The arising of bronze ware in China goes back to an early age. A bronze sword made by single mould 5,000 years ago unearthed at the site of Majiayao in Gansu Province, is to date the earliest bronze object discovered. For several thousand years, Chinese craftsmen have mastered superb techniques in bronze ware manufacturing to form unique style as regards the technological process, mould-making and decorative patterns.
During the late years of Neolithic Age, some archaeological culture had entered a time when both bronze and stone were used, which created prerequisite conditions for the development of broze ware. The artistic factors of bronze ware can be traced in the stone artistic factors of bronze ware can be traced in the stone artifacts, pottery and jade articles made in the late years of Neolithic Age. For example, shapes of bronze implements and weapons originated mostly from stone ware, whereas the shaping of bronze vessels was inherited from pottery mould-making. Form bronze tripods, caldrons and goblets you can find their respective prototype. And such is the case with decorative patterns on bronze ware. Take the distinguished taotie (a rapacious animal in Chinese mythology) pattern, a common decorative pattern on ancient Chinese bronze ware, for an instance. Its source can be traced back to the jade articles in the Longshan Culture in the Neolithic Age. The Erlitou Culture that came between Longshan Culture and Shang Culture ad already entered the Bronze Age. The bronze ware found in Erlitou, in addition to tools, weapons and aricles for personal adornments, includes vessels made with double-mould and the noticeable turquoise-inlaid technique.
Natural copper is reddish in color, hence the name hongtong (red copper). Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, a bit bluish in color, ence the name qingtong (blue copper). In a classic entitled Powerful Nation, Xun-tzu, the great master wrote, “moulds standard, materials fine, skills consummate, heat-control appropriate,” which is just about the technology in bronze ware making. The process includes meal extracting from ore, mould making, casting and technical improvement. In the course of bronze manufacturing development, cold hammering was replaced by casting, and single mould replaced by double mould, which signifies a great leap forward in bronze technology. Mould making approach can be divided into two categories: the pottery mould approach and was slip approach. By pottery mould approach two moulds, the inner and the outer are made with clay, the distance between the inner mould and the outer mould being the thickness of the body wall. By wax slip approach the body is made of wax which is covered with fine wet clay of a certain thickness, and then when the clay mould is dried, heat the wax till it is melted and flowed out of the mould, and then pours in melted bronze. The wax slip approach was initiated in the spring and autumn period, and has been used ever since in making various complicated bronze wares.
The book Kao Gong Ji (the Records of Examination of Craftsmen) stated that the formula for compounding bronze contains six raw materials. That is te earliest explicit record in the world, giving the composition ratio of the alloy used in making bronze ware. Bronze ware has the advantage of low melting point and high hardness. Different bronze objects aften have different ratios. For instance, in making bells or tripods, the proportion of copper to tin should be five one, and in making axe, four to one, and axes tough and tensile.
The late years of Shang Dynasty reached the first height in the history of China’s bronze ware development. The Yin Ruins of Anyang, Henan Province was the center of bronze ware production at that time. The eatly bronze articles were simply decorated, most single layered; later period objects were meticulously adorned with multi-layer figures featuring over-elaborate, rich and mysterious style. The decorative patterns on Yin and Zhou bronze ware was mainly used in offering sacrifices. The most commonly used design was taotie-pattern, characterized by a beast head with a straight bridge of the nose as center line to form symmetrical figure. Taotie figure was painted often on the major parts of the articles.
Often large-size objects were cast in the Shang Dynasty, of which the typical one is the celebrated Simuwu Dafangding (Grand Simuwu Quadripod). It is 133 centimeters in height, 78 centimeters in width, weighing 874 kilograms, the biggest bronze ware ever cast so far. On both sides beast face patterns and kui (a dragon-like monopode animal in ancient legends) figure are applied to adorn the edge, with other space unadorned so as to produce an artistic effect of contrast. On the whole the quadrupeds looks simple and powerful, dignified and magnificent. Standing in front of it a viewer is likely to feel stirring, to sense a force. The image of Grand Si Muwu Quadripod often appears as the symbol of ancient Chinese civilization. So heavy is the vessel that it has to be cast upside down, using joining-cast technique to cast. The work was done with at least two hundred craftsmen working in close cooperation, assisted by workers in charge of transport, burning charcoal, making a total of up to three hundred artisans. It is thus clear that the bronze technology at that time had achieved a high level capable of large-scale manufacturing.
