Travelogues

Shanghai Museum – Gallery of Ancient Chinese Bronze

Many bronzes with unique shapes and distinctive regional styles have been found in remote areas of China. They exhibit artistic achievements made by the ethnic people in the areas, and reflect the characteristics of ethnic cultures and their blends in ancient China.

Sets of ritual bronzes (in Chinese: 中国青铜器) are the most impressive surviving objects from the Chinese Bronze Age. From around 1650 BCE, these elaborately decorated vessels were deposited as grave goods in the tombs of royalty and the nobility, and were evidently produced in very large numbers, with documented excavations finding over 200 pieces in a single royal tomb. They were produced for an individual to use in ritual offerings of food and drink to his ancestors in family temples or ceremonial halls over tombs, or rather ritual banquets in which both living and dead members of a family participated; early literary records speak of these. On the death of the owner they would be placed in his tomb, so that he could continue to pay his respects in the afterlife; other examples were cast specifically as grave goods.

The ritual bronzes were probably not used for normal eating and drinking; they represent larger, more elaborate versions of the types of vessels used for this, and made in precious materials. Many of the shapes also survive in pottery, and pottery versions continued to be made in an antiquarian spirit until modern times. Apart from table vessels, weapons and some other objects were made in special ritual forms. Another class of ritual objects are those, also including weapons, made in jade, which was probably the most highly valued of all, and which had been long used for ritual tools and weapons, since about 4,500 BCE.

At least initially, the production of bronze was probably controlled by the ruler, who gave unformed metal to his nobility as a sign of favour.

Classification

The appreciation, creation and collection of Chinese bronzes as pieces of art and not as ritual items began in the Song dynasty and reached its zenith in the Qing dynasty during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, whose massive collection is recorded in the catalogues known as the Xiqing gujian (西清古鑑) and the Xiqing jijian (西清繼鑑). Within those two catalogues, the bronzeware is categorized according to use:

  • Sacrificial vessels (祭器, jìqì),
  • Wine vessels (酒器, jiǔqì),
  • Food vessels (食器, shíqì),
  • Water vessels (水器, shuǐqì),
  • Musical instruments (樂器, yuèqì),
  • Weapons (兵器, bīngqì),
  • Measuring containers (量器, liángqì),
  • Ancient money (錢幣, qiánbì), and
  • Miscellaneous (雜器, záqì).

Sacrificial vessels (祭器, jìqì),

Dǐng (鼎) Sacrificial vessel (祭器), originally a cauldron for cooking and storing meat (食器). The Shang prototype has a round bowl, wider than it is tall, set on three legs (足); there are two short handles on each side (耳).

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獸面紋鼎(商代中期 BCE 15-13 Century)

During the Early Western Zhou Dynasty, the people underwent a political and cultural change. King Wu of Zhou believed that the Shang people were drunkards. He believed that their over-consumption of wine led their king to lose the Mandate of Heaven, thus leading to the downfall of the Shang dynasty. Because of this belief, food vessels (and ding in particular) replaced wine vessels in importance. Bronze vessels underwent what has been called the “Ritual Revolution.” This theory suggests that because there was a change in decor as well as the types and variations of vessels found in tombs, their function shifted from solely religious to a more secular one. Instead of sacrificing food to appease ancestors, the Zhou used ding to show off the status of the deceased to both the living and spirits.

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蛟龍垂鱗紋鼎(春秋晚期 BCE6 Century-BCE476)

Ding symbolized status. For example, emperors were buried with nine ding, feudal lords with seven, ministers with five, and scholar-bureaucrats with three or one.

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蛟龍垂鱗

The vessels served as symbols of authority for the elite far into the Warring States period。

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各朝代 鼎

There is a variation called a fāngdǐng (方鼎) which has a square bowl and four legs at each corner. There exist rare forms with lids. 西清古鑒 contains over two hundred examples, and this is the most highly regarded of all Chinese bronzes.

父戊方鼎(商代晚期 BCE13-11世紀)、田吿父丁方鼎(西周早期 BCE11世紀)、德方鼎(西周成王 BCE11世紀)、亞酗方鼎(商代晚期 BCE13-11世紀)

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德方鼎(西周成王BCE11世紀上半葉)

Later examples became larger and larger and were considered a measure of power. It is considered the single most important class of Chinese bronzeware in terms of its cultural importance.

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透雕波曲紋鋪、山奢虎簠、垂鱗紋鍑、斜角雲紋盆

Fǔ (簠): Rectangular dish, triangular in vertical cross-section. Always with a lid shaped like the dish.

Zèng (甑): A rice pot; referred to as a 腹 fù (third from left) in Xiqing gujian. Has no separate category in 西清古鑑: see yǎn (甗).

