ArticlePDF Available

Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes


Abstract and Figures

abstract: For decades scholars have been discussing the meaning, purpose, and function of the various styles of decoration found in jade and bronze objects produced in the period spanning the Neolithic to the Han dynasty. Max Loehr made a significant contribution to this discussion in 1953 when he made the first attempt to understand the nature and sequence of styles of bronze décor from the Anyang period (1300–1038 b.c .), which corresponds to the late Shang dynasty. Since then scholars have been divided by two different points of view. Taking one side are those who concentrate on the iconographical meaning of the figures represented on the surface of jades and bronzes, suggesting that ornaments are correlated with, and an expression of, a preexistent system of beliefs. On the other side are those who consider the nature and evolution of the sequence of designs and styles as an artistic sophistication that must be considered independently of any exterior motivation, such as a system of religious beliefs. This article aims to explore the purpose and meaning of jade and bronze decorations, particularly those representations of real and mythical animals as forms of spiritual and political empowerment. Through the examination of the nature and sequence of iconographic motifs interpreted as archetypal forms, this article demonstrates the existence of distinct moments for the meaning and purpose of jade and bronze ornaments. During the moments when spirituality and the sacred rituals are dominant and overlap political power, the use of jade and bronze objects decorated with power-animals are manifestations of a system of beliefs. On the other hand, during the moments when political power enlists spirituality and sacred rituals as instruments of sovereignty, the designs tend to be more inventive and sophisticated, corresponding to technological improvements. Consequently, iconographic motifs lose their spiritual meaning and purpose to an immanent sense of design within an artistic phenomenon.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Volume 53 Number 2
Fall 2014
Ceramic Firing Structures in Prehistoric and Ancient Societies
of the Russian Far East 121
Irina S. Zhushchikhovskaya and Yury G. Nikitin
The Vanuatu “Butterfly Sail”: A Polynesian Oceanic Spritsail
in Melanesia 150
Anne Di Piazza
Archaeological History of a Fijian Island: Moturiki, Lomaiviti
Group 162
María Cruz Berrocal, Antonio Uriarte González, Sidsel Millerstrom,
Susana Consuegra Rodríguez, Juana Pérez-Arias, and Santiago
Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power
Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese
Jades and Bronzes 195
Rui Oliveira Lopes
book reviews
A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times 226
Reviewed by John N. Miksic
Kua‘āina Kahiko: Life and Land in Ancient Kahikinui, Maui 229
Reviewed by Michael Dega
The Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific
Rui Oliveira Lopes is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Artistic Studies Research Centre, Faculty of Fine
Arts, University of Lisbon.
Asian Perspectives, Vol. 53, No. 2 © 2015 by the University of Hawai‘i Press.
Securing the Harmony between the High and the
Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political
Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes
One of the issues that has given rise to lengthy discussions among art
historians is that of the iconographic significance of Chinese Neolithic jade objects
and the symbolic value the decorations on bronze vessels might have had during
the Shang (c. 1600 –1045 b.c.) and Zhou (1045–256 b.c.) dynasties. Some historians
propose that the representations of real and imaginary animals that often decorated
bronze vessels bore no specific meaning. The basis of their argument is that there is no
reference to them among the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty or any other contem-
poraneous written source.1 They therefore suggest that these were simply decorative
elements that had undergone a renovation of style in line with an updating of past
ornamental designs, or through stylistic influence resulting from contact with other
peoples from western and southern China ( Bagley 1993; Loehr 1953). Others, basing
their arguments on the Chinese Classics and other documents of the Eastern Zhou
and Han periods, perceive in the jades and bronzes representations of celestial beings
who played key roles in communicating with ancestral spirits (Allan 1991, 1993;
Chang 1981; Kesner 1991). The transfer of knowledge that determined the continuity
of funerary practices, ritual procedures, artistic techniques, and the transmission of the
meanings of iconographic representations was certainly subject to some change, but
would have been kept in the collective memory and passed on from generation to
generation until it was recorded in the most important documents regarding the insti-
tutions of Chinese culture.
The fact that there are no written references to the meanings of certain types of
jade objects and the iconography that decorates bronze vessels prevents us from
immediately grasping their ritual, religious, and political values. It is nevertheless un-
deniable that the material culture that comes from archaeological sites of ancient so-
cieties does allow us to reconstitute some aspects of the importance of such objects,
especially when they occur in the context of funerary rites. Furthermore, universal
196 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
characteristics inherent to human religious behaviour are reflected in the creation
of mythological narratives and, consequently, in the visual and artistic formulation
of the imaginary of myths. One may assert that visual representations that utilize
elements of nature that surround humankind are the first form of narrative, earlier
than writing itself. It is worth noting that the oldest Chinese characters found on
Neolithic ceramics, early ritual bronzes of the Shang dynasty, and (in a more devel-
oped form) on oracle bones of the late phase of the Shang period are essentially
pictograms. These pictograms became increasingly stylized through time to a more
abstract form.
The large number of jade objects and ritual weapons, characteristic of some Neo-
lithic cultures in China, reveals the contours of a spirituality rooted in the structures
of societal organization. Although there are no references prior to the Eastern Zhou
dynasty of the meaning of some of the more abstract shapes of Neolithic objects, such
as the bi (flat discs with a central circular hole) and cong ( prismatic tubes), other objects
are shaped like or decorated with mimetic or stylized representations of birds, turtles,
cicadas, and silkworms. The symbolic value of these latter designs would certainly
have been related to their perceptible qualities. Curiously, shamans in the middle and
late phases of the Shang dynasty used oracle bones made from animals that had been
widely represented in jade during the Neolithic period.
