How Inscriptions and Style Reflect Politics: The Bronzes of King Cuo

By Wu, Xiaolong | Antiquity, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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How Inscriptions and Style Reflect Politics: The Bronzes of King Cuo

Wu, Xiaolong, Antiquity

The Warring States Period (476-221 BC) forms a bridge between the archaic kingdoms of the Shang and Zhou and the highly complex Qin and Han empires. This period witnessed profound socio-political transformation, economic development and intellectual ferment. The Zhou (c. 1050-221 BC) feudal system collapsed, and the powerful Zhou court was eclipsed by numerous contending vassal states. One of these warring states, the Zhongshan, was known only in sparse historical records until the late 1970, when the excavation of the tomb of King Cuo (c. 313 BC) in present-day Hebei Province brought to light thousands of artefacts left by this enigmatic kingdom. The tomb (Figure 1) yielded several hundred bronze artefacts, including ritual vessels, utensils, horse and chariot fittings, weapons, and structural pieces of lacquer ware, screens, tents and coffins. Many of the bronzes, especially the ones with elaborate designs, have on their surface carved or cast inscriptions that record the year, workshop, overseer and artisan responsible for the manufacture of the artefact. Therefore we can put them into a chronological order, and observe the developments and changes of their styles over time.


The artistic styles of these bronzes changed dramatically during the fourteenth year of King Cuo's reign, the year in which the state of Zhongshan achieved a great military success against a rival state, the Yan. New metallurgical technologies were used and new motifs were introduced into the iconographical vocabulary of the Zhongshan bronzes. This paper will identify these changes and discuss their significance in connection with the politics of their time.

The inscriptions on King Cuo's bronzes

The workshop inscriptions on the bronzes from the tomb specify the year of the king's reign, the workshop unit, the title and name of the overseer, and the title and name of the artisan (Figure 2). In some cases the weight of the completed artefact was also included. For instance, an inscription on a round bronze hu says "the tenth year, Youshi (workshop name), overseer Wu Qiu, artisan Zhou, weighs one shi and one hundred and forty-two dao." On ding, dou and li ritual vessels, workshop inscriptions were abbreviated and only included the workshop name and the artisan name. These inscriptions were added to bronzes for supervisory purposes in an effort to guarantee the quality of the final products (Liao Wenyuan1998: 49). Judging from the fact that writing styles of inscriptions which containing the same sefu, or overseer, but different gong, or artisans, are often very similar, the "workshop inscriptions" were probably written by overseers.


The earliest year that appeared in these inscriptions is the seventh year (the year number in these inscriptions is considered the year number of King Cuo's reign). Only one bronze could be identified as being made during the seventh year according to its own inscriptions, a flat hu. A bronze basin and a bronze yi were made in the eighth year according to their inscriptions. The workshop in the seventh and eighth years was called Yeyun in these inscriptions. Bronzes with a tenth-year inscription include a multi-plate lamp shaped like a tree, a plate, a round box, a round hu, and a dustpan. In inscriptions of this year the workshop of Yeyun was replaced by two new workshop names, Zuoshiku and Youshiku. Two bronze artefacts were made in the eleventh year: a round hu vessel and a he vessel (Figure 3), and four were manufactured in the twelfth year: a he, a round box, a round hu and a flat hu. In the thirteenth year, a new workshop called Siku appeared in the inscriptions, and eight artefacts were made in this year (Figure 4). The fourteenth year is the last year in these workshop inscriptions. This year produced not only the largest number of bronze artefacts, but the most elaborate and luxurious examples, such as a ding and a hu with long inscriptions, a table with complicated design, four winged beasts, and three screen stands shaped like animals (Figure 5).

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How Inscriptions and Style Reflect Politics: The Bronzes of King Cuo


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