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Types of Chinese bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties

Updated: Mar 22, 2019 Print

Copper was the first metal that humans learned to utilize. Judging from the average sequence of material progress of human society, our ancestors discovered and utilized copper (the pure metal) before they commanded metallurgy of bronze - an alloy principally of copper and tin. Bronze is known for such properties as having a lower melting point and greater rigidity than copper. Liquid bronze expands so adequately when molded that the resulting shape and intricate motifs are very well presented.


A bronze cauldron (ding) displayed in the showcase [Photo/VCG]

As copper was a scarce and valuable metal, bronze wares were monopolized and consumed only by the slave-owner class or aristocracies in China three to four thousand years ago, who commissioned bronze vessels and musical instruments as ritual objects used for high-class banquets and sacrificial offerings to ancestors, Heaven, Earth, and the god of soil and grains. The mid Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century -771 BC) saw the institutionalization of the use of bronze wares, in which the rank of king and aristocrats was measured by the number and size of their bronze ritual objects, which thus- became a symbol of power and prestige.

The type, style, size, and number of bronze items a member of the social elite could have were unequivocally coded. Take, for example, the use of bronze cauldrons (ding) in northern China: entitlement was usually grouped in odd numbers in descending order, so that the king could have nine, feudal lords (zhuhou) seven, ministers (qing) and grand masters (dafu) five, and servicemen (shi) three or only one. The same rules were applied to the possession of bronze tureens (gui), which are stipulated in even numbers, according to the owner's social rank. Although no one would normally dare to breach the law, even in his own honor in death, archaeological excavations show that some tomb occupants failed to comply with the code.

Bronze wares of the Shang and Zhou dynasties are in several categories according to their functions. Each encompasses a group of objects with peculiar shapes and names.

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