Over time many types of vessels have been unearthed. At the bottom of this page we show some of the most common shapes, many of which you can find in our collection. But first we explain something about their history.
In different periods the styles of Chinese bronze objects were different. The bronze objects in the early ancient period were heavy and dignified. The bronze objects in the middle period were practical and simple. In the late period, besides being practical and simple ones, these also had graceful and intricate forms.
The ritual books of old China minutely describe who was allowed to use what kinds of sacrificial vessels and in what quantity.
The Chinese inscribed all kinds of bronze items with three main motif types: demons, symbolic animals, and abstract symbols, especially during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).
Ornaments on the Bronze Ware
The ornaments on the bronze ware are an important element of the spiritual content of the bronze ware. The effect of the bronze ware design on human sense is a formative element, while the ornaments on it represent the specific image of the interweaving of mythology and reality.
The ornaments on Chinese bronze ware are rich in content: animal patterns are the representatives, and plant patterns, cloud-and-thunder patterns, geometric patterns, human face patterns etc can also be found. The ornaments often give off a solemn and mysterious atmosphere, which may have something to do with the function of the bronze ware – sacrificial and ritual articles in ancient China. The Chinese ancestors believed that the design of the ornaments could communicate with divinities and frighten demons as well. Therefore, to enshrine the bronze ware in the temple would do something good to them – either bring them good luck or ward off evil spirits.
Some large bronzes also bear inscriptions that have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of China.
Early bronze inscriptions were almost always cast (that is, the writing was done with a stylus in the wet clay of the piece-mold from which the bronze was then cast), while later inscriptions were often engraved after the bronze was cast.
In the mid to late Warring States period (4th-3rd century BC), the average length of inscriptions decreased greatly. "Taotie"
The mystical Taotie
The Taotie is a motif commonly found on ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou Dynasty. The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, bilaterally symmetrical, with a pair of raised eyes and typically no lower jaw area. Some argue that the design can be traced back to Neolithic jades of the ancient Yangtze River Liangzhu culture (3310-2250 BCE).
Scholars have long been perplexed over the meaning (if any) of this theriomorphic design, and there is still no commonly held single answer. The hypotheses range from the design being a result of the casting process to theories that it depicts ancient face masks that may have once been worn by either shamans or the god-kings who were the link between humankind and their deceased ancestors.
The once-popular belief that the faces depicted the animals used in the sacrificial ceremonies has now more or less been rejected.
(Although some faces appear to be oxen, tigers, dragons, etc. some argue that the faces are not meant to depict actual animals, feline or bovine.) Most scholars favor an interpretation that supports the idea that the faces have meaning in a religious or ceremonial context, as the objects they appear on are almost always associated with such events or roles. As one scholar writes "art styles always carry some social references."
It is not known what word the Shang and Zhou used to call the design on their bronze vessels; There is no particular reason to assume that the term taotie was known during the Shang. In fact, the first known occurrence of this word is in Zuo Zhuan (the earliest Chinese work of narrative history and covers the period from 722 BCE to 468 BCE), where it is used to refer to one of the four evil creatures of the world 四凶: a greedy and gluttonous son of the Jinyun clan, who lived during the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor.
Nonetheless, the association of the term taotie with the motif on the Zhou (and Shang) bronzes is sufficiently ancient. It comes from the following passage in the Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals (16/3a, "Prophecy"): The taotie on Zhou bronzes [ding] has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them. In another translation : "It devoured a man, but before it could swallow it, its own body was damaged”
Some scholars consider that the meaning of 'taotie' is not "eating people" but making a mysterious communication between people and Heaven (gods).
The bronze wine vessels
fall into three kinds: drinking vessels, vessels for holding wine and vessels for storing wine. In addition, each kind can be further divided into a variety of sorts with different styles. The most common ones are the Jue and Jiao used for drinking wine, as well as the Zun and Hu for holding wine.
The bronze wine vessels embody the aesthetic trend and the spirit of the Shang and Chou dynasties.
The surfaces of these wine vessels are engraved with various animal images, like rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, horses, and goats, etc; some are the combination of different animal models endowed with supernatural and magic power in people's imagination.
Generally speaking, the bronze wine vessels in the Shang Dynasty tended to express the mystery of the nature, and those during the West Zhou Dynasty put stress on realistic substances, whereas the works in the later dynasties valued the liveliness, vividness and gaudiness.