Marking the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, the Erlitou
culture (c. 1900 –c. 1500 b.c.) increased its area of influence along the south bank of
the Luo River, precisely in the same place that had been occupied earlier by the
Yangshao (5000 –3000 b.c.) and then by the Longshan (2800 –2000 b.c.) cultures.2
Archaeological evidence confirms the continuity of funerary practices and icono-
graphic motifs between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age (Liu 2002). The
funerary practices in many of the archaeological sites of the Neolithic and early
Bronze Age, such as Erlitou and Zhengzhou, are substantially identical, from the
cardinal orientation and stratification of the grave to the typology and distribution of
the objects.
Bronze ritual vessels and weapons modeled upon ceramic and jade objects dating
from the Neolithic have been frequently unearthed at Erlitou culture sites. Besides
bronze ritual vessels, ornaments such as a bronze plaque with a turquoise inlay of a
mask and a dragon-shaped scepter were also found. These were certainly symbols of
the authority of a clan leader or shaman or both. Such iconographic elements based
upon a symbolic ancestral language were extensively reproduced during the Shang
dynasty. Shang craftsmen demonstrated astounding versatility in the decoration and
artistic sophistication of bronze vessels and jade ritual objects.
The value and meaning of objects change both over time and according to the
political and religious situation. As shall be seen, when political power emerged and
consolidated around the figures of the sovereign and the aristocracy, objects started
losing their purely spiritual value and began to reflect the authority and status of their
owner through merely ornamental elements. The late phase of the Shang marked a
transition from sacred rites consecrated to Heavenly sovereignty to an institutionaliza-
tion of ceremonies glorifying political power. In this shift, the symbolic meaning of
the objects used during the sacred rites was either entirely lost, reimagined, or gave
way to new symbols and meanings that ceased to reflect the relationship between
Heaven and Earth, instead mirroring the legitimacy of political authority.
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
between heaven and earth
Approximately 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic period in China marked the begin-
ning of a new era brought about by the development of agriculture and animal
husbandry, particularly along the banks of the Yellow River in northern and central
China and the Yangzi River in southern China (Chang 1999 : 42– 47). However, in
recent decades archaeological excavations have unearthed jade objects in the shape
of dragons and small clay-molded human figurines that demonstrate the existence of
significantly developed social groups along the Liao River, in Liaoning Province and
Inner Mongolia (Childs-Johnson 1988; Nelson 1995).
Despite the development of agriculture and several technologies connected to so-
cial restructuring, such as the manufacturing of tools and the production of ceramics
to conserve the yield of crops, both fishing and hunting of a variety of animals, such
as turtles, water buffalo, and some species of deer, were continued as a significant
mode of subsistence. The abundance of food resources from agriculture, animal hus-
bandry, and fishing and hunting provided ideal conditions for demographic growth
and, consequently, permitted the specialization of resources focused on essential as-
pects of society. The development of manufacturing techniques to make stone tools
and the production of ceramics are some of the most remarkable examples.
Successful agriculture depended upon observing and understanding the cyclical
action of natural phenomena. Such observations were fundamental for the prosperity
of social groups. Moreover, they constituted a spiritual consciousness that attributed
mystic properties to elements of nature. Human vulnerability in the face of the forces
of nature led to the creation of mythological systems and cosmogonies of creation as-
sociated with universal principles that established a relationship between Heaven and
Earth. Earlier prestate societies identified Heaven with transcendence and inaccessi-
bility and Earth with the mundane world. Earth’s fertility depended upon the creative
force of Heaven being manifested in the rain that falls from the sky and the rivers that
stream between the mountains. Within the cyclical relationship between Heaven and
Earth, mountains represented a way of narrowing the distance between humans and
Heaven. They constituted simultaneously a means to ascend from Earth to Heaven
and as a space of communion with the sacred.3
Although there are no written sources that provide us with a clear picture of the
religious systems of Neolithic societies, comparing archaeological evidence of that
period with the knowledge we currently have about the spirituality of the Shang (as
recorded in oracle bones) strengthens the idea that human’s transcendental relation-
ship with nature preceded the Bronze Age. The human creative consciousness gave
way to an imaginary of forms that emulated the integration between Heaven and Earth
through symbolic representations of the cyclical actions of the cosmic order and the
elements of nature. Extracted from the veins of high mountains and riverbeds that
covered immense distances, jade would certainly have held symbolic value in the
context of funerary practices and eventually other rites during the Neolithic.
Evidence for the production of jade objects have particularly been found at sites of
the Xinglongwa (8500 –7000 b.c.) and Hongshan (3400 –2300 b.c.) cultures settled
along the banks of the Liao River in Liaoning Province and Inner Mongolia; the
Hemudu culture (5000 –3400 b.c.) near Hangzhou Bay in Zhejiang Province; the
Longshan culture along the Yangzi River, and the Liangzhu culture (3200 –2200 b.c.)
198 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
around the region of Lake Tai in the Yangzi River Delta (Guo 1995; Lin 2000; Rawson
–54; 2009) (Fig. 1).
The complexity and skill of the manufacturing process, and the restricted ritual
and social contexts (usually burials) in which these objects were recovered, likely re-
flect a significant change in the organizational structure of social groups in this period.
Due to jade’s unique hardness and the complex manufacturing skills and technology
necessary to work jade, the production of these objects implies the existence of an
organized structure of labor involving a large number of specialized craftsmen with
knowledge in handling specific tools for working jade. Supposedly, the majority of
tools for working jade would have been made of wood and bamboo, along with
sand-based abrasives that enabled the perforation and polishing of the surface of the
object. Some archaeologists have proposed that an emery wheel (similar to a whet-
stone) might have been used; it was probably mounted on a mechanized axle in order
to cut the stone, abrade the surface, and outline the profile of these objects. The fric-
tion of ropes coated with a paste of emery and quartz crystals would have been one of
the cutting techniques developed by the Hongshan culture, but it was also probably
used later by the Liangzhu culture (Sax et al. 2004; Sax et al. 2007) (Figs. 2, 3, and 4).
