Bronzes from Marquis Yi's Tomb




The late Zhou saw important changes in the function and style of bronzes.  During the Shang and the Western Zhou bronze vessels had been used primarily for sacrifices to the ancestors, both in life and after death.  During the Warring States period, however, bronze vessels began to be seen as luxury items in their own right and were increasingly disassociated from the realm of religious ritual.  Sacrificial vessels were still necessary, but those tended to be plainer in appearance than the vessels for display and feasting.  Bronzes became larger in size and more ornate in appearance, as shown in the extensive use of gold and silver inlay.  In keeping with their new role as commodities, most bronze vessels of the Warring States period lack significant inscriptions.  The inscriptions on Marquis Yi's bronzes refer to the owner, but not to ancestors.   

How might changes in the function and appearance of bronzes be related to the political circumstances during the Warring States period?

SOME THOUGHTS:  During the Warring States period there was constant conflict and competition between the various states.  Lavish and public displays of wealth was one way for a ruler to assert his prestige before his allies and rivals.  The wealth of the state of Zeng can only be imagined, but the tonnage of the bronzes in Marquis Yi's tomb far exceeds that of any ancient tomb anywhere in the world -- the total weight is estimated at over ten metric tons.  

As you look at the bronzes below, think about how they compare to those from the Shang and Zhou tombs of Fu Hao and the Count of Yu.  

To the left is a wine vessel in a matching tray.  This elaborate set was made by a complex process of multiple casting.  The vessels themselves were cast by the traditional piece-mold technique, but the intricate  decoration was done by a new casting process and then soldered to the vessels.  

Can you imagine how the decoration was cast?  

Bronze zun (wine vessel) and bronze pan (plate)   

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian, 1 (Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988),  p. 164.
ANSWER:  The decoration was probably cast using the new lost-wax technique.  First, a model of the object is made in wax.  Clay is then molded around it and the whole thing heated.  The melted wax then runs out, leaving the clay mold ready for the liquid bronze to be poured in.  The advantage of this method over the piece-mold technique is that small objects of irregular shape can be made since wax is relatively easy to shape. 

Here are those same two vessels separated.  The decoration is characteristic of the flamboyant style of Chu-influenced bronzes. 

How does the decoration on these vessels compare with that on earlier ones you've seen?

Height of the zun: 33.1cm, diameter of mouth: 47.3 cm, weight: 19.2kg        

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), illustration #55.

To the left are a pair of wine vessels (hu), each about 39 inches tall.  They fit into circular openings in the matching stand.  A cast inscription inside the neck of each hu reads: "Marquis Yi of Zeng commissioned [this vessel]; may he possess and use it for eternity."

Can you tell what kind of creatures form the handles?

Pair of bronze wine vessels   

Height: 111cm,  weight: 240kg 

SOURCE:  Zuo Boyang, Recent Discoveries in Chinese Archeology (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1984), 4th page of illustration.

Below is a set of bronze vessels for cooling or warming wine.  The square outer vessel (jian) has a smaller inner vessel (fou) hooked onto its bottom.  A removable grate with a square opening holds the neck of the inner vessel.    Wine was cooled by filling the space between the two vessels with ice.  The set was found with a large serving ladle.  

The set here and the two above were found together in the central chamber of the tomb.  

What are some similarities in function and decoration between the three sets?

Bronze vessel for cooling or warming wine                                                  

Height: 61.5cm, Weight: 168.8kg                                                                    

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 50.

ANSWER:  All three were used for wine, and all three feature serpent or dragon motifs. 

One of the innovations of late Zhou bronzes is the development of inlay designs.  While inlays were created in Near Eastern workshops by applying designs to the cold surface of an undecorated bronze, the Chinese craftsman obtained similar  results by casting depressions into the bronze to receive the inlay. 

The vessel to the left features inlay tracery that looks like gold and silver.  

What kind of effect could be achieved with the use of inlay?

HINT:  Remember the original color of bronze. 

Bronze pan and scoop          

Height of scoop: 24cm, weight: 2.6kg  Height of pan: 11cm, weight: 8.8kg     

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 60.


The creature to the left is of bronze. The rims of the wings were once inlaid with turquoise, and the stand was originally inlaid with semiprecious stones.   It is about 1.5 m high, and was found next to the double coffins of the marquis.  

What kind of creature is this?  What might its function have been?


SOME THOUGHTS:  The animal is usually identified as an antlered crane, and was apparently made as a stand to hold a tambourine.   Carved wooden figures with antlers have been found at a number of sites in the Chu state.  Note that the dragons on the pair of hu also have antlers.  It has been suggested that  antlers were believed to have magical powers.  


Bronze creature                                                   

Height: 143cm, weight: 38.4kg             

SOURCE:  Zhongguo meishu quanji, Diaosu bian,  1 (Beijing: renmin meishu chubanshe, 1988), p. 148.


What do you think the chains on either side of this charcoal stove was for?


ANSWER:  The chain handles allowed the stove to be lifted when the charcoal was lit.

                                       Bronze brazier               Height: 21.3cm, Diameter: 39.4cm, Weight: 8.4cm

SOURCE:  Suixian Zenghouyi mu (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), pl. 63.

Move on to Lacquer Objects from Marquis Yi's Tomb