Hu ( Wine vessel)
A hu is a type of pear-shaped ritual wine vessel. They would be placed in the grave of an ancestor as part of ritual banquet in order to ensure the good favor of that ancestor's spirit. During the Shang Dynasty one hu would typically be offered, decorated with relatively simple Taotie designs. During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) the style of the vessel changed, with Taotie being replaced by "heavy, rounded relief figures on a plain ground". During this period the vessels were also usually offered in pairs, and increased dramatically in size over their Shang predecessors.
By the late Spring and Autumn period (770-476BC) the decoration of the vessels in some regions had changed to reflect the influence of animal style art from Central Asian nomads. Hu of this type often used designs that were geometric versions of earlier Taotie motifs and employed copper inlay. During the Warring States period (475 BC to the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC) the shape of the vessel was occasionally modified, taking on a more squared appearance. This squared version of a hu is referred to as a fāng hú
Zun ( Wine vessel)
The zun or yi ( used until Northern Sòng) is an ancient type of Chinese bronze or ceramic wine vessel with a vase-like form, dating from the Shang Dynasty. Used in religious ceremonies to hold wine, the zun has a wide lip to facilitate pouring.
"Square Zun Carved with Four Goat Heads"
This square Zun is carved with four sheep heads , a replica of a bronze ware of the Shang Dynasty. The body of the zun is square and straight in design. Each of the four corners of the zun belly is carved with a protruding bust of a curly-horn goat, which adds to the diversity of the image of the article. The shoulders of the goats are decorated with the pattern of great birds, while the foot parts are carved in relief with ringed feet. Though only the upper part of each goat is carved, it presents to be a complete whole.
Ox-shaped Zun (Wine heater)
Oxen, rams and other animals used as ritual sacrifices in ancient times are called "Xi Sheng". Thus the name of "Xi Zun" is ascribed to this artifact because it is shaped into an ox. The vessel has a hollow belly and three holes on its neck and back. A panlike container can be set on the middle hole and be freely taken away. Considering the characteristics of its structure, it may have been used to warm wine - a pan-like container set to load the wine, and two holes in the front and the rear used to fill in hot water.
Xi Zun has a sturdy figure with delicate designs. The whole body, - head, neck, trunk, legs, and ass, - is clothed with manifold designs. In addition, some parts, such as the neck, are ornamented with small tigers, rhinoceros and other animals. The ox's nose is perforated, which shows oxen had been tamed to work for the people dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period.
Lei (Wine vessel)
The Lei originated from the late Shang Dynasty. Usually it has a lid, a small mouth, a short neck, a round shoulder, a deep belly and vertical or diagonal walls. The stand can be a flat or loop foot. Some have a nose in the lower part of the belly for holding when pouring wine.
Gong (Wine vessel)
Gong is a kind of wine pitcher. They were used during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, from around 1700 to 900 BCE. Gongs have a vertical handle at one end and a spout at the other, both zoomorphic, and were often highly decorated with Taotie. The handle of the Gong is of often in the shape of the neck and head of an animal with stylized horns, and the spout of the vessel is in the form of the head of a creature whose mouth constitutes the end of the spout.
"You" in an owl-form
You (Liquid vessel)
A You is a lidded vessel that was used for liquid offerings by the Chinese of the Zhou and Shang Dynasties. It sometimes lacks Taotie in favor of smoother surfaces. Sometimes these vessels are zoomorphic, especially in the form of two owls back to back. Usually the handle of the you is in the form of a loop that attaches on either side of the lid, but it is occasionally a knob in the center of the lid. They can be quadruped or have a single base.
Yi (Water vessel)
Yi's body is like half of a gourd, having an open sprout, a handle and a ring foot, all of which help to pour the water. In ancient times, while offering sacrifices to ancestors or entertaining guests, people were expected to wash their hands in these water containers to show their respect.
Gu (Liquid vessel)
Gu has a simple shape, usually with a broad mouth, a tube-shaped body and a high ring foot. Generally speaking, Gu in the early years is rather plump and only later becomes slender and elegant.
Pan (Water vessel)
It is a broad and shallow water vessel, with two thick upright handles attached to the belly.
Bronze food vessels
Ding (Food Vessel)
In Chinese history and culture, possession of one or more ancient dings is often associated with power and dominion over the land. Therefore, the ding is often used as an implicit symbolism for power. The term "inquiring of the ding" is often used interchangeably with the quest for power. Dings were originally made of ceramic and later, at the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), cast in bronze. This is the period to which the oldest examples of dings date back. They were using for cooking, storage and the preparation of ritual offerings to ancestors. It is a vessel with legs, a lid and two handles opposite each other. They were made in three shapes with round vessels having three legs and rectangular and square ones four.
