It’s rare to be able to look at art that is 3,500 years old, and even rarer to find that artwork looking back at you. Such is the case at the China Institute Gallery in Manhattan, where an unusual exhibition of Shang and Zhou Dynasty bronzes (ca. 1600-771 BCE), “Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan,” is on view through late spring 2011. These ritual bronzes are on display in the United States for the first time.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a rectangular “ding” or food vessel with a human face on all four sides, probably used in ancestral rituals and funeral rites, dating from the late Shang or about 1300-1050 BCE. The face may be that of a shaman. His stare can be quite chilling, and certainly is hypnotic.
No other known vessel has a human face like this one. And it’s a miracle that the object has survived. Many ritually important vessels from the period were buried. Some were burned and broken before being interred in funerary rites, although most in the Hunan region as opposed to the better-known bronzes from further north on the Central Plain of China seem to have been buried whole, possibly as sacrifices. Whatever this one was used for, a farmer dug it up, disassembled it and sold it for scrap metal. A member of the Hunan Provincial Museum, which has loaned these bronzes to the China Institute, fished it out of the scrap and bought it for the museum.
Only the elite were allowed to use these precious bronzes. Just think about the efforts involved in finding copper and other metals, smelting them, making the intricate piece molds, and finally assembling these bronzes. Food and wine containers in sets varying in number by the rank of their owners, they were often used at ritual banquets honoring a clan’s ancestors. Just how hierarchical this arrangement was is reflected in annals from slightly later. They specified that the emperor could use nine “ding,” lords seven, ministers five, and bureaucrats and scholars from three to one.
Almost as rare as the human-faced “ding” is an elephant-shaped wine container or “zun.” Only two others are known. The Hunan Provincial Museum’s example shares a realistic appearance like that of many other animal vessels from the Hunan region, but it is covered with surface decorations of more abstract animals more common to the north. A tiger perches on its snout with a small bird beneath its tail.
After the Shang were defeated by the Zhou, the Zhou ruler attributed part of their success to extensive drinking by the Shang. He banned alcohol, and more food vessels than wine vessels were made as a result. Another type of food container, a “gui” from the Western Zhou, 11th century to 771 BCE, has a distinctive horse-shaped stand with other horse heads protruding from the vessel itself.
Weapons were another category of early bronzes. A battle axe or “yue” blade has a tiger motif on the tang side and an abstract dragon on the blade itself. A “yue” was symbol of power, a ritual object and perhaps “an instrument of punishment,” as the exhibition’s catalogue notes.
A distinctive type of bronze from what is now the Hunan area is a large bell or “nao.” These ritual instruments could produce two distinct tones, one by hitting the center of the elliptical mouth and another by hitting the ends. They were mounted with the stem down and the mouth up when played.
The “liyue” system or “ritual and music” system promulgated by the Shang and Zhou sought to differentiate ranks clearly through the ritual use of bronzes like these and then unite people through music. By the Eastern Zhou, 771-256 BCE, the non-elite as well as the elite were using certain bronzes such as mirrors, and the system was beginning to falter.
Willow Hai Chang, director of the China Institute, has organized “Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan” with co-curators Chen Jianming, director of the Hunan Provincial Museum, Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, and Fu Juliang, curator of bronze collections, Hunan Provincial Museum.
“Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture in the Bronze Age from Hunan,” Jan. 27-June 12, 2011, at the China Institute, 125 East 65th Street, New York, N.Y. 10065.
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.