Chinese bronzes occupy a very particulate place in the Chinese civilization history and culture. Indeed, from their remote origin (more than two thousand years), they testify of the know-how of the Chinese people on the matter. They offer a range of forms of a great diversity whose archaeological value is priceless. In addition to the scientific aspect, they are also works of art reaching the perfection.

Bronze is a tin and copper alloy, to which a small quantity of lead is added. Its appearance marks the end of the Age of Stone and the beginning of the Age of Fire.

Indeed, copper exists in a native state. It is malleable, ductile, and can thus be worked with discretion, through hammering. Once melted, copper can be moulded and give rise to objects of varied forms. The long experience of the old Chinese in the copper melting (of pale red because of the impurities), coupled with the addition of a proportion of tin made it possible to improve the metallurgy of copper.

Tin made it possible to lower the melting point of copper and increased its degree of hardness. This tin and copper alloy took the name of airain, then of bronze.

The appearance of bronze marks a major turning in the history of humanity. Because it could be moulded and thus to be used to produce objects on a great scale, its use was essential more and more. Up to now, the ancient people used only the stone instruments. This progress increased the productivity considerably and played a significant role in the evolution of civilization. All old civilizations as that of China passed by this stage where bronze was used for manufacture of tools and food appliances.

The use of bronze allowed the manufacture of tools which enable to build dwellings, to irrigate water, to build roads, and also to fight battle against the invaders.

Chinese bronze (and thus of Chinese civilization) finds its origin in the alluvial plain sprinkled by the Huang He (famously called Yellow River) which is mainly located in the heart of Central China. Cf historical data on this site.

During nearly two thousand years, from the seventeenth century B.C to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 22 A.C), the Chinese used rare and invaluable bronze to melt of great quantities of ritual pots, weapon and musical instruments which were elegant and finely decorated, and which comprised inscriptions in Chinese characters. These objects testify to the artistic achievement of ancient China and prove that the Chinese knew very early to employ with ingeniousness the natural resources they had to crystallize science and art in their works.

If it is considered that the work of bronze started at the time of the Xia Dynasty and the beginning of Shang Dynasty, it is towards the medium and the end of this last dynasty that the art of bronze reaches its tops. Thereafter, bronzes occupy a significant place throughout the Chinese history. The bronze objects were largely widespread in the everyday life, even at the period of the “Fighting Kingdoms” (475-221 B.C.) of Qin and Han Dynasty (221 B.C), where the use of iron spread. The techniques of bronze manufacture continued to progress.

Chinese bronzes fill with wonder, as well by their number (more than 7000 parts before the Qin Dynasty) as by their variety and multiplicity of their use. Those which start to be initiated with bronzes find often complicated and difficult to memorize the characters of their names. The reason is that the names of Chinese bronzes are defined according to their original names of which some, current for the ancient men, disappeared from the modern vocabulary.

By preoccupations with a comprehension, we will present to you the rules of denomination of ancient bronzes, like their names and uses.

Chinese bronzes can be classified in ten categories: ritual objects (classified in four categories, for cooking, presentation or conservation of food, wine and water), musical instruments, parts of harness, weapons, tools, measuring apparatus and utility objects.

Within each category, one can find a infinite variety of forms and drawings which fully show the imagination and the creativity of the ancient Chinese :

  • Ding were intended for cooking (of the meat in particular), and comprised a pair of handles on the edges to facilitate the handling of it. Some have three feet (tripod) of round shape, others have four of square form, and are equipped with a lid or not. The tripod ding has three feet which support the vessel at a suitable distance to fire for the cooking of the meat. There are various sizes, of a few centimetres to more than one meter height (being able to cook whole oxen and stags) with Chinese inscription or not. The ding in series (lie ding) form a whole set of tripods arranged in an order descending of size. Their number then indicated the social rank of the owner. The Emperor (thus the Son of Heaven) had some of nine up to twelve, all the other noble ones were obligatorily to have some less than him (according to the row that they occupied).
  • Gui were used to present rice, the millet and other food. They could appear in many different styles equivalent to the contemporary rice containers. Some had a circular base to stabilize the paunch, others had square base added to the circular base to create an elegant contrast between the two forms. Like Dings, Gui exist in many different sizes. It exists big ones (largest never manufactured has a height of 59cm and weighs 60 kg).
  • Jue, or wine vessels, offer an astonishing variety of forms. They are especially employed to heat and drink the wine (or other beverage): it had a spout and a handle on side, as three feet which made it possible to easily heat the wine (beverage) on a hearth. This is why the lower part which received the flame was conceived to collect heat quickly. Many cups were emptied during businesses meetings.
  • Zun were the principal type of containers intended to preserve wine and could be either of round form, or of square form, or to have a round mouth and a square base. The wine containers, named zun, were used to honour the hosts with whom one wanted to show marks of respect (the Chinese word "zun" means "respect"). In Chinese antiquity, there were many wine containers with animal representations such as owls, oxen, rhinoceros, elephants, or others. These animals often had a fabulous connotation. This kind of objects was generally called zun.

Ancient bronzes emphasized the balance and the symmetry of form to accentuate their ceremonial character.

In the ritualistic society of ancient China, bronzes were mainly employed to melt the ceremonial crockery which one used in the sacrifices dedicated to the Gods of Heaven, the ground, the mountains and the rivers. This crockery was also used in the banquets, was offered in reward, and was useful in the funeral for the nobility (conceived especially to be used as funerary objects buried with the late one).

Bronzes ritual could not thus be useful in the ordinary circumstances of the everyday life. As bronze is a durable and resistant material, it was used by the Kings as gift in honour of the dukes ancestors, princes and ministers who had contributed a great share to the country or the sovereign, in order to establish a model or a memory for the future generations.

