Sichuan Museum – #7 The Warring States Bronzeware 戰國銅器 (Part 2)

The Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) was an interesting period in Chinese history. On one hand there’s the civil war – it’s a period of 500 years of unrest. On the other hand, it was also birth of the philosophical and cultural influences that defined the Chinese culture for generations to come.

Eastern Zhou period (6th Century – 225 B.C.) was also known as the period of Contention of Hundred School of Thoughts 百家爭鳴. There was sudden explosion of ideology and philosophy dominated by Confucianism, Taoism and Legalism. The civil war ended with the unification of China by the Qin. But Confucianism and Taoism gave rise to many customs and rituals that influenced that entire period. And these rituals required many instruments and important information to be inscribed on green bronze ware 青銅器

Instruments of Rituals and Ceremonies

Bronze is a metal primarily comprised of copper and tin but some lead may be added.  Bronze has been used for implements in China since the Xia Dynasty (2100 BC to 1600 BC).

A new vocabulary of wave and interlace patterns based on serpentine shapes evolves during the Eastern Zhou era, and these, along with purely geometric patterns, cover the vessels in overall designs. At the same time, handles become sculptural, depicting tigers, dragons, and other beasts in poses that emphasize the swells and curves of the body’s musculature. Bronze Square Kettle is also known as Fang 鈁 which mainly prevailed from the Spring and Autumn period 春秋時代 to Warring States period and occupy an important status in the ancient Sichuan bronze ritual vessels. Bronze Square Kettle with Phoenix Patterns has exquisite pattens and fine carving skills, showing high grade of craftwork with clear and bright depiction of the phoenix patterns of the period. The inlaid artwork indicates the close integration of the ancient bronze culture between Bashu area 巴蜀 and the Central Plains area 中原.

We owe the preservation of these ancient bronzes to their burial, either in storage pits, where they were hastily hidden by fleeing members of a defeated elite house, or, more commonly, in tombs.

Bronze ware from Han dynasty 漢朝青銅器

During the Shang (1765 BC to ~1122 BC) and Zhou periods (1045 BC to 221 BC) new, more elaborate forms were developed and the bronze age reached its height during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).  During the earliest times, bronze items focused on ritual objects and themes, gradually more attention was placed on scenes from everyday life.  It is this transition that signals the Second Bronze Age. 


There are numerous seals unearthed in ancient Sichuan.

This is an exquisite seal. The Square Seal with Beast Pattern is coved as a pyramid with handle and animal pattern surface. On the seal, there are two persons shaking hand with a lei 罍 (wine vessel) between them and an upward-turned bell 鐸 on top of their heads. This could be the seal of the tomb owner, and with the symbols, the person may be a royalty.

Bronze Kettle Inlaid with Cloud and Water Patterns 嵌错雲水纹铜壶

It is called Bronze Kettle Inlaid with Cloud and Water Patterns 嵌错雲水纹铜壶, which is a wine vessel. The cover is slightly arched and decorated with three cloud head buttons and curling cloud patterns, string patterns and cloud water patterns. On both sides, it is embedded with shoulder rings with beast face.

Bronze Kettle Inlaid with Cloud and Water Patterns 嵌错雲水纹铜壶, Wine Vessel, Warring States period (475-221 B.C.)

The body of the kettle is decorated with extremely slender silver wires with curved silver pieces, staggered into continuous and symmetrical cloud patterns of different sizes. Twelve heart-shaped patterns composed of moiré in the interior of the plain area in the lower belly. The ring feet are water ripples embedded in silver. It is exquisitely made and reflects the gold and silver inlay skills of the Ba people during the Warring States Period.

Bronze Kettle Inlaid with Land and Water Combat Patterns 嵌錯宴樂攻戰紋銅壺

This is a very intricate piece of bronze ware from the period that included many “firsts” in terms of archaeological finds. The bronze kettle is embedded wit multi-layers of pictures that can be divided into four layers with the triangle cloud patterns as the boundary. Here’s a great video that explained it in details (in Mandarin).

Bronze Kettle Inlaid with Land and Water Combat Patterns 嵌錯宴樂攻戰紋銅壺, Wine Vessel, Warring States period (475-221 B.C.)

The first layer showed mulberry picking and archery – the ritual of mulberry picking 親蠶禮 was practised by the royals all the way to the last imperial dynasty as an important annual ritual as China was the main exporter of silk. The second layer showed conviviality and war dance, and hunting. The third layer showed two war scenes, one on land, and the other on water – possibly the first naval battle captured anywhere. And the fourth layer showed hunting. It is a vivid and colourful picture of social life and reflects the change in the themes on bronze art from the customary rituals to social patterns and ideology.

Musical Instruments

With the discovery of bronze, various kinds of bells (nao 鐃, zheng 鉦, bo 鎛, ling 鈴) and drums (gu 鼓) were made. The ancient Zheng and Chun Yu 錞于 are similar to the modern tubular bells. These percussion instruments were used in battlefields to issue commands. And during piece time, a whole series of these instruments were used to represent the different notes in the Chinese music scales. The largest complete set was found in Hunan and on display in the Changsha Museum. Fragments were found in Sichuan as burial goods in the Warring States tombs.

The Kitchen

Everybody needs to eat

This has always been my favourite part of the bronze ware exhibitions. While the food and grains had all decayed, the cooking wares have remained and gave everyone a glimpse of the kitchen utensils of the period.

Bronze Dui 銅敦, Food Container

The dui is ritual food container with cover and during the Eastern Zhou period, it usually spherical in shape. The lid of this food container is embellished with three animals that function as feet when the lid is inverted as a tray. Paired dragons and rolling curls decorate the vessel surface. The vessel’s sumptuous decor is characteristic of Warring States bronzes, which by this period were seen as symbols of wealth and status rather than simply paraphernalia for solemn rituals.

Bronze Zeng 銅甑, Cooking Ware

Zeng  was the earliest Chinese steamer. Bronze zeng appeared in the early Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.) and was a vessel used by higher-ranking nobles to cook food with steam. The bottom part, called ge 鬲, was filled with water while the upper part, the zeng, held the food.

Bronze Yan 銅甗, Food Steamer

This bronze yan 甗 steamer was a ceremonial object of the nobility during the Shang dynasty. Its function was to steam food. The bottom part is where the water was placed. The upper part is where the food was placed. A mobile partition is in the middle with many holes which allow the steam to run through

Bronze Mou 銅鍪, Cooking Ware, Warring States period (475-221 B.C.)

A Bronze Mou 銅鍪 is used for boiling. They are hanged on hooks together with the tripods. They reminded me of the modern day Indian deghchi but with two handles. The mou works in the same way – it is filled with ingredients and the bot is boiled on open fire.

Bronze Yi 銅匜, Water Container, Warring States period (475-221 B.C.)

The Bronze Yi 銅匜 is similar to our gravy boat in size, but it was used to contain water for washing hands before rituals like sacrifice or before banquets.

Bronze Saw 銅鋸, Tool, Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.)

A bronze saw was found in one of these tombs. Perhaps it was left behind by the craftsman that built the tomb. Nevertheless it was a piece of evidence of the superior craftsmanship of that period.

Sichuan Provincial Museum 四川博物院
251 Huan Hua Nan Lu, Chengdu, Sichuan, China

Date Visited : Aug 2018

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