Bronzes from Fu Hao's Tomb




The development of metal-working technology represents a significant transition in Chinese history.  The first known bronze vessels were found at Erlitou near the middle reaches of the Yellow River in northern central China.  Most archaeologists now identify this site with the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) mentioned in ancient texts as the first of the three ancient dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou).  It was during the Shang (1600-1050 BC), however, that bronze-casting was perfected.   Bronze was used for weapons, chariots, horse trappings, and above all for the ritual vessels with which the ruler would perform sacrifices to the ancestors.  The high level of workmanship seen in the bronzes in Shang tombs suggests a stratified and highly organized society, with powerful rulers who were able to mobilize the human and material resources to mine, transport, and refine the ores, to manufacture and tool the clay models, cores, and molds used in the casting process, and to run the foundries.

Altogether the bronzes found in Fu Hao's tomb weighed 1.6 metric tons, a sign of the enormous wealth of the royal family.  These vessels were not only valuable by virtue of their material, a strong alloy of copper, tin, and lead, but also because of the difficult process of creating them.  The piece-mold technique, used exclusively in China, required a great deal of time and skill.  (In this Teacher's Guide, the hyperlink for the piece-mold technique is given below.)


To make a bronze vessel, a clay model of the bronze vessel-to-be had to be fashioned.  When it hardened, soft clay was pressed against it, taking on the negative impression of both its shape and decoration.  These clay pieces were removed in sections to form the piece-molds.  The model was then shaved down to become the core ( the walls of the bronze vessel would exactly equal in thickness this layer that had been shaved off).  The piece-molds were then reassembled around the core.  Molten bronze would then be poured into the space between the mold and the core.  After cooling, the mold pieces were removed.  Pre-cast appendages were often inserted into the core-mold assemblage before casting; when the vessel was produced, they became locked into place as the metal was poured in.    




What does this sophisticated method of casting bronze imply about the level of ceramic technology during the same period?

SOURCE:  Treasures from the Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People's Republic of China (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980), p. 19.  Copyright by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The vessel below is a ding, used for food.  

Think about the piece-mold process.  How do you think the technique affected the shapes and decoration on vessels such as this ding? (The hyperlink for decoration is given below in this Teachers' Guide.)

To the left is a drawing showing the decoration of the ding.  In the center of the frieze or band running around the top rim is a design of a taotie mask.   This part-human, part-animal face with bulging eyes is a recurring image on Shang bronzes.  It may have carried some symbolic significance, but we can no longer be certain of its meaning.  Some hypotheses include a monster, a dragon, a ritual mask, or simply a popular formal design.   


SOURCE:  Bronze Vessels from Yin Xu (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1985), Diagram 4.

Many of the vessels were inscribed with Fu Hao's posthumous title, "Si Mu Xin."  The rubbing of her title from the ding at left can be seen below.  

SOURCE:  Zhongguo gudai cankao tulu v. 2 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1989), p. 57.

Bronze ding vessel                              Height: 80.1cm, Weight: 128kg

SOURCE:  Zhongguo gudai cankao tulu v. 2 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 1989), 2nd page of illustrations.

SOME THOUGHTS:  In the piece-mold technique, surface decoration could be made by carving into the mold (for raised relief) or into the model (for recessed designs).  The use of a ceramic mold made of tightly fitting sections made intricate shapes very difficult.  As a result greater attention was placed on surface decoration, which was easier to create.  

To the left is one of a pair of zun vessels used for wine.  The creature stands on two legs; a down-turned tail forms the third leg.  The back of the head is a removable lid with a miniature bird and dragon as knobs.

Click to see a drawing of its decoration. (In the Teachers's Guide, this is shown below.)


What creature is this zun supposed to represent?


ANSWER:  An owl or a parrot.  A similar owl in white marble was found in Tomb 1001 at Anyang, thought to be the tomb of King Wu Ding.


Wine vessel                         Height: 46.3cm, Weight: 16kg    

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 97.

SOURCE:  Bronze Vessels from Yin Xu (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1985), Diagram 14.

Can you make out what the decoration on this ax shows?

Think about the contents of Fu Hao's tomb.  

What do you think this ax might have been used for?

Bronze ax

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 94.

ANSWER:  The center of the ax shows a human head with a tiger on either side.  Axes of this type and size were probably used for ritual sacrifices (recall the animals and humans found in Fu Hao's tomb).   During Shang times, human sacrifices to the ancestors accompanied cult ceremonies, the construction of buildings, and the burials of the elite members of society.  Many of these people were probably prisoners of war from the Shang's frequent battles against its neighbors. In addition, subordinates would also voluntarily "accompany" a superior in death.  


Click to see a drawing of the decoration on the bronze at left.  (In this Teachers' Guide, shown below.)

Why do you think zoomorphic images play such a large role in Shang art?

Covered container            Height: 60cm, Length: 88cm, Weight: 71kg

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 96.

Do you see any similarity to the decoration on the ding seen earlier?

SOURCE:  Bronze Vessels from Yin Xu (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1985), Diagram 11.
MORE:  The zoomorphic images on Shang bronzes range from clearly mimetic low- or high-relief images of birds, snakes, crocodiles, and deer, to imaginary animals like dragons, and to highly stylized mask motifs  that allude to animals but don't directly represent them.  Since bronze vessels were used in sacrificial rituals, most observers assume the decoration symbolized something important in Shang political and religious cosmology.  Unfortunately, texts that discuss the meaning of images exist only from much later periods. 




Can you think of technical reasons for the projecting flanges on the body of the vessel to the left? 


ANSWER:  In the piece-mold technique, molten metal would sometimes seep in between the pieces of the mold, leaving traces of vertical joins.  Some bronze artists, instead of working to eliminate these casting seams, transformed them into major structural elements in the vessel's decoration.  

Drinking vessel 

SOURCE:  Zhonguo zhongda kaogu faxian (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1990), p. 93.

                                                           Move on to Jade from Fu Hao's tomb