A Golden Age in Bronze

The Chinese, more than most people, have always looked back on their earliest years as the “good old days,” a time when men were virtuous and life was at its best. Their view of that distant era relied more on fable than on fact, however, until this century, when archeologists unearthed hundreds of objects made during China’s first two dynasties, the Shang and Chou (1523 to 223 B.C.). Fashioned of bronze by master craftsmen, these treasures include superb figurines, ceremonial vessels and furnishings, which reflect, among other things, the reverence for nature and family that characterized China’s earliest “golden age.”


A kneeling figure, cast some 2,500 years ago, is shown against a silhouette of its head. (Photographs by Pete Turner)

Sacrifices to Ancestral Spirits

Among the ancient Chinese, particularly the aristocracy, ancestor worship was a way of life. It was believed that when a man died. his spirit lived on in the upper regions and influenced the fate of his descendants on earth. In order to invoke the blessings of these spirits, their descendants brought them offerings of food and wine in ritual vessels of richly ornamented bronzne. In time of trouble or need , special prayers of invocations might accompany the gifts. Kings made the most lavish and frequent offerings to their godlike predecessors, often seeking favors for the whole community, such as success in battle or an abundant harvest. When the king himself died, servants and guards were sometimes sacrificed to attend him in the afterworld a bloody practice that gradually went out of style.


A studdend caldron was used to prepare meat presented to ancestral spirits. The handles and legs are shaped like horned animals; the two creatures facing one another on the front are birds.


A storage jar,  in which sacrificial wine may have been kept, had ring handles on its sides with fittings in the shape of monsters’ faces, set in a band of stylized natural patterns.

The glory and suffering of war

The leaders of early Chinese society were continu­ally carrying on territorial feuds with one another, or waging fierce campaigns against neighboring barbarians. Equipped with bronze helmets, dag­gers, spears and axes, these ancient knights rode forth in chariots lavishly decorated with bronze fittings. Each vehicle was manned by a driver, a spearman and an archer. Behind the chariots came the foot soldiers; they were almost invariably peasants who had been forced to leave their fields.

Ancient annals recorded the deeds of chivalry performed by knights, but folk songs more realis­tically bemoaned the lot of the peasant. One song wistfully lamented: “Long ago, when we started, the willows spread their shade. Now that we turn back the snowflakes fly. The march before us is long, we are thirsty and hungry, our hearts are stricken with sorrow but no one listens to our plaint.”


A fliligreed dagger, probably used for ceremonial purposes, is shown against the silhouette of an ax. Once attached to a handle so that it could be swung, the weapon is pitted from oxidation.


A fanged dragon, curling ferociously, was probably an emblem adorning the war chariot of a lord. The open end of the figure may have held the tip of a pole bearing the owner’s standard.

Mirror of the Universe

The ancient Chinese believed that if a nation were virtuous, Heaven wouid shower good fortune upon it. The people, it was thought, would be rewarded with a temperate climate, adequate rainfall and plentiful harvests. If, however, a society had strayed from virtue, it soon would be assailed by calamities such as droughts, floods and famines. Often these natural disasters were regarded as sure signs that the government was corrupt and that the collapse of the dynasty was imminent.

Out of this vision of the workings of nature, the Chinese evolved many symbols for their cosmic beliefs. Often these figures appeared on the backs of bronze mirrors, like those shown at right. The mirrors, which were sometimes worn to protect people from evil spirits, were suspended from the waist on a cord that was threaded through the knob in the center of the design. The square inscribed around the knob stood for the earth.

The T shapes at the sides of the square symbolized sacred mountains that were thought to hold up the heavens. The circles beyond these, which enclosed a variety of zodiacal signs, patterns, mythical animals and inscriptions, represented the edges of the universe, and the unknown beyond.


Bronze lamp was used in the everyday life of a prosperous Chinese family.


Ornate bronze mirrors  bear myriad cosmological signs and symbols on their backs.

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