Chinese bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, bianhu
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- Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)
- 29.5 cm
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The flattened oval vessel is modelled with relief-shaped panels. Two loose ring-handles ate on the sides. The vase has an attractive patina in myriad shades of green.
In China bronzes first appeared in the Erlitou Culture (circa 2100-1600 BC), mainly in the form of libation vessels, jue, yet in the glorious days of the Bronze Age, during the Shang (circa 1700-1050 BC) and Zhou (1050-221 BC) dynasties, the quality of the casting of bronze was at its height. Not only bronze weapons were made with which the Shang and Zhou controlled peoples around them, but also much attention was paid by casters and their patrons to vessels in which food and wine were offered to ancestors. Most of these bronzes may be described as ritual vessels intended for the worship of ancestors, who are often named in inscriptions on the bronzes. These ritual vessels of ancient China represent possibly the most remarkable achievement in the whole history of metalcraft before modern times.
Bronze vases should not be considered individually but in groups as ritual sets. These sets are defined as the range of vessel types required for the correct performance of rituals. The combination of these vessels can be inferred from two sources - intact tomb groups and vessels that share a common dedication. From the arrangement and quantity of bronzes displayed in a given ceremony, one can discern the specific social status and position of that noble host. In the case of vessels interred in tombs it seems likely that the occupant of the tomb was expected to continue to offer sacrifices to his ancestors after his death and that vessels were buried for this purpose, even though he had become an ancestor himself. It is also possible that they were used at funerary rites. Besides their use in ancestral worship, rites of spirit worship and as symbols of status and power, bronzes could, it was believed, when buried with the deceased, continue to serve in the afterlife. As some aristocrats and all commoners at the time could not afford the expense of bronzes, frequently complete sets of ritual vessels were made in fired pottery.
In the Shang dynasty (circa 1600–1046 BC), the right to cast or possess these vessels was probably confined to the royal house itself but later was bestowed upon local governors set up by the ruler; still later, in the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BC), the right was claimed by rulers of the feudal states and indeed by anyone who was rich and powerful enough to cast his own vessels. Under the ultimate unification of Qin and Han, Chinese bronzes gradually yielded its central role in the ritual system but transformed into a cultural archetype.
Although there are many different shapes in Chinese bronze ritual vessels, they can be reduced to a few essential types used for the ritual of ancestor worship. Vessels were required in which to cook and serve the dishes, to preserve and hold the wine for drinking, and to contain and pour water. They can most simply be grouped according to their use in sacrifices.
Hu: A round-bellied vase or a jar with a cover
You: A ritual wine vessel with a stout oval body and an overhead handle, usually with a cover
Zun: Another ritual wine vessel, flared and with a bulbous mid-section
Gu: Also a ritual wine vessel, similar to the zun but with a slender silhouette
Jue: One of the more striking vessels of the archaic ritual bronze assembly — another ritual wine vessel, with a prominent spout, whorl-capped posts, flared tail and long tripod legs
Ding: A ritual cooking vessel with a globular body, tripod legs and a pair of upright handles
Gui: A ritual food vessel with a compressed globular body, raised on a waisted foot, with a pair of loop handles usually decorated with animal heads
Square forms: Many of the standard shapes also appear in ‘square’ or fang versions, including the fangzun, fanghu and fangding. Of great significance to the ancient ruling elites, square vessels are much more rare. Square-sectioned vessels have a more formal and regular appearance.
Today, we see the Chinese bronzes in a very different condition from the original. Their long period underground has covered them with a patina, sometimes rough with encrustations and sometimes smooth like jade. They take on all the shades of green. Often, there are russet, purple or blue patches depending on the chemical changes which affected the metal. These alterations only emphasise the beauty of these bronzes.