Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Excerpt

This book describes the artistic bronzes of ancient China from the beginning of bronze-founding in the middle of the second millennium B.C. to the end of the second century A.D. This period includes the Shang, Chou and Han dynasties, and constitutes the first great cycle of Chinese art. It was an age of narrow, tenacious traditions. Its stylized motifs, partly animal and partly abstract, can be traced through a singularly logical development. Towards the middle of the Han dynasty (at about the beginning of the Christian era), a more naturalistic style is introduced, and we then stand on the threshold of a decorative tradition which leads to the familiar art of mediaeval and recent times.

Since no buildings or monumental sculpture remain from ancient time, the bronzes are the chief testimony to the earliest artistic and technological achievements of the Chinese. Some bronze weapons and ornamental pieces, particularly those produced in the fifth -- third centuries B.C., rank with the finest metal-work of the ancient world. But it is the ritual vessels which by their beauty and high craft have attracted most attention both in China and abroad, and on them the fame of the Chinese Bronze Age chiefly rests.

The vessels were used in sacrifice to gods and ancestors, and -- despite the injunction inscribed on many of them that they were to be treasured in use for ever -- they were buried with the dead. All the pieces which survive to-day have been recovered from tombs during the last few centuries. Fortunately for their preservation, the alkaline soil of China is favourable to bronze, turning it to an attractive green or bluish-grey colour, pleasanter to the eyes than the gold-bright metal in its original state. Whether the ancient Chinese, like the Romans, came to appreciate the patina of old bronze for its own sake we cannot say. In recent centuries, before the example of foreign collectors had created a respect for the condition of a piece as it had been preserved in the soil, the Chinese custom was to darken, often to blacken, the surface by rubbing it with wax.

The nineteenth-century collector Juan Yuan characterizes three successive attitudes adopted towards the bronze vessels. Before the Han dynasty they were emblems of privilege and power; from Han to Sung times their recovery from the soil was hailed as a portent; and from the Sung dynasty onwards, freed from soperstition, they became the toys of collectors and the quarry of philologists and antiquarians.

The superstition attaching to the vessels in Han times no doubt was the . . .

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