Agricultural skills and domestication of animals

Chinese Art

By the fifth millennium BCE, China had developed the basic elements that were to identify it as a civilization, such as social structure, agricultural skills and the domestication of animals (Schmidt pp). It was also developing concepts related to the order of the natural environment, to life, death, and life after death (Schmidt pp). China’s cultural identity, as it is known today, can be traced to the endeavors of the Neolithic village communities of the Yangshao culture that flourished during this time (Schmidt pp). Ancient Chinese communities produced numerous vessels and objects from various mediums for use in both utility and religious purposes.

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Only fragments and traces of items created in ephemeral materials remain from the prehistoric and early historic periods, yet numerous ancient Chinese objects of jade, earthenware, and metal have survived in fairly good condition, most of which were found preserved in ancient burial sites (Schmidt pp). These sites and their contents have provided valuable information concerning social structure, cultural development, and religious beliefs of the ancient Chinese (Schmidt pp). The arrangement of the cemeteries, along with the objects found in them, indicate a clear belief in an afterlife (Schmidt pp). Grave items were made from a wide range of materials and included large numbers of earthenware storage jars, bone and jade objects for personal adornment, and objects of bronze and jade for ritual purposes (Schmidt pp). The grandeur of a burial and the value of its contents indicate a direct relationship to the social status of the individual, “with the more elaborate burials containing works of the finest and most technically sophisticated craftsmanship” (Schmidt pp).

Polished stone implements were developed during the later part of the Stone Age or Neolithic period and there is little doubt that the use of and appreciation for the tonalities and lustrous qualities of jade evolved from a selective process within a highly developed “lithic” industry (Schmidt pp). The visual sensibility to and high regard the ancient Chinese had for jade is evident by the numerous number of finely cut and polished jade ceremonial tools, ritual objects, and ornaments produced by some of China’s earliest Neolithic cultures (Schmidt pp). Prismatic tubes and discs, along with weapons and tools of jade and other hard stones have been found in large number from the Liangzhu culture of 3300 — 2250 BCE (Schmidt pp). Due to the age of these and other early examples, it is not possible to define exactly the symbolic content or uses of these objects, however since there is none of the typical characteristics of usage, such as scaring and chipping, it is believed that they served ceremonial and possibly protective functions (Schmidt pp). Cut and polished jade ornaments continued to be used throughout the early historic periods of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (Schmidt pp). Jade plaques sewn onto shrouds or other covering for corpses during the Han dynasty period can be traced back to Neolithic beginnings (Schmidt pp). It is believed that these ritual objects with their geometric and zoomorphic forms and motifs undoubtedly held potent meanings for those responsible for their creation and most likely served as emblems of rank (Schmidt pp).

Chinese ceremonial traditions were closely associated with the concept of life after death and the value of communication with deceased family members (Schmidt pp). Based on this after-life belief and respect for ancestors, complex ceremonies to honor the dead were developed and carried out by their descendants in ancestral temples and offering halls (Schmidt pp). Tomb structures were designed in order for the continued existence of the deceased by providing the necessities of a prosperous life in the next world (Schmidt pp).

Although initially used primarily for weapons, bronze was used for special ritual and ceremonial objects (Schmidt pp). By the middle of the second millennium BCE, bronze had become the material of choice for the highest quality cooking pots and wine vessels (Schmidt pp). During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, 1500 — 221 BCE, large sets of bronze vessels were used in ancestral temples and offering halls for ritual offerings and sacrifices to the ancestors (Schmidt pp). The earliest and most frequently occurring motifs of these bronze ritual vessels are called taotie, or monster mask, that is presented in a bilateral symmetrical manner that appear as composite creature motifs (Schmidt pp).

Although there has been great speculation as to the symbolic and magical significance fo the taotie and other patterns in Shang and Zhou art, “the universal application of these zoomorphic designs on ritual objects leaves little doubt that these creatures were of religious significance and not purely decorative” (Schmidt pp).

These sacrificial bronzes combined all sorts of animal characteristics found in the natural world into one ferocious creature, the t’ao-t’ieh or ‘beast of gluttony’ (Art pp). “Set in a fiercely blazing fire, the beast’s bulging eyes glared straight at the observer, his great mouth gaped in a wide grin, flashing saber-like teeth … his stiletto claws were exposed and poised for action, and a pair of ears or horn protruded from his head” (Art pp). And although a ferocious sight, this design conveys both mystery and beauty, and is one of the most fantastic and imaginative to be found among Chinese bronze designs as it uniquely communicated the religious and ritual spirit of ancient Chinese bronze vessels (Art pp).

