Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chinese Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Excerpt

The people of China at a very early date established a stable form of society, with a religion, a philosophy, an etiquette, and the innumerable traditions which grew up around them. Once established, these basic elements of civilization have endured until the present day. The system has been able to receive and absorb the successive shocks and impacts of the conquests of new peoples from the north and west, to embrace and remold to its advantage the new customs and ideas forcibly or otherwise imposed upon it.

The early religion of the Chinese was a matter of nature and ancestor worship. The former did not encourage the physical representation of the elements it venerated; nor is there any proof that the latter was accompanied by images or portraiture. On the contrary there is a strong indication that it was not, since we are told that at certain ceremonies for the dead a young male member of the family was commonly chosen to impersonate the deceased.

This accounts in part for the fact that very, very little sculpture dated prior to the Han dynasty has been discovered. Recent excavations at An-yang only go to bear out the theory that such sculpture as there may have been was of a character similar to the early bronzes. It was apparently mostly architectural ornament and when in the round was carved in a formalized decoration similar in style to that of the bronzes.

The development and changes of style in these bronze vessels may be traced from the Shang dynasty through the Han, which saw an end of the real greatness of ceremonial bronze vessels. The earliest known bronzes command our respect and admiration and force us to the supposition that they were the result of a long period of endeavor. The shapes of these bronzes are vigorous and well balanced, the designs with which they are decorated are dynamic and virile. From the beginning the tendency was to elaborate the complicated conventionalized and symbolic designs until the objects were completely covered with a deeply cut and brilliantly executed pattern in a style that bears a remarkable likeness to that of the temples of Central America.

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