The Bronze Vessels of Ancient China

In The Art of Travel, 9. Art & Place, Shanghai by Yuka NiwaLeave a Comment

As a part of my ‘5000 years of Chinese History’ class we were asked to independently visit the Shanghai Museum to view its ‘Gallery of China’s Ancient Bronze ’. The Shanghai Museum is located in one of the more central districts near People’s Square at Puxi which on the complete opposite side of where NYU Shanghai is. The museum can be easily accessed by the Metro on lines 1, 2, and 8 (People’s Square Station). Since my apartment is located quite far from any metro station, I chose to take a didi (China’s uber) as my form of transportation.

The journey took around forty-five minutes with some light traffic. It was an interesting ride as the scenery outside the car window transformed from the wide roads and tall skyscrapers of Pudong, to the more crowded one way streets filled with people, cars, trees, and large buildings of Puxi. As I mentioned in my previous post, NYU Shanghai feels like a bubble that you never have to leave. Therefore, I have only been to Puxi a couple of times during my time at Shanghai so far. The car passed by the People’s Square which had a fountain surrounded by trees, lawns and well kept foliage. Contrary to the rest of Puxi, People’s Square is extremely spacious and open, with the only other large buildings close by being the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Theatre.

The Shanghai Museum is a building that looks like a slice of a sphere placed on a square foundation. According  to the museum pamphlet, the round top and ‘handles’ of the building were purposely constructed to resemble a ‘ding’, which is a traditional bronze cooking vessel used by the Chinese. In ancient China, there is a saying that the world consists of “a round sky, and square earth” which also explains why the museum has a round top paired with a square foundation.

The ‘Gallery of China’s Ancient Bronze’ exhibit contains a large collection of bronze artifacts from China’s Bronze Age during the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties (approximately 1500BC – 300BC). The exhibit is organized in a general chronological order and begins with the earliest artifacts consisting of weapons, basic containers, and musical instruments. The following area shows artifacts from the “formative stage” of the Bronze age which were created during the Shang dynasty. This was when the Chinese began developing bronze casting techniques and began to create intricate containers specifically for wine. The “mature stage” of the exhibition shows how the wine containers began to have even more intricate designs which included animals and difficult patterns. While the “transitional stage” which occurred during the Western Zhou Dynasty consisted of even more food vessels than previously. Decorations of these vessels from this era included real animals such as bulls and cows probably due to an increase of technological knowledge in regards to farming and also imaginary animals . As the exhibit reaches the end of the Bronze Age, the bronze vessels become more and more intricate while less ritualistic and served a more functional purpose.

During the Bronze Age, the Chinese liked to engrave inscriptions within the ritualistic bronze vessels. These inscriptions were one of the first pieces of evidence of ancient Chinese writing. The inscriptions were used to commemorate the good deeds of a person, or to pay respects to their ancestors. Although the containers and artifacts crafted during the Bronze Age technically served a functional or ritualistic purpose, they can still be considered beautiful pieces of art because it is obvious that extreme attention was paid to the design and details of each artifact. It is amazing when you walk through this exhibit and realize that some of these amazing objects were created by humans over two-thousand years ago in ancient China. 

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