Fig. 1. Areas occupied by different Neolithic cultures of China. Source base map: Wikipedia Creative
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
The Liangzhu culture, which emerged in the aftermath of the decline of the
Majiabang (5000 –3200 b.c.) and Songze (5000 –3200 b.c.) cultures, greatly developed
these jade-working techniques. The well-known cong ( prismatic tubes) as well as
countless bi ( jade discs), have been commonly found in Liangzhu sites, many of them
decorated with figures and masks in high relief (Li 1993). Long perforations in the
cong tubes and bi discs would have been made with bamboo drilling tools and a mix-
ture of water and quartz, since these objects usually present elliptic grooves along the
perforation. Due to the enormous pressure exerted, the perforations were made alter-
nately in either side, resulting in a bulge more or less halfway across the opening. Tools
made of flint and shark teeth have been discovered alongside jade objects unearthed
in archaeological excavations; they might have been used to decorate and inscribe clan
insignia on the jade’s surface. The stylistic features and the formal design of the jade
objects, especially of the cultures that over time settled along the banks and delta of
the Yangzi River, would suggest that there was a continuous transmission of knowl-
edge through space and time, rather than a well-defined cultural boundary between
the different cultures.
The Xinglongwa culture is one of the oldest and most paradigmatic cultures of
the Neolithic; its area of influence covered the region of Chifeng around 8000 b.c.
(Chang 1999 : 49; Liu and Chen 2002; Tang et al. 2007). Besides attesting to an urban
Fig. 2. Bi disc, a ritual jade object from Liangzhu culture (c. 3200 –2000 b.c.). Diameter: 21.3 cm.
Source: Accession Number 1986.112, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
200 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
expansion in three phases, archaeological surveys in the area have revealed the exis-
tence of funerary rites involving animal sacrifice and the use of several types of funer-
ary jade objects. These included penannular-shaped ornamental jades, arc-shaped
implements, jade beads, and other objects in the form of ordinary agricultural tools
such as shovels, adzes, axes, and chisels. Some of the arc-shaped implements are per-
forated at least at one of the ends, so they might have been used as pendants. The
penannular-shaped jades have usually been found in pairs close to the head of the
tomb’s occupant, suggesting that they may have been used as earrings. Just as tombs
included sacrificed domesticated animals such as pigs, and wild animals that were part
of the regular diet, like different types of deer and pheasants, they also symbolically
included agriculture-related utensils. Some jade objects shaped like ordinary agricul-
tural tools have been found in tombs of the Xinglongwa culture—symbols of agricul-
ture’s importance in the context of funerary rites. In this context these seemingly
utilitarian jade objects represented offerings for a prosperous and plentiful afterlife, or
were perhaps consecrated to the spirits who controlled the elements of nature and
looked after the welfare of humans.
Ornamental objects are also very common in the archaeological sites of the Hong-
shan culture and other Neolithic cultures in northeastern China. This suggests that the
Xinglongwa culture predated the origin of later cultures that developed in the same
geographic area (Guo 1995 : 21–24).
Fig. 3. Jade pendant, Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 –221 b.c.). Dimensions: 3.81 × 3.80 cm. Source:
Museum Number 1937,0416.28, British Museum.
Fig. 4. Ritual object (cong), Liangzhu culture (c. 3200 –2000 b.c.), c. 2400. Dimensions: h. 25.4 cm;
w. 7 cm. Source: Accession Number 2004.52, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.
202 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
The Hongshan culture is particularly known for the technical quality of its jade
objects, its very diverse representations of realistic and mythological animals, and a
spiritual imaginary arising from the interaction between humans and the natural
world. In Niuheliang, presumed the largest settlement of the Hongshan culture, a
tomb containing a human skeleton, buried with nine jade pieces in a stone chamber,
was unearthed. Among these artifacts was a cloud-shaped pendant, placed on the
chest, and a C-shaped piece and two large bi discs placed on the head of the entombed
individual. Three ring-shaped objects, one jade bead, and an object in the form of
a bird were discovered on the lower part of the individual. Other, more modest
tombs found in the area each contained between one and five simpler smaller objects.
Only one of the smaller tombs contained a ring-shaped dragon; it had a small perfora-
tion so it could be used as a pendant.
The majority of jade objects of the Hongshan culture that have been unearthed
in an archaeological context have been found in Niuheliang, Sanguandianzi, and
Dongshanzui. Among more common objects such as beads, annular and semi-annular
(huang) pendants, and bi discs, objects shaped like animals such as ring-shaped dragons,
tigers, pigs, turtles, birds, and cicadas have been found. The more common artifacts
are thought to be ornamental implements for hair and clothing. Some relatively large
objects in the shape of a truncated cone with two openings at either extremity, one
larger than the other, are thought to have been used to hold hair, since they were
found placed behind the head. Amongst all the animal-shaped objects, birds, turtles,
dragons, cicadas, and silkworms appear most frequently. According to the natural
qualities of each animal depicted, such artifacts would eventually have acquired spe-
cific significance in the context of funerary rites.
