There is a symbolic motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou Dynasty combining all the animal characteristics of the world in a single wild creature: the Taotie sometimes translated as a gluttonous ogre mask.
Based on burning flames, the animal, with a pair of raised eyes, looks furious and its wide open mouth shows hooks sharpened as knives; a pair of ears or horns heads its skull and its sharp claws seems to demonstrate that the animal is ready to attack…
On the other hand as terrible as this imaginary wild animal appears, it evokes the mystery and the beauty.
Some argue that the design can be traced back to jade pieces found in Neolithic sites such as the Liangzhu culture (3310–2250 BCE).
The Taotie is one of the most extraordinary and original motives decorating Chinese bronzes, and it broadcast perfectly the religious and ritual meaning on the bronze serving dishes.
The bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, to which is added a small lead quantity. Its appearance marks the end of the Stone Age.
During almost two thousand years, from 17th century B.C. to the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), the Chinese used some rare and precious bronze to melt big quantities of ritual vases, music instruments and weapons elegantly and finely decorated, with inscriptions in Chinese characters.
Those objects testify of the artistic achievement of antique China and prove that the Chinese knew very early how to exploit with ingenuity the natural resources they had to crystallize science and art in their works.
The bronze vessels were receptacles for storing or serving various solids and liquids utilized in the performance of sacred ceremonies.
As the bronze is a long-lasting and resistant material, it was valued by the kings to pour vases in honour of the ancestors, dukes, princes and Ministers who had made a big contribution to the country or to the sovereign, to found a memory for the future generations.
For example, the Mao-kung Ting (Late Western Chou Dynasty, ca.9th~8th centuries B.C.).
King Hsuan Chou’s uncle, Duke of Mao, ordered the casting of this precious ting in gratitude for the King’s generosity to his fellow citizens and as a memorial for his heirs. The Mao-kung ting is among the world’s most invaluable treasures. It is now part of the National Palace Museum collection.
On its inside surface, there is an inscription of 497 characters, divided into 32 lines and into 2 parts relating to the official mandate for the iron cast of the utensil, written in a noble and authoritarian pitch: the longest dedication on bronze never found.
Categories of bronzes
Bronzes can be classified in four main categories according to their function: food vessels, wine vessels or water vessels and musical instruments. Within every group, an infinite variation of forms and motives can be found showing the imagination and the creativity of the period.
Bronze objects in different China ancient dynasties
By the time of the early Shang, bronze wine vessels and food containers began to appear in sets. They matured further in the late Shang. For example, sets of food containers ("ting", "yen", "li", "kuei ", and "tou"), wine vessels ("ku", "chüeh", "chi", "chia", "lei", "p'ou", "tsun", and "you"), and water containers ("yü" and "p'an") were commonly seen. These bronze wares were the most representative ritual objects in the system of rites.
Kuei, for example, was a bowl for the cooked millet which could possibly appear in numerous different styles equivalent to contemporary rice bowls.
Some forms such as the ku and jue can be very graceful, but the most powerful pieces are the ding, sometimes described as having the "air of ferocious majesty."
It is typical of the developed Shang style that all available space is decorated, most often with stylized forms of real and imaginary animals. The most common motif is the taotie, which shows a mythological being presented frontally as though squashed onto a horizontal plane to form a symmetrical design.
Under the Western Chou dynasty, the first part of the Chou Dynasty (about 1122 to about 722 B.C.), people kept on making the bronze sacrificial jars and cups as during the Shang Dynasty.
Indeed, as more and more people learned to write, particular bronze jars were created for their ancestors with long inscriptions about their own lives so their ancestors and descendants would know what they had done. Moreover, a lot of jars were in animal shapes like birds and dragons.
Then under the Eastern Chou dynasty, beginning about 722 BC, people began to use these bronze jars and cups in their own houses instead of only for the gods and their ancestors.
People made whole sets of cups that they could use at big dinner parties in their houses. Not very many of these new jars and cups had writing on them anymore. And they began to make other things out of bronze: bells, mirrors, belt-hooks, candelabras, and weapons, for example.
After the period of Western Chou dynasty, the principle of symmetry was broken and replaced by interlacing pattern, which surrounded the body of the utensils.
After the middle of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), the outline most frequently applied was the drawing in band of geometrical animals, mixed vertically.
During Eastern Chou period, the shapes of the jars became simpler and artists began to create the designs using stamps. They began using gold and silver inlays to decorate their patterns.
Towards the end of the Eastern Chou period, about 300 BC, artists began to create the first Chinese pictures of whole scenes with several people and a landscape, often hunting scenes.
The era of the Shang and the Zhou dynasties is generally known as the Bronze Age of China, because bronze exploited to fashion weapons, parts of chariots, and ritual vessels, played an important role in the material culture of the time. -Iron appeared in China toward the end of the period, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty-.
During Shang dynasty, the sculpture produced during this time was also superb. Various kinds of patterns were carved on bronze, jade, and pottery wares.
During millenniums, the bronze objects open to humidity or buried underground underwent a natural change, developing on their surface a cover of patina. Indeed, this patina protected the metal of additional damage, and its colour, which can vary from some lively red to emerald green or blue sapphire, still adds to the beauty of the vessel. The Chinese like particularly this coloured cover and thus they choose to maintain it intact
Bronzes of Today
Today, we can still find the beauty of the traditional art of the bronze in censers and sacrificial utensils of temples, in statues set up in schools or in ornaments of rooms; all these objects undertook the influence of the former bronze art.
The traditional drawings of bronzes are still a source of inspiration in the architecture, the fashion or the furniture today.
That’s how the intelligence and the artistic genius of the earlier Chinese are immortalized!