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: Four Early Chinese Bronzes


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The large collection of Chinese Bronzes lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury, which has afforded pleasure to increasing numbers of visitors during its stay at the Institute, has acquired further interest with the addition of four early ritual vessels. These, because of their appearance at this time, assume a particular significance for all who look beyond the horizons of the present world upheaval.This may be because perceptions are sharper and awareness more acute in times of peril. It may be because we now look, with a sense of terrible urgency, to the past for reassurance and faith. That we can secure it by contact with masterpieces of the past is in itself an answer to the suggestion, sometimes set forth in the first heat of war, that great art, great music, great literature, can be laid aside for the duration. There is, on the contrary, no time when contemplation of these things is of greater importance. They are a constant reminder that the best inspirations of man will persist despite tyranny, aggression, bigotry, and bloodshed. They are the beacon that guides the course of civilization.So it is that these relics of the first great Chinese civilization—relics that have already survived many upheavals—give promise of surviving the present world upheaval. In these bronzes, and in what they stand for, we have the reassurance that those ideals for which the world is again plunged in chaos will not perish.This fact is particularly striking in view of certain parallels existing between the Shang civilization, which produced the bronzes in question, and our own. With this thought in mind it is interesting, before examining the vessels themselves, to consider briefly what is known of the Shang people through scientific investigation and the studies of scholars in the Chinese field such as Herlee Glessner Creel, Bernhard Karlgren, and others.The origin of the Shangs has not been definitely determined, but from the time that they settled at An Yang in northern Honan about 1400 B.C. a fairly accurate record of their civilization exists. They were an agricultural, hunting, warring people who probably chose the An Yang site because it furthered their interests in all these fields. The rich and fertile plains surrounding the city assured them of abundant crops; the mountains to the east offered good hunting; and the location of the city itself, in a deep bend of the river Huan, provided an easy system of defense in case of invasion.In their strategically-located capital the Shangs developed a highly civilized society. It appears that the city was laid out according to a definite plan and, that its soundly-constructed buildings were of a type not radically different from those in China today. A literature of some pretensions, an advanced system of writing, and a decorative art of unusually high quality shows the Shangs to have been a people of taste and refinement. The ruling member of this group was the king, who held his position through his military prestige. That the family was a major unit in society is indicated by the importance of ancestor worship. Divination by oracle bones was practiced, advice being asked of the spirits on every aspect of life.With regard to war, it seems clear that the Shangs, while not a peace-observing people, were neither a people greatly concerned with conquest. They warred with barbarians to the north and west, driving off invaders with designs on their territory, and often bringing home prisoners and loot, but of planned and far-reaching schemes of conquest there appears to be no evidence.It was perhaps this satisfaction with things as they were—this defensive state of mind—coupled with their great wealth, their refinement, their sense of security and superiority, that led to their downfall. In any event, about the year 1122 B.C., they were conquered by a group of western barbarians under the leadership of the Chous.The circumstances leading up to the Shang conquest are of peculiar interest. Like their vanquished foes, the Chous are thought to have emanated from north China. They settled in the Wei valley and gradually rose to a position of dominance over surrounding tribes. Ambition grew with power, and they turned covetous eyes on the rich territories to the east. Doubtless their first contact with the Shangs came as the result of some daring foray, and there can be little question that this initial impact bore in it the seed of future conquest. The supposition is that word of the wealth and glories of the Shang civilization first reached the Chous through the medium of some hostage or hostages who rejoined their fellow tribesmen, after detention by the Shangs, with exciting stories of the wonders to be seen at An Yang.It is easy to see how such tales would have inflamed the envy of the Chous, a barbarian people who had only recently, if at all, graduated from their earth-pit hovels to a more ambitious form of dwelling, who had no knowledge of writing, and who were ignorant of the amenities of life enjoyed by the Shangs. The Chous had something the Shangs lacked, however: far-flung ambition, a desire to better their state, and a savageness and vigor that recognized no obstacle.The conclusion was foregone, and events thereafter seem to have moved cunningly toward the downfall of the Shangs. It may be assumed that as the threat of Chou power became more menacing the Shang rulers decided to follow a policy of appeasement, accepting ambassadors from the Chou, and teaching them many of their arts and customs. Later still they permitted woman of noble Shang families to marry into the reigning house of Chou, thus creating another channel for the exchange of ideas. Unwittingly, in these ways, the Shangs opened the road of conquest to their enemies. It may be that when the hour came to strike, the Chous cleverly seized a moment when the attention of the Shangs was directed elsewhere, but the policy of appeasement, the voluntary surrendering of cultural ideas, and the fifth column probably planted in An Yang by the Chous, must have contributed overwhelmingly to the defeat of the Shang people.The decisiveness of the victory was apparently as much a surprise to the conquerors