During the Spring-and-Autumn Period up to the end of Warring-States Period, the application of bronze ware had shifted from offering sacrifices to daily household needs. Small objects for practical use were more and more favored by users. Practical functions had been added even to the original articles. Take the tripod made in the late years of the spring and autumn period for an example. The three ring-ears on the lid enable the lid to be used as a plate when overturned. The subject matter for decoration gradually lost its mysterious atmosphere, the traditional animal design turned abstract, evolved into geometric figures, and more realistic themes reflecting social life such as feasting, hunting, war, etc. were added. The Square Pot with Lotus and Crane Design, with dragon-shaped ears, beast-shaped legs, in the middle of which stands a crane with spread as if ready for flight, had created a new fashion of the day, which is pure, fresh and magnificent. The Fifteen-Cupped Bronze Lamp unearthed in the Zhongshan State (now the mid-eastern part of Hebei Province) in the Warring States Period, has tree trunk as lamp pole installed with fifteen small cups, with several monkeys in different shapes set here and there on the trunk, looking undeniably vivid.
During the period of spring-and-autumn and warring-states, bronze ware manufacturing came up to the highest level in history. Not only were separate-casting method and wax-slip method invented, but also new crafts and new techniques were adopted such as weld, inlay, etc., making bronze ware more rich and colorful. In particular in the late years of the warring states period, the use of sharp iron tools had caused the ornaments on bronze ware to develop from engraving designs to scratching designs by which means a line can be as thin as a hair. By applying the technique of gold and silver inlaying, copper, gold and silver wire, or gold and silver slices can be inlaid in the pattern intaglio to form various delicate and resplendent patterns. The Yanyue Yulie Gongzhan Hu (flask with designs of banquet and music, fishing and hunting, attacking and fighting), excavated at Baihuatan in Chengdu in 1965, is a representative work of gold-inlay technique. Using belt division method to display various scenes such as mulberry picking, shooting, hunting, feting, music playing, attacking and defending, and dividing each layer of designs with consecutive triangle cirrus patterns, the whole composition is made varying yet unitary. Since the warring states period, with the development of iron smelting technique, improvement of ceramic technology, and the rising of lacquer ware making, bronze ware gradually faded out of the mainstream stage of traditional Chinese technology.
Although bronze ware manufacture declined little by little, bronze mirror as a unique variety of bronze technology, continued its development for several hundred years more. The bronze mirror is used in dressing and making up. It is also used for monster-revealing and warding off evil spirits. Its manufacturing technology had experienced several more booming periods. From the warring states period, Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty down to the Song Dynasty, mirrors were meticulously made, which look rich in style and highly decorative. In the Tang Dynasty a prevailing practice has been formed that bronze mirror was used as gift. According to The Book of Tang: Records of Ritual and Music, in the prosperous period of the Tang Dynasty, the birthday of Emperor Xuanzong, which falls on the fifth day of the eighth lunar month was stipulated as Eternity Day, on which officials must dedicate birthday wine and mirrors were
used to congratulate the emperor’s birthday. Such a practice had facilitated the development of bronze mirror, making it to form a requisitely ornamental and colorful style. The ornamental patterns used on mirrors comprise the four-deity pattern, twelve zodiac signs pattern, auspicious beast pattern, flower and bird pattern, figure pattern and Eight Trigrams pattern, all vivacious and lifelike.
Among the bronze horses unearthed in Wuwei of Gansu Province in 1969, the one named Steel Treading on Flying Swallow is the most outstanding. It shows a steed galloping ahead holding its head high,tail throwing up, three feet rising into the air, the right hind leg stepping on a flying swallow, which is extraordinary imaginative. The bronze lamps in the Han Dynasty were varied in style, all exquisitely made and in conformity with scientific principles, among which the most distinguished is the Changxin Palace Lamp excavated at Mancheng of Hebei Province, the pattern being a maid in an imperial palace in a half-kneeling, half-sitting posture, the left hand holding a lamp, the right hand carrying the lampshade, a sleeve serving as a siphon, forcing oil to flow into the lamp body. The round lamp body has two tile-shaped movable shades, which can be used to regulate the direction of light. The ingenious design and exquisite technology fully manifest the combination of practical use and good taste.