In ancient China’s ritualistic society, bronze was used primarily for the casting of ceremonial temple vessels which were used in sacrifices to the gods of heaven, earth, the mountains, and rivers, however, it was also used in vessels for banquets, honor awards, and funerals for the nobility (Art pp). Because of its resistance to cracking and breakage, bronze was often used by kings to cast inscribed vessels honoring the ancestors of dukes, princes, and ministers as a reminder of their contributions to the nation (Art pp).

“The world-famous Mo Kung Ting, for example, a bronze tripod on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, was imperially commissioned. On the tripod interior is an inscription 497

characters in length, divided into 32 lines and two halves, extending from the mouth of the vessel to the bottom interior. The inscription is the imperial mandate for the casting of the vessel, written in a stately and powerful tone. The inscription on this

particular vessel is the longest among bronzes that have been unearthed so far”

(Art pp).

Bronzes can be classified into four main types based on function, food vessels, wine vessels, water vessels, and musical instruments (Art pp). And within each type, there can be found endless variations in form and design, thus, demonstrating the rich imagination and creativity of the ancient Chinese (Art pp).

For example, the kuei was a container for cooked millet came in several styles, some of which had a circular base to stabilize the vessel belly, while other had a heavy square base added to the circular base, adding a graceful contrast of geometrical form (Art pp). The ting was a tripod vessel used for cooking with a pair of knobs that protruded from the mouth to facilitate handling, and three legs which held the vessel at just the proper distance from the fire for cooking meat (Art pp). The ch’ the was a vessel especially designed for heating and drinking wine, and had a pour spout and side handles, and three legs that facilitated warming the wine (Art pp). The tsun was a major type of wine container that was either round or square in shape, or had a round mouth and square base (Art pp). These bronzes created by the ancient Chinese stressed balance and symmetry of form and communicated solemnity and ceremony (Art pp).

After the mid and late Western Chou period, patterns of chain link, fish scale, and waves for the most part superseded animals as subject matter for the main design of bronze vessels (Art pp). After the mid-Spring and Autumn period, 770-476 B.C., the ‘sprouting grain’ and the animal band design were used as border designs, while during the Shang Dynasty the main design was usually clouds and lightning (Art pp). The techniques used in executing the various bronze designs evolved from the engraved lines and embossed designs of the earlier periods, to deep relief and three dimensional sculpture-like designs, and eventually to inlaid designs using materials such as gold, silver, copper, and turquoise (Art pp). Subject matter for inlaid work included animals, together with interlocking geometrical shapes based on straight lines, diagonal lines, and whorled lines, all of which added purely decorative purposes and were intricately and handsomely crafted (Art pp).

China produced an extraordinary number of bronze vessels, thousands of which survive today (Schmidt pp). Recently excavated, intact tombs of the wealthy and influential from the late thirteenth century BCE have revealed that more than four hundred bronzes might be interred with a single member of a royal family (Schmidt pp). The use of such large quantities of bronze for this purpose suggests that the Chinese considered ritual vessels fundamental to the well-being of their society ranking them in importance equal to or even above weapons (Schmidt pp).

The Chinese bronze industry was dependent on piece-mold clay systems for casting, and therefore required the expertise of ceramists (Schmidt pp). As potters continued to manufacture molds for bronze casting and various types of domestic utilitarian wares, they developed new, advanced techniques for making fine and durable ceramic objects (Schmidt pp). Through time, these techniques resulted in the production of higher-fired wares using indigenous clays and down-draught kilns, such as stoneware and ‘proto-porcelain’ (Schmidt pp).

The artistic achievement of ancient China demonstrates how the early Chinese used their ingenuity to create works incorporating both science and art from resources in nature (Schmidt pp). These works of art were made from a variety of mediums including jade, ceramic and bronze, and became an integral part of ceremonies and rituals dedicated to the ancestors, who it was believed, would need these vessels and objects in the afterlife. The ancient Chinese developed the basic elements that were to identify a civilization, such as social structure, agricultural skills and the domestication of animals and it is these elements of nature that they incorporated into their vessels and objects.

Work Cited

Schmidt, Carolyn Woodford. “Early Societies and the Arts: The Foundations of A


The Art of Chinese Bronzes – ancient Chinese bronze artwork.

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