The great cast bronzes of China are today deservedly celebrated for their splendour and sheer size. By looking behind that surface impression, and into the characters of their find-contexts, one can -- as for any class of artefact -- see behind what they are for us towards what they were in their own time.
Cast bronze vessels were used in ancient China to hold food and wine at the ceremonial banquets, sometimes called sacrifices, offered to the ancestors. These bronzes have been collected and treasured over the last 500 years or more, first of course in China and then in the West. They are highly valued today. Were they also valued in their own day? Is it possible for us to assess what made certain vessels particularly valuable?
There are a number of straightforward reasons for thinking that the bronze vessels were among the most highly prized objects in the Shang and Western Zhou periods, about 1500-771 BC. In the first place they used up large quantities of bronze, the material essential for effective weapons. Cast vessels are extravagant, requiring more metal than the beaten vases and cauldrons of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean (Bagley 1987: 16-17). Ritual vessels were also made in large numbers. At any one time groups of vessels were employed in the ritual banquets. The components of these groups recur in different burials and will therefore be termed sets. However, the set has to be understood as flexible, varying slightly as the occasion demanded. A typical set of the Anyang period belonging to a Shang noble, c. 1200 BC, comprised 20 or more different vessel shapes; the tomb of a consort of the Shang king Wu Ding, the Lady Fu Hao, contained over 200 pieces (Beijing 1980a). Indeed, many thousands of ritual bronzes still survive today. Willingness to employ such large quantities of an essential material suggests that the vessels themselves were valuable. The ritual vessels could have been made of ceramic. Ceramics were widely available and were employed for ceremonial vessels before the invention of bronze. With the advent of bronze at first only a few members of the ritual vessel set were made of metal: over several centuries ever more ritual vessels were made in the much more durable material.
To the value of the material can be added that of the labour used in casting. Chinese bronze castings were made by a complex system of piece moulds rather than by the lost-wax process. A highly developed ceramic technology was involved; workshops were probably large, and the stages of work subdivided between many artisans. This work force, in making so many items, was producing bronzes to the orders of a complex society. Vessels were made in many different but distinctive and standardized shapes; they were made in different sizes and with different degrees of decoration, ranging from plain and undecorated to the dense intricate patterns, as shown in FIGURE 1. It is likely that the largest and most highly decorated were the most highly esteemed, owned by the highest-ranking in society.
Bronzes, and probably also jades, were among the first materials to be allocated to the aristocracy according to some notion of status and rank. Conspicuous in inscriptions of c. 1000 BC, which record gifts from the Zhou king to his nobles, are jades, weapons, chariot fittings -- and bronze as a raw material from which vessels were cast. Here seem to be the beginnings of the control of valuable items by the king, who would distribute them to nobles as he deemed fit. Treatises on ritual of the 1st century bc articulate the view that particular degrees of elaboration of ritual or court items -- including dress, chariots and jades -- were restricted to particular ranks (Chavannes 1967). Explicit links between dress and other ceremonial items and rank were to remain essential features of the Chinese official system down to 1911. It is likely that early manifestations of the practices are to be found in the Shang and Zhou periods. …