Thereafter, and progressively with the dynasties, bronzes were looked like symbols of good fortune.

Drawing appearing on Chinese bronzes

In the majority of drawings used on bronzes, one finds a main drawing whose three-dimensional character is raised by a basic drawing.

The "clouds style", the most current drawings, proceeded of the fingerprints left by the potters on their works, giving birth gradually to this style with concentric or spiral circles drawings. Drawings of nipples or in triangular thin strap found on bronzes belonging to the Culture of Erlitou had already been raised on potteries of the Culture of Longshan (four thousand years).

Masks of Tao Tie, in other words, animal-style drawings, appear among most widespread.

From a general point of view, the drawings on bronze of Shang Dynasty are characterized by a mystical and hieratic style. At that time, one dedicated a primitive worship with the ancestors; the King of Shang subjected the Chinese people with his religious power. This power of mysticity is found in the same drawings for bronzes.

The masks of TaoTie had themselves a very marked mystical character. It is a symbolic drawing, used three thousand years ago on Chinese sacrificial bronzes, and which joins together all the animal characteristics of the world in only one wild creature called TaoTie. Sat on burning flames, the animal, with its enormous eyes, staring with a furious glance towards that which looks at it, and the opened large mouth, it shows its hooks sharpened like knives. A pair of ears or horns surmounts its cranium. All sharp-edged claws outside, the animal is held lends to the attack. As alarming as could be this imaginary wild beast, it evoked the mystery and the beauty. The TaoTie is one of the most extraordinary drawings and most original decorating Chinese bronzes, and it transmits perfectly the religious and ritual significance of the bronze crockery.

Zhou people manufactured bronzes with the drawings of TaoTie heads devouring men ("even before to have swallowed their preys, their body was destroyed").

Masks of TaoTie became very varied under the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Seen closely, they resemble a dragon, with a tiger, an ox, a goat, a stag, sometimes even with a bird or a man. That one which is similar to a dragon is made of two side drawings, same as for ox and tiger.

The legendary bird, Xiao (with large head and small bent nozzle) is often seen on Shang bronzes. It was certainly a significant subject of ancient mythology.

The most current fabulous animals are the dragon and the phoenix whose characters are already present in the inscriptions on bone and carapaces of tortoises. The dragon presents a body of snake, a capped wood head of stag and four legs with five claws. That of the Shang Dynasty remained the same one, except that wood are replaced by kinds of antennas called "horns in the shape of bottle". Most of dragons decorated on bronze present this type of antennas. As for the phoenix, it is represented with a long tail and a peak, a little like a peacock.

Nao is also a mythical animal, represented on bronzes like a kind of dragon on only one foot.

Animal-style bronzes of Shang Dynasty take also shape of rhinoceros, elephant and crocodile. These animals, although real, were relatively rare in China, so that one liked to represent them like decorative elements.

The drawing of the "TaoTie" (Shang Dynasty) is the most striking example: side view, the two symmetrical and distinct animals are in relief on the vessel; but face view, they appear to form only one animal.

After the Western Zhou period, the mystical representations disappeared gradually to the benefit of chains, fish scales and waves drawings. Only the dragon and the phoenix remained as principal topics for the decoration of many Bronze objects. Many figurative drawings were created on the basis of these two fabulous creatures. For example, the scaled drawings refer to the dragon body, and multi-level rings remind the scales of this animal. Most appreciated decorations in the middle of Western Zhou period were the figures in thin strap, undoubtedly inspired of a dragon with double tail rolled up in "S".

The cicadas-style drawings often appear on Shang and Western Zhou bronzes, and even during “Springs and Autumns” period, although almost unrecognizable.

The principle of symmetry was at this time broken with the profit of band or chain formats which encircled the vessel body. After mid- “Springs and Autumns” (770-476 B.C), most frequently used decoration was the drawing in geometrical bands of animals, vertically intermingled. Under Shang Dynasty, the background drawing to supplement the principal drawing was often composed of clouds and flashes. From mid Western Zhou, the drawings became increasingly rare and the background drawing fell finally in disuse. After the period of Springs and Autumns, the granulated decoration and other drawings started to appear on background drawing. They then compose with free features, vivid, sophisticated drawings representing life scenes of the ancient society. The drawings were recalling the scenes of hunting, banquet and battle testifying their ancient pleasures.

During “Fighting Kingdoms”, the main drawings were "floating clouds". These drawings differ from many clouds-style drawings, as well by the design as by the form. The floating clouds are associated the idea of immortality which started to be essential at the time. The influence of Taoism in the State of Chu was undoubtedly the reason. These floating clouds expressed their vitality until Qin and Han Dynasties.

Techniques used to carry out the varied bronze drawings went from the engraved lines to the decorations in relief used in the first periods, drawings in deep relief and three-dimensional drawings of sculpture, to arrive finally at the encrusted decorations. The materials employed for the incrustation work included gold, silver, copper and turquoise. The subjects could be animals accompanied by geometrical forms intermingled on straight, diagonal and curved lines. All these drawings were added for decorative ends only.

During millenia, Bronze objects exposed to moisture or buried under ground underwent a natural deterioration, developing on their surface a layer of patina. This patina protected metal from additional damage, and its colour, which can vary sharp red with the green emerald or blue sapphire, still adds to the beauty of the vessels. The Chinese particularly like this coloured coating and this is why they choose to maintain it intact.


Nowadays, one still finds the beauty of the traditional art of bronze in the burning pots and sacrificial crockery of the temples, in the statues set up in the schools or the decorative parts at the private individuals; all these objects were subject to the influence of the art of ancient bronzes. The traditional drawings on bronzes are today a source of inspiration in architecture, fashion or furniture. This is a way of perpetuating the intelligence and the artistic genius of the ancient Chinese.

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