as it was a blow to the conquered, because it is said that many of the invaders deemed it wise to gather up what booty they could and retire again to their own domain. The Chou leaders refused, however, and history shows that they were wise. The Shangs never again rose to a position of serious threat, for the Chous at once set their new order in motion. It involved many and far-reaching changes, but certain aspects of Shang culture were taken over unchanged. Among these was the art of bronze-casting, which, during the reign of the first five Chou kings remained substantially the same as it had been under the Shangs. The same, that is, insofar as it employed Shang forms and decorative patterns. In spirit the art of Shang bronzes died with the overthrow of the Shang people about 1122 B.C.That the spirit itself did not die, however, is abundantly clean to anyone who has studied the Shang bronzes in the Pillsbury collection; who has come to know them and felt himself invaded by the sense of deep excitement that communication with them brings. They have a special meaning now, for they convey to us, across unbroken centuries, the message that the finest creations of mankind are indestructible.The examples just acquired by Mr. Pillsbury especially repay study, because they illustrate an interesting evolution in character and design. The vital, somewhat ruthless quality of Shang bronzes is seen in the yu. The boldly modelled t'ao t'ieh mask on the body—a motif that was later to become much more elaborate—appears in one of its earliest manifestations against the spiral background. The theme is repeated in a dissolved state on the shoulder band, and about the foot of the vessel appears a bold spiral design.In keeping with the body decoration is the treatment of the handle, which rises in a vigorous curve from two strong bovine heads at the shoulder. It is anchored to the cover with a coiled, bottle-horned dragon surmounted by an absurd and amusing scaled bird. The vital and authoritative character of Shang bronze design is well expressed in this example.A suaver, more elegant quality is notable in the covered kuang. The simple mask of the yu has become noticeably elaborated; so much so here that it is almost dragonesque in character. The S-shaped brows lend it an air of sprightly menace which is echoed in the dragon in the upper section. This dragon, of the beaked type, pursues his stealthy way on the heels of a strange creature whose beak has been cunningly lifted and elongated to follow the swelling lip of the vessel. One claw is delicately poised to balance this line at the throat of the kuang.The band at the foot carries still another form of dragon, a deformed shape that has little left to associate it with its beaked fellow above. The three areas of decoration, broken vertically at the front and sides of the vessel by indented flanges, are set against a background of spirals.The cover of the kuang, terminating the mask of a bottle-horned beast, is adorned with two turning dragons that curve around the coiled tail of this beast. At the top of the handle is a powerfully modelled bovine mask which lends a note of brute strength to a vessel notable chiefly for elegance and variety of décor. The repertoire of Shang design has here been handled with great refinement and skill, and the casting is of a smooth perfection remarkable even in bronzes of the Shang period.The same virtuoso quality is evident in a shallow ting with animal supports, but here there is greater crispness and urbanity. It is as if, to state the difference in twentieth-century terms, the kuang had been cast for Boston and the ting for New York. Like the square-bodied yu, the ting has a ruthless quality, but it is the ruthlessness of extreme refinement. The band of cicadas, flanked by a diagonal, eyed pattern derived from the dragon, is executed with superb assurance, and the animal legs—a compound of bird and beast?—are strong and challenging. This ting is, from every point of view, one of the handsomest pieces in the group.The fourth vessel, a tall yu that is unadorned except for narrow bands of decoration around the base, throat, and cover, is a softer and more winning piece than the first three. Possibly it indicates an increasingly sophisticated taste on the part of the Shangs; a taste that found its chief pleasure in restraint and beauty of line.The decoration reveals a departure from pure animal design, for while the animal motif remains it is in such a dissolved state that it has become abstract. The décor around the throat and cover is derived from the dragon, but it has been drawn out until the various elements take on the appearance of separate spiral or feathered lines. The eye can still be distinguished; otherwise there is little left in it of the bold and prowling favorite of the Shangs.The benign character of this bronze is further accentuated by the rams' heads adorning the handle, and by the soft, greyed-green patination. It is an example of Shang bronze art to which the epithet “lovely” can be congruously applied. Here, one feels, the Shang spirit has quieted down.Does this subtle evolution in character, reflected in bronze herald the downfall of Shang civilization? The answer, so far as we can know until the inscriptions of these pieces are read, is buried in the mists of time. Yet it is absorbing to dwell upon, and to see in the bronzes of the Shang period not only great and satisfying works of art—the records of a mighty people—but a potent reminder to preserve the institutions that make such an art possible.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Chinese Bronze Ritual Vessel of Yu Type with Rigid Handle. Shang Dynasty, 1766-1122 B. C. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  2. Covered Bronze Ritual Vessel of Kuang Type Used for Wine. Chinese, Shang Dynasty. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  3. Bronze Ting with Animal Supports. Shang Dynasty. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  4. Bronze Wine Vessel of Yu Type. Shang dynasty. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
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Source: "Four Early Chinese Bronzes," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 31, no. 10 (March, 1942): 32-37.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009