During the Shang dynasty, sacred rites were consecrated to the deity, Shang Di,
which literally means High Sovereign. Shang Di was perceived as synonymous with
Heaven. According to the inscriptions on oracle bones used in Shang rituals, where
the earliest references to the deity are found, Shang Di was the sovereign of the entire
natural world and the ancestral spirits who, in the deity’s name, determined the des-
tiny of humans. Shang Di controlled all forces of nature, so provided the rains needed
for growing crops and minimized river floods so as to prevent total devastation. The
cosmogonies of the natural order, which are reflected in the sacralization of Heaven,
mountains, rivers, and other elements of nature that interfere with the order of hu-
manity, refer to archetypes that are universal and common to different anthropological
structures. Cultural materials from various civilizations in Europe, Africa, and South
America provide evidence of worship of the heavenly dome or firmament, and refer
to a Supreme God as sovereign over all of nature. Creation flood myths, which often
highlight both the destruction and regeneration of humanity, are revealed in the story
of Nuwa and Fuxi in the Chinese tradition, in the biblical description of Noah’s Ark,
and in Vedic narratives that describe the way Vishnu created all things of the world
after the destruction caused by the Cosmic Ocean. The creation of man from clay is
described in Babylonian epics, Egyptian and Mayan mythologies, and Chinese popu-
lar tradition with the tale of Nuwa’s creation of the first human beings from mud and
clay. Such sacred systems are a feature of the human spiritual consciousness. Even
before the development of writing, the human spiritual imaginary created a set of
rituals and symbolic language to manifest religious behavior.
Just as mountains, because of their verticality and the inaccessibility of their
summits, are believed inhabited by the ancestral spirits and constitute a place for
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
communing with Heaven, birds, because of their wings, stand for an axiological
connection with Heaven ( Bachelard 1943). The flight of the bird covers the distance
between Heaven and Earth, connects the celestial space with the space of humanity,
and may eventually stand for the spiritual journey of the deceased or even whoever
presides over the burial ritual. For example, on oracle bones dated from the final stage
of the Shang dynasty, the phoenix is described as the messenger of Heaven; it estab-
lishes the connection between Heaven and Earth, between the celestial world and the
world of humanity (Chang 1981).
The turtle has the ability to transit between the Earth and the Great Ocean, being
able, in the imaginary of early societies, to stand for the spiritual journey between the
world of humans and the underworld. It is also important to note that a significant
number of oracle “bones” are actually made of turtle plastron, the underside part of a
turtle’s shell. The use of plastron for oracular purposes demonstrates that the turtle was
inextricably associated with communication with ancestral spirits during the Shang
dynasty; such an association might have originated in Neolithic rituals. Oracle “bone”
fragments made of both turtle shell and plastron have been found in several archaeo-
logical sites from the Neolithic. In some cases, they reveal traces of red pigment.
Similarly, many archaeological finds from the Dawenkou culture (4300 –2200 b.c.)
include turtle shells, some incised on the surface with marks reminiscent of inscrip-
tions on Shang dynasty oracle bones. Many of these fragments are perforated at the
edges, probably to join the shell to the plastron. In one Neolithic tomb in Lingjiatan
in present-day Hanshan, Anhui Province, dated from c. 2500 b.c., a jade turtle com-
posed of two parts (shell and plastron) with the same type of perforations found on
the turtle fragments from the sites of the Dawenkou culture (Liu 2004 : 64 67) was
found. A rectangular jade plaque placed between the shell and plastron has an elabo-
rate diagram engraved on one of its surfaces. The diagram is very similar to what lat-
er would be defined as the Eight Trigrams, which were used in a divination method
in ancient China and later periods. Although it is not certain that this jade object
or turtle shells were ever used in the Neolithic as a system of divination or com-
munication with Heaven, there seems no doubt that the turtle bore that function
in the context of funerary practices. The fact that, during the later Shang dynasty,
turtle oracle bones (along with the bones of other animals) were used in rituals of
divination and communication with Heaven suggests continuity of practice with
Neolithic rituals.
The dragon is probably one of the most important mythical animals and is also
commonly represented in several cultures as a major iconography symbol. Dragons
may have been derived from exaggerated depictions of snakes and are archetypal im-
ages associated with water and the transcendent world. The dragon is often a hybrid
of many animals, with scales similar to those of fish and serpents, wings like birds, and
horns similar to deer or water buffalo. By combining the qualities of these animals, the
dragon is able to move between Heaven, Earth, and the Cosmic Ocean. Because of
its terrifying appearance, the dragon is also thought to protect the gates of the under-
world from evil spirits.
Also frequently placed in tombs throughout the Neolithic, jade cicadas and silk-
worms are widely connected to the cycles of life and death, and with the myths
of death and rebirth. Both animals represent a process of metamorphosis similar to
that which humans undergo throughout life. In this context, death is a process of
physical transformation and transition to a new form of life or existence, and funerary
204 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
ceremonies consist of a celebration and a ritual of passage. After hatching from eggs,
cicadas burrow underground to live for several years, feeding on root sap. When they
reach maturity, they climb on to a tree where they undergo metamorphosis and are
then ready to mate, dying after laying their eggs. Although they do not live under-
ground, silkworms undergo a similar process of metamorphosis inside a cocoon, from
which they emerge as moths. In China, the production of silk textiles dates back at
least to c. 3500 b.c., during the Neolithic, which means that there was, almost cer-
tainly, extensive knowledge of the life cycle not only of cicadas and silkworms, but
also of many other animals that were pivotal in meeting the primordial needs of soci-
ety in terms of food resources, material production, and ritual practices.
Scholars have seen jade objects as representations of cosmological symbols such as
Heaven, Earth, wind, and clouds (Childs-Johnson 1988). Apart from the ring-shaped
dragon, one of the most distinctive objects from the Hongshan culture is a pendant in
the form of a cloud. These pendants usually have beveled edges (Fig. 5). Some have
perforations in the center in the shape of a face. Clouds are naturally correlated
with Heaven and the manifestation of natural forces; they symbolize prosperity and
abundance because they provide the rain much needed for crops. The fact that their
shape was used as pendants and found in tombs belonging to elite individuals indicates
that there was a hierarchical social structure ruled by one or more sovereign–shamans
who held both spiritual and political authority.
