, a main motif combines with a border design, pointing up its three-dimensional character. The ``beast of gluttony'' design was the most prominent in Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries B.C.) vessels. A side view of two separate symmetrical beasts was embossed on the vessel; when viewed together from the front, they combined their features into one beast. After the Western Chou period (11th century B.C. to 771 B.C.), bird designs gradually came to be used for decorative main designs, still maintaining the principle of symmetry. After the mid and late Western Chou period, chain link patterns, fish scale patterns, and wave patterns for the most part superseded animals as subject matter for the main design of bronze vessels. The principle of symmetry began at this point to be broken, and substituted by repeating chain link or band designs that encircled the vessel body. After the mid-Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.), the most frequently used design was a vertically interlocking geometrical animal band design. In the Shang Dynasty, the border design used to complement the main design was usually clouds and lightning. Beginning in the mid-Western Chou, the designs became increasingly spare, and border design eventually fell into disuse. After the Spring and Autumn period, the ``sprouting grain'' and other designs began appearing in borders.

The techniques used in executing the various bronze designs went from the engraved lines and embossed designs used in the earlier periods, to deep relief and three dimensional sculpture-like designs, and eventually even to inlaid designs. Materials used for inlaid work included gold, silver, copper, and turquoise. Subject matter for inlaid work included animals, along with interlocking geometrical shapes based on straight lines, diagonal lines, and whorled lines. These were all added purely for decorative purposes, and were intricately and handsomely crafted.

Over the millennia, bronze articles exposed to high humidity or buried underground undergo a natural change in which they develop a bright and beautiful coating, or patina. The patina serves to protect the metal underneath from further damage. The color itself, however, which may range from rouge red to emerald green to sapphire blue, imparts added beauty and elegance to the vessel. Chinese are particularly fond of this colorful coating, and preserve it intact.

In the Republic of China today, the beauty of traditional bronze art is still to be found in incense burners and sacrificial vessels in temples, in statues on display in schools, or in decorative pieces in homes; all have been influenced by the art of China's ancient bronzes. Free application of traditional bronze designs has become an indispensable element of modern architecture, apparel, and furniture design. This is one way that the brilliance and artistry of the early Chinese continue their everlasting shine into the lives of Chinese today and of the future.