Gui (food vessel)
Gui is the most common food vessel. It is a container for cooked food. It appeared in the early Shang Dynasty and gradually became the basic ritual vessel. Usually it is used in pairs with Ding. It has either two or four ears, three or four assorting legs and sometimes a ring foot upon a square stand.
Dou (food vessel)
It is an exquisite food container. Its bulging cover has a disc-shaped handle. It also has a deep belly with two ring handles and a short-stemmed base.
Yan is a type of cooking vessel for steaming. Its belly is composed of two rooms. The upper room is Zeng for food, and the lower one is Li for water. The two rooms connect with each other with a Bizi, a kind of grid. Bizi, linked to the body, lets steam pass and can be turned upwards to clean the inner part of the Li.
Close to Gui, Dui is used for cooked cereal. After the middle Spring and Autumn Period, Dui gradually came into use. Their shapes had regional characteristics that varied greatly from the Central Plains to the southern states.
The bronze mirror was used by the Chinese people before the introduction of the glass mirror. The unearthed bronze mirror in the Cultural Relics of Qi Family of Gansu Province traced the Chinese bronze mirror history to 4000 years ago. In a long history, the bronze mirror was not only an indispensable commodity for the people's daily life, but even an art treasure of the Chinese culture.
Because the Chinese people had a concept of "hemispherical dome" since the ancient times, the bronze mirror was generally round in shape. A bronze mirror is mainly composed of a frame, a mirror, a button, a button base, inside and outside ornamentation, and the fringe. There were various ornaments, such as convex, phoenix, beast, flower and leaves, lattice ornamentations, etc. Some also have inscriptions. The changes of the structures of the bronze mirrors in different historical periods reflected the influences of the social and cultural differences of such periods. The ornamentations and the inscriptions are the key part for the people to appreciate the bronze mirrors.
There were the excellent bronze mirrors unearthed in the past dynasties of China, particularly the Han and Tang Dynasties were two peaks for the development of the bronze mirror arts. Until the middle and later period of the Qing Dynasty, about 200 years ago, the bronze mirror was replaced by the glass mirror, and gradually retreated from the people's life. However, the bronze culture with a long history, exquisite techniques, abundant connotation, has not disappeared yet, but has profoundly integrated into the social life and cultural consciousness of the Chinese people.
Bronze bell from "Bianzhong"
is an ancient Chinese musical instrument consisting of a set of bronze bells, played melodically. These sets of chime bells were used as polyphonic musical instruments and some of these bells have been dated at between 2000 to 3600 years old. They were hung in a wooden frame and struck with a mallet. Tthey were an important instrument in China's ritual and court music going back to ancient times.
Bianzhong bells rank among the highest achievements of Chinese bronze casting technology, yet the secret of their design and the method of casting them—which was known only to the Chinese in antiquity—was lost in later generations. It was not fully rediscovered and understood until 1978, when a complete ceremonial set of 65 zhong bells was found in a near-perfect state of preservation during the excavation of the tomb of Marquis Yi, who died ca. 430 BCE. Yi was ruler of Zeng, one of the Warring States ( This region is now part of the present-day Hubei province).
The bells are unique among all other types of cast bells in several respects. They have a lens- -shaped (rather than circular) section, the bell mouth has a distinctive "cutaway" profile, and the outer surfaces of the large bells feature 36 studs or bosses, symmetrically placed around the body in four groups of nine. This special shape gives zhong bells the remarkable ability to produce two different musical tones, depending on where they are struck. The interval between these notes on each bell is either a major or minor third, equivalent to a distance of four or five notes on a piano. These bells usually have inscriptions on them from which scholars used as references for studying ancient Chinese writings (also known as Bronzeware script).
"Bronze Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow"
Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow, also called A Horse Surpassing over the Dragon-Swallow, or Bronze Galloping Horse, is a bronze artwork of the Eastern Han Dynasty. This horse statue, a representative of late bronze artworks, was unearthed in the Leitai Tomb of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) in Gansu Province in the west of China. With a height of 34.5 centimeters and a length of 45 centimeters, the horse is raising its head, neighing and galloping forward with one hoof treading on a flying swallow, symbolizing that its speed can surpass that of the swallow. That the static sculpture is full of dynamic power reflects the excellent expression force of bronze artwork of the Eastern Han Dynasty and the positioning of its four legs strictly conforms to that of a living horse balancing on a little swallow manifest the high level of design and craftsmanship.
The Bronze Galloping Horse is the apotheosis of aesthetics of ancient China. It incarnates the rich imagination and exquisite craftsmanship of ancient sculptors and is the representative work of the time-honored cultural tradition and the oriental aesthetic art. It is now preserved in the Gansu Provincial Museum. «
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