Fig. 5. Plaque in the shape of a squarish loop with projections (Gouyun pei), Hongshan culture
(c. 3500 –2000 b.c.). Dimensions: h. 7.3 cm; w. 9.8 cm. Source: Accession Number: 2009.176, Metro-
politan Museum of Art, New York,
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
Because of their unbroken circular shape, bi discs have been interpreted in later
sources as a symbol of Heaven or the heavenly dome, and possibly the cyclical action
of the natural world. For example, the Rites of the Zhou (Zhou Li 周礼) lists bi discs at
the top of the list of most important utensils and states that they were used in sacri-
fices to Heaven (Teng 2000). Apart from the more common forms of discs with no
decoration, there are also objects from the Hongshan culture with two or three over-
lapping perforations, with a ring-shaped profile, possibly used as pendants. However,
the true meaning of these objects is as yet unknown.
Bi discs and cong tubes constitute the most significant and paradigmatic jade ritual
objects used in funerary practices in the Yangzi River Delta region. Bi discs have been
discovered in large numbers in sites of the Liangzhu culture. The large size of many of
the bi discs renders them unfit to have been used as ornaments for ritual attire. They
were nevertheless usually placed underneath the corpse and on the top of the chest
and stomach, while smaller ones were placed around the body. Cong are prismatic
objects on the outside, often decorated with geometric designs or masks on each of
the four corners. The interior is a hollow cylinder. As with bi discs, some scholars have
suggested that the circular interior of the cong symbolizes Heaven, while its squarish
exterior may represent Earth because of the four cardinal directions (Allan 1991,
1993). However, this interpretation is based on the meanings these objects held dur-
ing the Zhou dynasty, which may differ from the original meaning attributed to them
in the Liangzhu culture. While we remain ignorant of the real meaning of these ob-
jects, both bi discs and cong tubes clearly played a central role in Liangzhu rituals.
Techniques for cutting, perforating, and abrading the surface of jade progressed
significantly during the Liangzhu culture, enabling a greater and more diversified
production of ritual jade objects. Apart from perfecting the shapes, this resulted in the
surfaces of bi discs and the corners of cong tubes becoming lavishly ornamented with
one or more anthropomorphic masks in relief (Fig. 6). A common iconographic ele-
ment of Liangzhu jade objects, the animal mask motif was essentially designed with
two bulging eyes aligned above a nose and mouth, although there are also variations
that combine the anthropomorphic mask with a man. The man, wearing a crown of
feathers and with arms open, is represented over the mask’s eyes, apparently mounted
on the animal.
This interaction between man and animal corresponds to an iconographic element
that appears quite frequently during the Shang and Zhou dynasties (Li 1993). The
Palace Museum in Beijing has in its collection a fragment of silk found in a tomb from
the State of Chu ( Warring States Period) that contains a painting with the depiction
of a man mounted on a dragon. A jade object depicting a man mounted on an animal
was also found in Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. In fact, this object
seen from the front recalls the depictions of man atop an animal ordinarily seen in
Liangzhu objects. Furthermore, the configuration of the eyes of the masks or animals
is very similar to the ones we see in many of the ring-shaped dragons of the Hongshan
culture (Fig. 7). The man and animal motif is an archetypal image of the animal as
celestial vehicle that provides ordinary man with the ability to rise to Heaven and
communicate with ancestral spirits.
The technological developments that enabled large production of jade objects, as
well as relief decorations of their surfaces, certainly derived from greater political
cohesion and contiguity to rising political states in surrounding areas (Liu and Chen
2002). Thus, besides the bi and the cong objects associated with status and political
206 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
authority, other ornamental objects that complemented the sovereign–shamans’ attire
emerged. These objects made sacred rites even more spectacular. Among these objects
are huang pendants composed of various elements in a semicircular form and deco-
rated with the anthropomorphic mask motif.
Ritual weapons and other ornamental jade objects such as scepters (zhang), bead
necklaces, and huang became more common in the late Neolithic. They were associ-
ated with spiritual and political power in the Liangzhu, Shijiahe (2500 –2000 b.c.),
and Longshan cultures. Along the banks of the Yellow River, in the present-day prov-
inces of Henan, Shanxi, and Shandong, jade weapons of various types were used in
Longshan ritual ceremonies; they included axes (kwei, yue, and fu) and blades (dao).
Such weapons usually display no sign of use, suggesting that they were only used in
sacrifices during rituals or merely displayed as symbols of authority ( Demattè 2006).
In effect, the Longshan culture constitutes a cultural border between the Neolithic
and the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age began approximately 1900 b.c. with the Erlitou
culture, located in the same region earlier occupied by the Longshan culture. During
the Erlitou culture and throughout the Shang dynasty, jade and bronze ritual weapons
followed the shape and design of earlier jade models established by the Liangzhu and
Longshan cultures, in the same way that bronze ritual vessels were made in the same
shape as Neolithic ceramic vessels.
The Shang dynasty asserted a belief in a celestial hierarchy manifested through
natural phenomena. Jade objects took on a vital importance in the context of Shang
Fig. 6. Ritual object (cong), Liangzhu culture (c. 3200 –2000 b.c.), c. 2400. Dimensions: h. 5 cm; diam.
6.6 cm. Excavated at Fuquan Shan, Qingpu County, Shanghai, 1982. Source: Shanghai Museum.
