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Motifs on China's Shang and Zhou bronzes

Updated: Mar 22, 2019 Print

A wide range in the uses and styles of bronze vessels existed in ancient China, and those used for serving food and drinking wine were among the more aesthetic. They not only played an important role as luxurious daily necessities, but were emblems of ancient institutions of China's slave society. They were ritual objects representing the social rank and the authority of slave owners.

The vessels are stately and magnificent in shape and resplendent in motif; some are even engraved with inscriptions. They show diverse decorative styles from different periods.


Ink rubbing of a bronze goblet (jue) decorated with phoenix motif [Photo/]

Generally, the motifs are seen around the belly, the ring foot, or at the neck and the lid of a bronze vessel. Primary designs on most bronzes include zoomorphic motifs, geometric patterns, and depictions of human activities. Among them, the zoomorphic motifs are the most prevalent, followed by the geometric patterns. Motifs which showcase human activities didn't appear until the late Spring and Autumn Period to the Warring States Period (770–221 BC). Zoomorphic motifs, embodied not only in patterns but also in shapes, can be real or imaginary. As for the connotation of the motifs, academia identifies them as totems, sacrifices for cults, and apparatuses used for witchcraft.

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