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Chinese Bronzes:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
China's piece-mold process arose independently from the West's lost wax method. The piece-mold method reveals Shang China's very advanced ceramic abilities.

Basic outline of piece-mold casting:

  1. A simple clay model (without decoration) of the vessel shape is made and left to dry a bit.
  2. Clay is then shaped over this model and let to dry to a leather-hard stage.
  3. The outer layer of clay is then sliced off into sections and decorated by incising designs into the clay.
  4. Then this carved outer mold is pieced together.
  5. The original model is used as an interior form to make the vessel hollow. The outer mold is attached to the inner form at a few points.
  6. The bronze is poured in.
  7. After cooling, the inner and outer molds are broken away from the vessel.
  8. Spurs and imperfections are filed away.

The method of casting influenced the appearance of Shang dynasty bronze vessels. Because the artisans worked on one section of the vessel at a time, most Shang bronzes have a "divided up" or architectonic quality to their design.

Most of the MIA's Shang bronzes probably originated from the site of Anyang, Honan. Anyang is an enormous site that we know from written records (oracle bones) was the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Excavations began there in 1928, were interrupted only by World War II, and continue today. The site is divided into three parts: buildings; workshops, foundries, and kilns; and an immense royal graveyard with enormous tombs. The city was surrounded by the countryside from which the food supply came.

By the 20th century, all of the large royal tombs had been looted, leaving only remnants of the treasure that had been buried. The majority of the vessels taken from these tombs ended up in Western and Japanese collections.

One can guess at how rich these tombs were by the 1975 find of a small unlooted tomb. It belonged to a woman named Fu Hao who was the courtesan and military general for the Shang king Wu Ding. In her tomb were found bronzes, jades, and bone carvings. 750 jades were found in her tomb alone!

In addition to taking worldly goods with them, the Shang also practiced human and animal sacrifice. Remains of humans have been found in foundations of buildings, sacrificial pits, trenches, and in royal tombs. Archaeologists believe that most of the sacrificial victims were prisoners of war. Hundreds of victims were beheaded and put into royal tombs.

Some types of heavy bronze axes are particularly associated with human sacrifice. These axes have been found in the outer trenches of large tombs. The same type of axes are illustrated in inscriptions, where they are poised to decapitate victims.

I. Vessels
Most Shang and Chou dynasty bronze vessels appear to be special eating and drinking implements. The vessels are based on Neolithic ceramic prototypes that were used to cook in, eat from, drink or pour water and wine from.

The great majority of Shang bronzes are wine vessels. Later the Shang acquired the reputation for being drunkards. While this might have been true, it is more accurate to say that wine was an important part of Shang ritual ceremonies, as evidenced by the number of wine vessels.

The Western Chou dynasty eliminated the most popular wine vessels of the Shang (the ku and the chueh) and replaced them with an increased repertoire of food and water vessels. Although the Western Chou continued to cast wine vessels, their number and therefore their importance decreased. Two reasons have been put forward for this shift in vessel types. First, the Chou wanted to separate themselves from the disgraced Shang and their behavior. Second, the Chou practiced a very different religion from the Shang and naturally would have different ceremonial needs (see Western Chou file).

A) Size
The bronze vessels in the MIA are somewhat misleading in size. When compared to bronzes in other collections, they are much smaller in size. Some bronze vessels have been discovered that are over 5 feet high and weigh as much as 4 tons!

B) Actual Use
Through scientific excavations we now know that most Chinese bronzes were produced in sets that were probably used in ritual ceremonies before they were buried. Sometimes these sets were split up and handed down as heirlooms. Some burials contain bronzes from a number of different time periods. Certain vessel types were paired with others; for example: the ku (gu) and chueh (jue), and the fang-yi (fang-i) and tsun (zun). Although some excavated vessels have remnants of food in them, almost all were used ritually. They were too heavy and too elaborate to be used routinely.

II. Other types of bronzes
A) Musical Instruments: bells and drums. The MIA owns a number of Eastern Chou bells (Chung/Zhong) that belonged to larger sets. Ceremonial and court music was played on these sets which usually numbered 5 to 12 bells.
B) Weapons: The MIA owns all sorts of bronze swords, halberds, and axes, most dating from the Shang and Western Chou periods.
C) Decorations: finials, pole tops, etc.
D) Chariot Fittings: wheel caps from Shang and Chou chariot burials.
E) Belt Hooks for pinning together loose robes, from the Eastern Chou period.
F) Lamps, lamp supports, and furniture supports usually in the form of humans or animals.


Mainstream Shang bronzes have been divided up into five chronological styles. (Loehr 42-53) "Mainstream" bronzes are those that originated from Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Most of the MIA Shang vessels illustrate the three later styles. Sometimes these styles appear simultaneously on a single vessel. One style does not necessarily disappear with the advent of a new bronze style.

