The Great Bronze Age of China: A Collector's Guide to Ancient Chinese Bronzes
Chinese bronzes are some of the most significant objects ever manufactured by the great empire. A plaque from the first collection of Chinese bronze sculptures in the United States, "Mirroring China's Past," speaks to their power and importance. “Their religious significance led them to be perceived as indicative of the ‘Mandate of Heaven,’ or the right to rule, and symbolic of imperial power."
The fact that the United States didn't show the first exhibit of Chinese bronze sculptures until 2018 is a good indication that those outside of China's borders don't know enough about the wonders of these exquisite bronze artifacts.
There's a lot to know! After all, the Great Bronze Age of China lasted over 1,200 years.
Although it's a massive topic with many facets, we've put together a brief primer to help you get acquainted with these miraculous ancient vessels.
Understanding the Bronze Age
Ancient China was surprisingly advanced during the period which would come to be known as the Great Bronze Age of China. While some other ancient cultures were also already working with metals (namely Ancient Egypt and Sumeria), most of the rest of the world was far behind them in terms of cultural advancements.
Western Europe hadn't even invented writing yet, just to provide some context for the incredible achievements that are Ancient Chinese bronze sculptures.
To provide even more context, let's learn a bit about the period that would give birth to these incredible sculptures.
China’s Bronze Age
Dates for China's bronze age vary greatly. Some date the start of China's Bronze Age as far back as 3300 B.C.E. However, 1700 B.C.E. seems to be a more common starting point among scholars of Ancient China.
Although the starting dates vary significantly, most of the rest of what we know about the Great Bronze Age of China is consistent. It spanned multiple dynasties, for one thing. It originated in the kingdom of the Shang Dynasty on the northern bank of the Yellow River.
One thing is for certain, though: the Chinese Bronze Age was one of the great marvels of antiquity. In most of the rest of the world, people were still living in the Stone Age, using stone tools to hunt and gather.
The simple fact that bronze was able to exist at all is a wonder. Bronze requires an intricate society to be produced. Miners needed to gather the ore to be smelted. Bronze smiths then needed to shape the ore into the exquisite ancient vessels.
A diverse village of potters, weavers, and builders also needed to create and maintain a stable society so that the bronze smiths could create their timeless work.
Let's take a look at each of the individual dynasties for a moment to help give some added context to appreciate ancient Chinese bronze artifacts.
The Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty is the earliest recorded dynasty in Chinese history. It was the beginning of the Chinese bronze age.
The Shang Dynasty also experienced major advances in math, astronomy, art, and military organization during their reign.
The beginning of the Shang Dynasty is usually accredited to when a chief named Tang conquered the Xia Dynasty following the Battle of Mingtiao.
Tang helped to reduce the number of soldiers in the Chinese army. He also implemented a number of social programs, laying the foundation for the Bronze Age to flourish.
Bronze objects made during the Shang Dynasty were made using piece-mold casting. Piece-mold casting would create a cast of the object intended to be cast in bronze. This cast would be separated into pieces.
These pieces were then put back together and fired again to make it whole.
The Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou Dynasty was the longest-running dynasty in Chinese history, lasting 790 years.
The Zhou Dynasty is considered by many to be one of the highest points of the Chinese civilization. Confucianism and Taoism originated during this time. Chinese writing evolved into almost its modern form during the Zhou Dynasty, as well.
The Zhou Dynasty is thought to be the zenith of Chinese bronzemaking. Ritual vessels, weapons, ornaments, and statues made of bronze are some common bronze artifacts from the Zhou Dynasty. Zhou bronze artifacts were used as evidence of the Zhou Dynasty's superiority and right to rule.
Archaic Bronze, Gui, Early Western Zhou Dynasty,
11th -10th Century BCE
The Qin and Han Dynasties
The Qin and Han Dynasties were the period when China unified into one centralized empire. It also laid the foundation for much of today's Chinese civilization. They may have even given us the name of China itself, as it's thought to be a Westernization of Qin.
The Qin Dynasty gave us two of China's most famous and enduring legacies. The Qin Dynasty saw construction begin on the Great Wall to help protect the country's northern territories from invasion.
The legendary Terracotta Army has been dated back to the Qin Dynasty, as well.
The Han Dynasty gave us the roots of today's Chinese legal system. It was also a period of great refinement for Confucianism, as many of its primary texts were published during the era.
Treasures from the Chinese Bronze Age
Now that we've learned a bit about the history of the Chinese Bronze Age, let's take a look at some of the individual works of art that gave the era its reputation in the first place.
Having a greater understanding of the many different magnificent bronze creations made between the Shang and Han dynasties will also help you identify Chinese bronze sculptures when you encounter them.
Bronze vessels are some of the most important artifacts of the Chinese bronze age, as they were seen as proof of an Emperor's divine right to rule.
Chinese bronze vessels are usually in the form of some sort of eating or drinking vessel. They can be quite elaborate, however, as ritualistic offerings to ancestors were often made using these vessels. They are often covered in intricate and elaborate calligraphy, which is something else to look out for.
Bronze wasn't the only material for making gorgeous artistic creations during the Great Bronze Age of China. Hand-carved jade objects are also some of the most cherished and coveted artifacts from the Chinese bronze age.
In many respects, jade carvings made during the Bronze Age are as worthy of respect and recognition as the great bronzes themselves. First of all, jade is known for being notoriously difficult to work with. It's also a beautiful material, renowned for its lustrous color and smooth, silky finish.
These traits make ancient Chinese jade carvings some of the most coveted artifacts of the ancient world that can still be had by private collectors.
Chinese jade can refer to two separate materials: jadeite and nephrite. Nephrite is colorless in its natural state, but imperfections can cause light green, yellow, beige, or brown coloration.
Many ancient Chinese jade artifacts are of a deeper green or jade coloring, but more intricate and elaborate jewelry is often made up of lighter colors. This suggests that nephrite was rarer and may have been reserved for special ornamental purposes.
Some later Chinese jade carvings can even be beige. Some think that this beige jade may have originated from trading with Central Asia.
The image of lifelike statues in full military regalia is one of the most iconic and lasting of the Chinese Bronze Age. These are the Terracotta Warriors, and they are truly a wonder of the ancient world.
The Terracotta Warriors were first unearthed in 1974 in the Shaanxi province of northwest China. At first, it was thought they'd just discovered a shard of a clay vessel. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th Century.
The Terracotta Warriors were left to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the self-proclaimed first Emperor of China. Since 1974, archaeologists have since discovered numerous other burial pits, each containing its own Terracotta Warrior army. All of these pits have been consolidated into the Museum of the Terracotta Army, which has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in China.
The uniformity and great number of the Terracotta Warriors are a testament to the artisanal skill of artists living during the Chinese Bronze Age. Due to their popularity and the official involvement of the excavation, however, if you ever see a Terracotta Warrior on the market, you're going to want to verify its authenticity before investing.
Works of the Chinese Bronze Age have been impressing humanity for nearly 5,000 years. Considering their skill, craftsmanship, and gorgeous materials, it's safe to say they'll still be turning heads in 5,000 more.
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