(Author’s photograph)
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
rites. One of the few Shang tombs to have been found entirely intact was that of
Princess Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding (c. 1200 b.c.). This tomb is one of the
most important discoveries in Chinese archaeology, not only for the knowledge it has
provided on the late phase of the Shang period, but also for the approximately 1500
objects found inside the tomb, of which 468 were made of bronze (weapons, bells,
blades, mirrors, and sculptures of tigers), and 75 of jade. Some of these jade objects
were from Neolithic cultures, suggesting that the Shang recognized not only their
historic value, but above all the spiritual value of their ancestors (
Rawson 1992
83; 2009). As far as the iconography and form of these objects are concerned, the only
changes that can be perceived are increased artistic sophistication and an updating of
earlier forms. These changes resulted from greater mastery of the techniques for
working jade, along with new political and cultural environments. Annular-shaped
jade objects (including ring-shaped dragons) continued to be highly regarded during
the Shang period, although they were usually depicted in two dimensions with the
dragons rendered through rigorous, fine incisions on the surface of the jade.
The ritual jades of the Shang dynasty are consistent with the greater ceremonial
complexity known from the Neolithic cultures along the banks of the Yangzi River.
Weapons and scepters are particularly common, some inscribed with clan insignia.
Blades (zhang), presumably used as scepters, along with several types of ge and yue axes
have been frequently found in tombs belonging to the Erlitou elite. Later they appear
in more peripheral areas of the Sanxingdui culture (c. 1200 b.c.), in the present-day
Fig. 7. Jade figure ( pig dragon), Hongshan culture, 3500 b.c. Length: 10.4 cm. Source: Museum number
1973,0726.140, British Museum.
208 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
province of Sichuan. Besides the absence of evidence that the weapons were ever
used, ceremonial and symbolic features of Shang jade and bronze weapons are re-
vealed through their elaborate decorations. Their motifs related to birds, interactions
between man and animal, and most commonly the anthropomorphic masks of the
taotie 饕餮 (animal mask), the design of which consists of a frontal or bilaterally sym-
metrical zoomorphic figure with a pair of bulging eyes (Li 1993) (Fig. 8).
Human figures sculpted in jade date to the Neolithic, specifically from the Hong-
shan, Shijiahe, and Longshan cultures. It is entirely unknown whether these some-
what realistic figures are personifications of celestial beings, representations of actual
individuals with no significant importance, or spiritual leaders who performed rituals.
Clay figurines belonging to the Hongshan culture found in Niuheliang appear to be
feminine. They have been associated with a temple housing a cult presumably dedi-
cated to a goddess; the head of a woman with inlaid pieces of jade in place of eyes was
also found there (Guo 1995).
Jade figurines from the Shijiahe culture are usually represented wearing a headdress
and standing in an upright position facing forward, with hands held at the level of
their abdomen, suggesting they are making an offering (Fig. 9). Since several minia-
tures of animals that were traditionally sacrificed during rituals and granted to spirits
have been found, it is possible that the human figurines of the Shijiahe culture repre-
sent a miniaturized staging of the sacred rituals themselves. Shang dynasty jade statu-
ettes seem to have been modeled upon the Shijiahe figurines: They are represented
both frontally and upright with their hands over their abdomen, or on their knees
with their hands placed on their legs (Fig. 10). Some figures in these formal positions,
dressed in ceremonial attire, were found in Princess Fu Hao’s tomb, dated to the late
phase of the Shang. These figures probably represented a group of slaves ready to serve
offerings to ancestral spirits. Just as vessels and other funerary paraphernalia were made
to last forever, symbolic representations of the ritual itself would last for all eternity
through the portrayal of personal servants.
from sacred rituals to ceremonials of power
Since the Shang dynasty, bronze vessels gradually started playing a more important
role in the context of sacred rites and thus became increasingly numerous in the fur-
nishing of tombs. These objects were generally placed in groups according to their
typology and the specific function for which they were used in the rituals.
Unlike jade objects, whose production occurs throughout the entire history of
China, large-scale production of bronze ritual objects and bronze ceremonial tools
first emerged around 1900 b.c. and lasted until the end of the Warring States Period
in 221 b.c. These chronological boundaries are not precise since bronze tools with a
high percentage of copper have also been found in some archaeological sites of the
Hongshan, Liangzhu, Yongshao, and Longshan cultures; furthermore, bronze objects
continued to be produced during the Qin and the Han dynasties and subsequent
periods, although on a significantly smaller scale, as they were steadily replaced by
objects made of ceramic, lacquered wood, and other materials.
Bronze objects unearthed in various Bronze Age sites display a significant stylistic
evolution. This artistic sophistication reflects a close link between the development
of technological skill in casting and molding bronze and the rise of political author-
ity. For example, bronzes dated to the transition period between the Neolithic and
Fig. 8. Bronze ax, Shang dynasty (c. 1600 –1046 b.c.), 12th–11th century. Dimensions: h. 24.9 cm;
w. 16.2 cm. Source: Accession Number 1985.214.24, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.
Fig. 9. Human figure, Shijiahe culture (2500 –2000 b.c.). Source: Shanghai Museum. (Author’s
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
Erlitou culture, which Chinese historiography traditionally refers to as the Xia
dynasty, commonly appear in a configuration of food vessels (ding) and wine vessels
( jue and jia) that are either undecorated or have two thin zigzag parallel lines or only
a narrow geometric band around the upper part of the body ( Bagley 1987, 1990;
Chang 1981; Rawson 1992, 2009).
The earliest bronze ritual vessels known today appear to have been forged by
hammer, using the same techniques found in Europe during the Bronze Age. The rise
of the Shang coincides with the development of new casting techniques, which
consisted of molding bronze objects from clay models and molds, by pouring the
molten metal into them and filling the space between the two ( Bagley 1990; Bavarian
and Reiner 2006; Chase 1994). Knowledge of casting and molding techniques was
disseminated widely from 1750 b.c. onward; however, fragments of molds that would
have been used for the production of bronze objects have been unearthed in some
Neolithic archaeological sites, demonstrating that the technique was probably devel-
oped during the Neolithic.
