The Spirit of Wu

We grasp our battle spears: we don our breastplates of hide.
The axles of our chariots touch: our short swords meet.

- Battle by Qu Yuan (332-295 B.C.E.)1


Qu Yuan might have been recalling a mural in the tombs of his royal ancestors when he wrote the opening lines of his battle poem. No ancient murals have survived, but this spectacular inlaid hu vessel provides an insight into how those pictures might have looked.


The figural scenes inlaid in gold on this bronze vase are not paintings in a literal sense, but they are of an illustrative nature, and pictorial vessels, like the painted vases produced in classical Greece around the same time, serve as keen evidence for the development of early Chinese painting. The vessel is beautifully decorated with ornamental designs also inlaid with gold, so it has a second life as a wonderful object d'art. Lastly, it is a wine vessel (actually hard liquor), which carried a special meaning in its time.

 

Eastern Zhou dynasty inlaid bronze Hu and cover (cat. no.9) after completion of cleaning and conservation process


The narrative matter, hunting and war, illustrates the legendary life of a warrior knight in the 5th century BCE at the very beginning of the Warring States period. The story begins on the lid with a scene that is repeated three times. A pair of figures standing between two trees center the composition and direct the action going on in the trees, which is usually identified as the gathering of mulberry leaves, the staple food of the silkworm. Traditionally that is women's work and, indeed, two of the persons in the trees sport a long shock of hair that might pass for a queue. A third, short-haired individual shown in the trees on the right may
be a man selecting a branch of wood to make a bow. Both activities are compatible for they took place in spring and each initiated the duties of the different sexes; that of women to care for the silk worm and that of men to prepare one of the basic tools of hunting and warfare. All but one of these figures wear a long, formal robe, a sign of aristocratic status, so the actions depicted are recordings of real life events but symbolic representations that summarize the communal social responsibilities of the elite in late Bronze Age China.


These "pictures" were conceived in a certain way and the "drawing" was executed according to the rules of a universal system that is as familiar in the arts of Egypt or Greece as it is in China. Little attention is paid to the scale of things; human figures may be more than half the height of a tree that is reduced to a simple formula of trunk and sparse branches. Each figure, whether standing or seated, is seen in profile in its "most extensive and therefore most informative view, and every human gesture is dramatically set at sharp angles.2 There is no hint at space or sense of a third dimension, no figure overlaps another, and no
person's arm crosses over a branch. The composition exists as an elaborate cut-out, capable of indefinite repetition. The only indication of a setting comes from the checker-board pattern on the "ground."

More complicated scenes, pictures of ceremonial feasting, hunting, the siege of a castle and a great naval engagement, appear in the inlaid registers on the body of the vessel (each scene is repeated so that both sides of the vessel look alike). The logical progression of events, from the selection of bow wood to the use of this weapon in martial activities and the accompanying escalation of violence, suggests an epic cycle celebrating the life of the warrior-knight. The feasting ceremony pictured in the register takes place in an imposing hall, so tall that birds perch on the overhanging eaves of a roof that is supported by bracketed columns and the whole erected on an elevated stone platform such as one finds in palace architecture throughout Chinese history. The building is shown in elevation similar to an architectural rendering, and the figures, all seen in profile, are neatly arranged on a base-line as they would be in an ancient Egyptian or Greek picture. Within the columns of the hall one group offers a toast to another while, directly below, an orchestra plays formal court music and cooks prepare a banquet. The scene is surprisingly lively, sustained by the vivacious posing of all figures, even though each is shown in silhouette and ranked along a base line in the manner of all early art. But what is this event?


The palatial setting, elaborate costumes, convivial toasts and banqueting suggest some kind of ceremonial affair. The orchestra, made up of bells and chimes, is suitable for formal court music rather than music for more intimate pleasure played on strings.3 One possibility is that this is a depiction of a game of touhu, or pitch-pot, a contest that entails tossing arrows into a wine pot like this one. While the competition took place, an orchestra played the "Fox Head" tune and when the game was over, the loser drank a penalty cup.4 The game is described in the Zuo Zhuan, where it is given political significance; winning the game is a portent of success in the political sphere as well.