Wine vessels (酒器, jiǔqì)

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共父乙觥 (商代晚期 BCE 13-11 Century)

Gōng (觥, not pronounced guāng): Wine vessel often elongated and carved in the shape of an animal. There is always a cover and the mouth of the vessel usually covers the length of the vessel. This is not a classification used in the Xiqing gujian; objects of this type are classed under 匜 (Yi (vessel)).

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獸面紋觚 (商代中期 BCE15-13 Century)

Gū (觚): Tall wine cup with no handles, the mouth larger than its base.

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鄂叔簋(西周早期BCE11世紀)

Guǐ (簋): A bowl with two handles.

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獸面紋簋(商代晚期BCE13-11世紀)
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獸面紋斝(商代中期 BCE15-13 Century)

Jiǎ (斝): A cauldron for warming wine. Like a dǐng (鼎) except the body is taller than it is broad, and it may have two sticks (柱) sticking straight up from the brim, acting as handles.

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獸面紋爵(商代中期 BCE 15-13 Century)

Jué (爵): A wine cup with three legs, a spout (流) with a pointed brim extension (尾) diametrically opposite, plus a handle (鋬).

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畐父辛爵(商代晚期BCE13-11世紀)

Jué (爵): A wine cup with three legs, a spout (流) with a pointed brim extension (尾) diametrically opposite, plus a handle (鋬).

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牛首獸面紋尊(商代晚期BCE13-11世紀)

Zūn (尊 or 樽 or 鐏): Wine vessel and sacrificial vessel (器為盛酒亦祭用也). Tall cylindrical wine cup, with no handles or legs. The mouth is usually slightly broader than the body. In the late Zhōu (周) dynasty, this type of vessel became exceedingly elaborate, often taking the shape of animals and abandoning the traditional shape. These later types are distinguished from gōng (觥) by retaining a small, roughly circular mouth. This type of vessel forms the second largest group of objects in the Xiqing gujian, after the dǐng (鼎).

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亞䨗方罍(商代晚期 BCE13-11 Century)

Léi (罍): Vessel for wine with a round body, a neck, a cover and a handle on either side of the mouth.

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四古朝代 觶

Zhì (觶): Broad-mouthed vase, similar in shape to a hú (壺), but with no handles.

From left:小臣單觶(西周成王 BCE11世紀)、父庚觶(西周早期 BCE11世紀)、四瓣目紋觶(商代晚期 BCE13-11世紀)、?父乙觶(商代晚期 BCE13-11世紀)

Food vessels (食器, shíqì)

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魚龍紋盤(西周晚期 BCE9 Century-CE771)

Pán (盤): Round curved dish for food. May have no legs, or it may have three or four short legs.

Water vessels (水器, shuǐqì)

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蓮瓣蓋龍紋壺(春秋中期 BCE7-6世紀)

Móu (鍪): A vase with two handles. Vessels of this type are classed as hú (壺) in the Xiqing gujian.

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四羊首瓿(商代晚期 BCE13-11世紀)

Pǒu (瓿, pronounced in China): A small bronze wèng (甕).

Musical instruments (樂器, yuèqì)

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秦公鎛(春秋早期BCE770-7世紀)

Bõ (鎛): Musical instrument.

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透雕蟠龍鼓座(春秋晚期 BCE6 Century-BCE476)

Gǔ (鼓): A drum.

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亞酗鐃(商代晚期BCE13-11世紀)

Náo (鐃): Cymbals. Not represented in Xiqing gujian. See also bó (鈸).

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梁其鐘(西周晚期BCE9-BCE771)

Zhōng (鐘): A large bell, as might stand in a tower.

Weapons (兵器, bīngqì)

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吳王光劍(春秋晚期 BCE6 Century-BCE476)

Jiàn (劍): A sword. There are only three examples in Xiqing gujian.

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鑲嵌十字紋方鉞(晚夏(BCE 18-16 century)

Yuè (鉞): A ceremonial blade as part of an ancient axe.

Miscellaneous

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吳王夫差鑑(春秋晚期 BCE6世紀-BCE476)

Jiàn (鑑 or 鑒): Refers to two different objects: either a tall, broad bronze dish for water, or a circular bronze mirror, usually with intricate ornamentation on the back. The modern meaning is a mirror.

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梁其盨(西周晚期 BCE9 Century-CE771)

Xǔ (盨): A vessel with two ears and lid, serving as a food container (may not appear in the “Imperial Collection”).

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伯遊父醽(春秋中期 BCE7-6世紀)

Ling 伯遊父醽(左部應為缶旁)A wine vessel

Special Exhibits

Min Fang Lei 皿方罍

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皿方罍(商代晚期 BCE12-11世紀)

The Min fanglei is dated to the late Shang dynasty or early Western Zhou dynasty (12th – 11th century BC). It is a fanglei, or square or rectangular lei, a type of ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel. The Min fanglei is 88 cm (35 in) tall, and its mouth measures 26.1 cm × 21.6 cm (10.3 in × 8.5 in). Without the lid, it is 64 cm (25 inches) tall and weighs 42 kg (92.5 pounds).