Clay models and molds could be used repeatedly, which enabled production of
bronze objects on a large scale. Mold sections decorated with several types of icono-
graphic motifs have been found in various archaeological sites of the late phase of the
Shang; they were used repeatedly in molding many different types of vessels. The
design of ritual vessels changed along with the development of new casting tech-
niques. New shapes with more intricate elements emerged, including joining lids,
handles, and other more decorative elements to previously molded vessels. Technical
virtuosity gave rise to artistic sophistication and a subsequent decorative stylization of
the objects.
Fig. 10. Human figure, Shang dynasty (c. 1600 –1046 b.c.). Source: National Palace Museum, Beijing.
(Author’s photograph)
212 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
The vast majority of early Shang ritual bronzes are decorated with a characteristic
design known as a taotie, which is a stylistic derivation of a mythical animal mask
motif found on many ritual jades of the Neolithic (Fig. 11). The taotie presents fea-
tures of a mythical animal, with bulging eyes in the center, a mouth or lower jaw,
heavy eyebrows, ears, and sometimes horns. The taotie normally covers a substantial
part of the surface of ritual vessels, revealing an impressive versatility in the ornamen-
tation of the different types of ritual bronze objects.
The stylistic heterogeneity of this motif corresponds to innovations in vessel shapes,
as the taotie was adapted to cover different surface spaces on ritual bronzes. Some
scholars therefore suggest that the taotie was merely a decorative element designed to
make the most use of available space, rather than an iconographic representation of
some part of the spiritual imaginary of the Shang ( Bagley 1993; Loehr 1953). How-
ever, besides probably having been derived from the animal mask motif found on
many Neolithic ritual jades, it is important to add that the taotie is an imagined being,
one of many other animals, both real and mythical, depicted on the surfaces of ritual
bronzes. Zhou- and Han-period texts such as the Spring and Autumn Annals (Lushi
Chunqiu 氏春秋), the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing 山海), and the Han
dynasty dictionary Explaining and Analysing the Characters (Shuowen Jiezi 解字) identify
some of the imaginary animals depicted on ritual bronzes, including the taotie (an
animal without a body), the feiyi (a serpent with one head and two bodies), the kui
(a black animal similar to an ox, but without horns and only one leg), and the long
Fig. 11. Ritual lobed tripod cauldron (liding), Shang dynasty (c. 1600 –1046 b.c.), 11th century. Dimen-
sions: h. to handles 19.1 cm; h. at rim 15.9 cm; w. at handles 5.6 cm. Source: Accession Number
49.136.5, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
(the most common type of dragon). Although these texts date from later periods, they
assert that these animals represented important aspects of primordial Chinese myths
concerning the connection between Heaven, Earth, and Water (symbolized by the
dragon); the devastating consequences of drought ( brought by the feiyi if anyone
catches sight of it); and of the destructiveness of some spirits (such as the specter of the
one-legged kui ).
These mythical animals stand for the devastating forces of the cosmos, which
are manifested through the elements of nature (drought, floods, fire, epidemics), and
that determine human welfare. In the imaginary of earlier pre-state societies, man-
devouring beasts were common. They symbolized the personification of the devastat-
ing action of nature and the vulnerability of humankind. Hybrid mythological animals,
commonly combining the serpent with winged animals, connected Heaven and the
aquatic world.4 Such mythological animals represented the wrathful judgment of a
supreme being that sustains the universe and controls the welfare of humankind. This
is an archetypical representation of a (heavenly) father devouring his sons (humans).
Representing the wrath of a god against humans is a reminder to follow the god’s
commandments through obedience and a righteous way of life. Humans were ex-
pected to perform rites and sacrifices, make food and wine offerings in order to gain
divine favor, and thus turn the god’s devastating forces away from humankind.
Regardless of the specific meaning they held during the Shang dynasty, the mytho-
logical animals depicted on bronze objects associated with sacred rituals corresponded
to an imaginary that is shared with other cultural traditions, both coexistent and
subsequent, also including sacrificing animals and making offerings of food and wine
or other inebriant drinks.
Real animals are frequently represented on the ritual bronzes of the Anyang period.
Owls and other birds, cicadas, silkworms, turtles, hares, elephants, rhinoceros, deer,
oxen, horses, water buffalo, tigers, and wild boar were some of the most common. As
already mentioned, the representation of birds, turtles, cicadas, and silkworms derives
from the Neolithic imaginary and held specific significance in the context of sacred
rituals. Just like in Neolithic jades, in bronze ritual objects these animals establish a
connection between Heaven and Earth by virtue of their natural characteristics. They
were increasingly displayed in more stylized forms, as they were adapted to the avail-
able space and form of ritual vessels.
A wider range of animals was used in divinatory rituals as well. Apart from the fact
that oracle bones, used to literally communicate with ancestral spirits, were predomi-
nantly turtle shells and ox scapulae, it is not uncommon to find oracle inscriptions on
bones from other animals such as sheep, wild boar, horses, deer, and water buffalo.
Referring to several passages from Zhou texts, Kwang-chih Chang argues that animal
sacrifices were part of the paraphernalia that was essential to the performance of
rituals aimed at establishing a connection between Heaven and Earth (1981). The
relation between oracle bones and animal sacrifice, offered to the ancestral spirits
and served in the ritual vessels, is reflected in the representation of such animals on
the ritual vessels, according to Zuo Zhuan’s Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuo
Zhuan 春秋左专):
The tripods [ding] do not matter; virtue does. In the past when the Xia dynasty was
distinguished for its virtue, the distant regions put their wu ()5 into pictures and the
nine provinces sent in copper as tribute. The tripods were cast to present those wu ().