Style I: thread-like raised decoration
Style II: ribbon-like raised decoration
Style III: dense, fluid, and curvilinear designs, often feather or quill-like extensions; design is flush with the background
Style IV: design is still flush with the background, but the idea of separation within the ornament is introduced; the main motifs are done in wider bands or made more three-dimensional
Style V: an elaboration of Style IV-except that the main motifs are now rendered in high relief (more three-dimensionally)


T'ao T'ieh (tao tie)
The t'ao t'ieh is an animal mask that appears on almost every Shang bronze vessel. The significance of the t'ao t'ieh is unclear. The term was not used by the Shang themselves, but was coined by Sung Dynasty (12th century A.D.) antiquarians. They in turn borrowed it from a late Chou dynasty book (Lu Shih Chun Ch'in) which talked about a monster that was so greedy it ate its own body. Unfortunately, there is no relationship between this monster (written of several hundred years later) and the image on the Shang bronzes.

There has been a steady stream of scholarly articles that claim the t'ao t'ieh really represents a tiger, a dragon, a water buffalo, etc. Yet, because there is no written confirmation, none of these theories can be proved or disproved. One possible idea is that it represents the Shang deity or god around which their religious art centered. Still no one can really know until some written proof is discovered.

The fantastic mask is magical in itself as it contains an optical trick. At first glance one can see the elements of the face, such as the eyes, horns, and jaws. However, when one covers up half of it, there appears to be two creatures (dragons) that meet in profile at the center. Each horn, eye, and jaw belongs to a separate being whose body stretches out into lower claws and an upper tail. One cannot see both at the same time, recalling the more famous optical trick of the rabbit/duck.


Western Chou bronze styles can be divided into three chronological stages:
Stage I: Continues and develops Shang shapes and decor, but done with more drama and aggressiveness.

Stage II: Vessels take on smoother shapes and their decoration mainly consists of birds rendered in narrow, modulated ribbons.

Stage III: (Called Middle Chou in Sherman Lee.) Decoration is done in pure abstract patterns.

Western Zhou begins with clearly defined motifs but these gradually become more abstract. One reason that the decoration on Western Chou bronzes becomes increasingly abstract is that the primary function of the vessel was to carry inscriptions. Inscriptions of the Western Chou period are longer and more explanatory than those of the Shang. They record history, seal power transfers, and bless weddings. The emphasis is on the activities and concerns of the living versus the concerns of the afterlife.

Unlike the logical progression of the Shang and Western Chou bronzes, it is very difficult to discuss Eastern Chou bronzes in terms of a chronological development. Rather, the incredible variety of aesthetic taste and technique seen in Eastern Chou bronzes reflect the divided nature of China at this time. Over the centuries the royal family of Chou lost power and prestige. When their capital at Hao was attacked in 711 B.C., none of their so-called vassal states came to their aid. Thus they had to move east to Loyang in order to escape complete devastation. There they set up a new capital, but they ruled only in name, not in fact. China without central rule broke up into numerous states ruled over by lords. Each state developed its own court rules, language variation, literature, and artistic style. In fact, China at this time was more like Europe, a group of states with similar origins. It was not unified politically or culturally.

The Eastern Chou bronzes in the MIA reflect this diversity. Their importance as ritual vessels or as vehicles for inscriptions waned. Wishing to impress their living contemporaries, the lords commissioned bronzes that were impressive visually and technically. For example, the great water basin (Ch'ien, 50.46.103) from Shaanxi, is a tour de force of piece-moldcasting. The outlines for the registers are made to look like simple rope, while the in-fill of the registers is made up of a profusion of feathers, claws, and curls that rise, fall, and interlace in varying degrees of relief.

(Jacobsen 185) Casting during the Eastern Chou period advanced rapidly. Artisans became interested in the possibilities of flat design created by inlay of other precious materials: silver, gold, turquoise, and glass. This was an art very different in spirit from the ideas of the sculptural piece-mold castings. Here a lot of "cold-working" of metal took place. First the vessel was cast, leaving grooves and holes for the inlay. Metals such as the softer silver and gold were warmed and pushed into these grooves, cut, and smoothed down. This method creates a beautiful, glowing decoration.

The form of this Eastern Chou ting (a vessel on three or four legs) is very different from a Western Chou ting (compare for example 50.46.105).

  • It has a smooth rounded profile with liquid-like curved cabriole legs. Western Chou vessels, in contrast, are more dynamic and square.
  • The legs are subtly attached to the body, emphasizing the easy curve.
  • The decoration is interlocking triangles with curved ends, rather than heart-shaped.
  • The decoration is arranged in tiers using the gold and silver for contrasting effects.
  • The cover was designed to be used as a plate when turned over on its three animal-like legs. It is decorated with six swirling dragons.
  • The emphasis is on beauty over ritual. Bronzes were now used as an indication of power and influence of the owner. They are more of a knick-knack, a possession, than a holy object used for ritual or historical purposes.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Chinese Bronzes</i> (second half of 12th century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009