A Short History of Chinese Art

By Ludwig Bachhofer | Go to book overview

THE BRONZES

SHANG

WHITE POTTERY: A LINK WITH THE NEOLITHIC

SINCE late Chou times, the Chinese have spoken of the Hsia as their first dynasty. If there were anything like it, the Hsia kings were probably no more than the headmen of some neolithic towns and villages.

The Hsia were succeeded by the Shang. Their rise was an event whose importance cannot be exaggerated. It marked the transition from the stone to the bronze age; from prehistory to history; and from a state of illiteracy to one where writing was known. The Shang set the course of Chinese art for a millennium and a half.

A material link between the Lung Shan culture and that of the Shang is the white ware that had accompanied the black pottery. The creamy white colour of that ware is due to a large admixture of kaolin. Unlike the plain white Lung Shan ware, that of the Shang is covered with ornaments.

It has often been asserted that these ornaments are identical with those found on Shang bronzes. This is but partially true. At least four groups of ornaments can be discerned on the white sherds; and their relationship is such that they must be interpreted as the main phases of a changing decorative system.

The basic pattern of all four groups is the angular volute, or meander. At first, a vessel was evenly covered with small, choppy elements, all of them definitely rectangular. The effect is rather restless, because the whole lacks coherence. In the next stage, the meanders are no longer small and independent, but are combined in large continuous patterns; they are folded into one another in a very complicated way. At this stage a pattern was invented which was to have a great future: the T with the ends of the crossbar bent at right angles. The décor is still evenly spread; but instead of standing upright, the meander and the other motives are set slantwise.

The third group abandons the ideal of an evenly spread décor. A few main designs are worked out. They are of a purely geometric character, appearing as comparatively broad flat bands upon a background of small meanders and triangular volutes. In other words, a clear distinction is made between design and background. Such designs are two or more parallel zigzags, sometimes combined with large rectangular hooks, and the angular S, the "compound lozenges" and the "interlocked T." In all these cases the meander is relegated to a subservient rôle.

A few large fragments and the only intact vessel, an amphora in the Freer Gallery (fig. 6), show that at this time the friezes around the neck, shoulder, and foot of a

-26-

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A Short History of Chinese Art
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 5
  • Preface 7
  • Acknowledgment 8
  • Contents 9
  • List of Illustrations 11
  • Chinese Dynasties 15
  • The Neolithic Age 17
  • The Bronzes 26
  • Sculpture - Shang to Han 55
  • Painting 86
  • Notes 129
  • Index 133
  • Plates 141
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