Hunting, another kind of recreation associated with aristocratic privilege, is pictured in the upper register just to the left of the scene of ceremonial feasting. Four bowmen, two standing and two kneeling, loose arrows attached to thin lines intended to snag the birds that fly overhead. A fifth archer, standing directly above the fish filled pond, shoots at the birds without the use of a line. The discernible costume of the archers is limited to their caps but, given the aristocratic context of the entire pictorial cycle, it does not seem likely that lack of costume is a sign of lower rank. Probably, we should simply see them as stripped for action.

The birds are nicely observed and portrayed in different degrees of excitement; some walk along the shore of the pond, others escape in careful formation, and the few entrapped in archer's lines fly every which way in an effort to break free. The pond, seen from above and stocked with fish seen from the side view, suggests a marshy setting. The long-necked birds walking along the bank are shown in profile, the ones that fly overhead are drawn in a mixed view — the body from the side the wings from above. In other words, in the views that convey the most information about the intended action. Something more than sport with the bow may be implied in this scene. Skill in the hunt was easily transferable to prowess in war. Understood in that way, this hunting scene provides a natural bridge to the battle pictures that fill the lower register.

They fight by land and by sea. To the right, attackers fire arrows or ascend on narrow lines that stand for scaling ladders that reach to the top of a fortress wall. The defenders are ranked along the wall, engaged in hand to hand combat. In one instance, a defending swordsman has his opponent by the hair and swings his weapon to deliver a fatal blow; another jabs a spear into a figure falling from the wall, a third waves his arms above a decapitated body plunging to the ground. The naval engagement on the left-hand side of the register is equally violent. Two great ships drive forward almost to the point of collision, moving so swiftly their banners fly in the apparent wind. The oarsmen dig into the water while the warriors, shown above them as if standing on an upper deck, brandish their weapons. Weapon held high, the lead figure on the prow of the left-hand boat grabs his opponent in the prow of the other boat by the hair and threatens him. Other warriors have fallen into the water and swim about with the fishes.


These scenes of battle, hunting and feasting form an ambitious pictorial cycle that touches at the heart of a warrior culture, knights that were inspired with the fighting spirit of Wu.5 Such mythic tableaux must have been known as independent pictures, perhaps as wall paintings illustrating some literary epic or heroic tale. Certainly there is nothing in the prior history of bronze art in China that would have foretold the appearance of this kind of vessel with pictures. The introduction of pictorial matter was an innovation prompted by the declining status of cast bronze as a precious material.

By the fifth century BCE, when the vessel was made, the bronze masters began to embellish the surface of their wares with designs inlaid in precious metals such as those on the neck and the body of this hu. Another alternative also exploited in this piece, was to borrow a totally  new kind  of image from the repertoire of the painter. And so, for the first time in the history of Chinese art, the bronze masters composed extended narratives scenes on the walls of a vessel. This hu then, illustrates a particular  moment in the history of Chinese art, a period of challenge and experimentation for the bronze masters, a time that also witnessed the birth of the Chinese painting tradition. Rare vessels like this one illustrate a beautiful, but short lived, experiment for production of pictorial bronzes halted as abruptly as it had begun. Vessels of this sort are the product  of a single century or so in the long history of bronze casting in ancient China.

 

Dr Robert Poor

University of Minnesota

 

References

1 Waley, Arthur. Translation from the Chinese, New York, Alfred A. Kopf: 1919, 1941., p.3

2 Bachhofer, Ludwig. A short History of Chinese Art, B. T. Bats ford, Ltd, London, 1947. p. 87

3 An interesting discussion of the role of ancient Chinese music in Music in the Age of Confucius, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. D. C., 2000. See especially the Foreword written by Milo Cleveland Beach and the chapter on Percussion Robert Bagley

4 For discussion of the game see Robert Poor, "The evolution  of a Secular Vessel Type", Oriental Art, XIV, p.98-106

5 Waley, op.cit., p.4

 

This article was written for Weisbrod Chinese Art, Ltd. (Adapted)