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皿方罍(商代晚期 BCE12-11世紀)

The fanglei is named for the bronze inscription inside its body, which reads “Min zuo Fu Ji zun yi” (Chinese: 皿作父己尊彝), or “Min made [this] esteemed vessel for Father Ji”. On the inside of its lid, the inscription has two extra characters: “Min Er [or Tian] Quan zuo Fu Ji zun yi” (皿而[or 天]全作父己尊彝), or “Min Er [or Tian] Quan made [this] esteemed vessel for Father Ji”.

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皿方罍(商代晚期 BCE12-11世紀)

It is one of the largest of its kind, and called the “King of Fanglei”.

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皿方罍(商代晚期 BCE12-11世紀)

It is finely decorated on each of its four sides, with pairs of dragons cast on its shoulders and a horned dragon mask on its handle. Because of its size and workmanship, it is called the “King of Fanglei”.

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Reunited at last

After its accidental discovery in 1919 in Hunan, its lid remained in China but the body was sold to collectors overseas, and set a world-record auction price for an Asian art work in 2001 when it fetched US$9.24 million. In 2014, a group of Chinese collectors bought it for a price between US$20 and 30 million, and donated it to the Hunan Museum, where it was reunited with its lid.

This fangled was on loan to Shanghai Museum for the purpose of the World Expo in Shanghai.

Da He Ding 大禾鼎

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大禾方鼎(商代 BCE1600-1046)

The Da He ding is named for the inscription in bronzeware script on its interior wall, which reads “Da He” (Chinese: 大禾), or “Great Grain”. Judging by the inscription, it may have been used during sacrifices for harvest. Although the Da He ding was discovered in the southern Yangtze region, its inscription closely resembles those found in the core Zhongyuan region of the Shang dynasty.

The ding is rectangular, with four legs, a common shape during the late Shang. It is 38.5 centimetres (15.2 in) high, and its opening measures 29.8 centimetres (11.7 in) by 23.7 centimetres (9.3 in), which is slightly larger than its bottom.

The most unique feature of the vessel is that each of its four sides is decorated with a dominant human face in high-relief, which is found in no other ancient Chinese bronzeware. Around the faces are small symbolic decorations of horns and claws, indicating a half-human, half-animal nature of the figures. There are many speculations regarding the identity of the figures, including ancient mythological figures such as Taotie, Zhurong, Chiyou, and the four-faced Yellow Emperor. They may also represent Nuo masks or local ancestral deities.

Pig Shape Zun 豕形銅尊

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豕形銅尊(商代 BCE1300-1046)

Copper Pig Zun is a ritual wine vessel, late Shang Dynasty (about 1300 BC – 1046 BC), with a height of 40cm and a length of 72cm. The copper pig zun was used as wine vessel for ceremonial purposes. The oval opening on the back of the pig was covered with a lid with phoenix, and the wine is poured into the abdomen. From the perspective of animal evolution, it is not a domesticated, but a powerful wild boar.

There are holes in front of and behind the elbow. From a practical point of view, the zun would weigh more than 30 kilograms and has a volume of 13 liters. After it is full, it is difficult for a person to carry it. With this hole, it can be worn by a rope for people to lift. The pig is decorated with scales, dragons and animal prints.

This is the only pig-shaped zun found in existence. The phoenix cover was added later by reconstructing the fragments found together with main body.

Da Ke Ding 大克鼎

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大克鼎(西周孝王 BCE10世紀末)

The Da Ke ding (大克鼎) is an ancient Chinese bronze circular ding vessel from the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BC). Unearthed in Famen Town, Fufeng County, Shaanxi in 1890, it is on display in the Shanghai Museum. The tripod has 290 Chinese characters in 28 lines inside the tripod. The inscriptions recorded that the monarch of the Western Zhou dynasty awarded slaves and land to the nobleman, Ke (克).

The tripod is round, with three legs and two ears, a common shape during the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BC). It is 93.1-centimetre (36.7 in) high and weights 201.5-kilogram (444 lb). Its inside diameter is 74.9-centimetre (29.5 in) with a bore of 75.6-centimetre (29.8 in). Its mouth was engraved with Taotie patterns and its abdomen was engraved with wave patterns, and its ears was engraved with Chinese dragon patterns.

The Da Ke ding, the Da Yu ding in the National Museum of China, and the Mao Gong ding in the National Palace Museum in Taipei have been called the “Three Treasures of China”。

About the Museum

The Shanghai Museum is a museum of ancient Chinese art, situated on the People’s Square in the Huangpu District of Shanghai, China. Rebuilt at its current location in 1996, it is considered one of China’s first world-class modern museums.

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