One hundred different wu () were presented, so that people could distinguish divine
214 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
from evil. Thus the people when they went among the rivers, marshes, hills, and forests
did not meet with the injurious things, and the hill-spirits, monstrous things, and water-
spirits did not meet with them. Hereby a harmony was secured between the high and
the low, and all enjoyed the blessing of Heaven. When the virtue of Jie [last king of the
Xia] was all-obscured, the tripods were transferred to the Shang dynasty, and for six
hundred years the Shang enjoyed its ruling status. Finally, King Zhou of the Shang
proved cruel and oppressive, and the tripods were transferred to the Zhou dynasty.
(Legge 1872 : 293)
The relevance of this excerpt lies in its clear reference to the function of the ritual
vessels (and the iconographic elements represented on them) in securing harmony
between Heaven and Earth by means of communicating with ancestral spirits. It also
demonstrates the knowledge that existed, particularly during the Shang and the Zhou
dynasties, concerning the circulation of bronze ritual objects from the areas of central
power with the peripheries, namely with peoples west and south of China. In con-
clusion, there seems to exist a correlation between the sacrificing of certain types of
animals, the use of their bones to communicate with ancestral spirits, and the repre-
sentation of these animals on the surface of bronze ritual vessels, which were used to
serve ceremonial banquets that appeased the voracious forces of nature and spirits that
threatened human welfare.
Although the decoration of ritual bronzes may bear an iconographic significance
that mirrors and mediates the relationship between humans and the sacred, including
life after death, it is also true that the richness of the decorations corresponds to a set
of aesthetic principles that are demonstrated in the high variety of styles and forms
arising from artistic creativity. Artistic sophistication and an increasing mastery of cast-
ing and molding techniques provided a wide array of decorative possibilities, which
led to combining different iconographic elements according to the physical character-
istics of the objects. In many cases, certain types of elements were introduced and the
usual forms were redesigned so as to fill the space available. In so doing, they lost
any meaning they might earlier have held. After a period strongly influenced by
the realistic representation of animals, which was characteristic of the regions of
southern China, the late phase of the Shang saw a reinvention of classic styles of taotie
motifs and the inclusion of other imaginary beings and abstract designs, indicating
a more aesthetic and fashionable perspective toward the visual appearance of the
object as a whole.
Two characteristics of ritual bronze decoration are balance and symmetry. Bronzes
were often made using illusion-creating techniques that suggest an unconscious
grouping of different elements. Symmetrical pairs of animals and other decorative
elements commonly appear on the upper bands of the body of a vessel or on its fron-
tal area, on either side, or on each of the vessel’s legs (Fig. 12). Such paired elements
were usually separated by vertical protrusions designed to maintain their symmetry
with each other and consonance with other decorative elements. Regardless of the
symbolic charge attributed to symmetry, the visual effect of symmetry inherently
stimulates the primary senses of human consciousness. That is to say, the visual cortex
reacts emotionally to visual stimuli that suggest balance, proportion, and harmony.6
In addition to symmetry, the decorations on many ritual vessels display an interest-
ing feature that occurs in many other ancient cultures around the world. This feature
was termed “split representation” by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963). This is characterized
by a symmetrical, frontal representation of an animal head that simultaneously depicts
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
the head of two animals in profile, one to the left and the other to the right. The left
half of the animal’s face corresponds to the head of the animal on the left seen in pro-
file, while the right half of the animal’s face corresponds to the head of the animal on
the right, also seen in profile. It is common to find this effect in right-angled vessels.
Viewed at an angle, the animal representation will be seen face-on, but when the ves-
sel is viewed from the front there will be an animal in profile represented on either
side. Although Claude Lévi-Strauss interpreted this characteristic as a technical need
for the representation of a three-dimensional element on a two-dimensional surface,
and Kwang-chih Chang (1981) perceived it as being a reflection of the dualism pres-
ent in Shang thought and institutions, it seems to be a merely creative but powerful
way of decorating the ritual vessels. This illusionary feature is capable of triggering an
emotional response that highlights the uniqueness of the bronze object and demon-
strates the social status of the owner.7
As we see in the next section, as political authority and prosperity under a king’s
rule overlapped or replaced the importance of sacred rites, the symbolic language and
the significance of certain elements represented in ceremonial objects gave way to a
predominantly ornamental artistic sophistication. Precious objects such as jade imple-
ments and bronze vessels ceased to be uniquely related to communication with the
ancestral spirits. Instead, as they were more oriented to strengthen political power and
the attainment of honors, they were increasingly used to celebrate important events
and record the actions of elite individuals.
Fig. 12. Ritual tetrapod cauldron ( fangding), Shang dynasty (c. 1600 –1046 b.c.), 12th–11th century.
Dimensions: h. 22.9 cm; w. 15.2 cm; diam. 17.8 cm. Source: Accession Number 49.135.2, Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York,
216 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
jade and bronze as symbols of political authority
According to written sources such as the Book of Documents, also known as the Book
of History (Shujing 书经), when the Zhou defeated the Shang around 1045 b.c., they
evoked the principle of the Mandate of Heaven and claimed to have emerged as
victors only because the ancestral spirits so intended, since the behavior of the Shang
was morally unacceptable. As the Zhou hegemony was established, ritual proceedings
were restructured. This exerted a significant influence on the artistic creativity and
technical knowledge involved in the production of jade and bronze objects. Meaning-
ful changes concerning the organization of the state and ritual proceedings generated
a rupture with some traditions of the Shang. These changes were reflected in the pro-
duction of ritual objects, both in terms of shape and decoration. For example, the
number of wine vessels found in burials significantly decreased in favor of a greater
preponderance of food vessels of the xu, gou, and gui types.
Bronze ritual vessels increasingly became a reflection of political power and an in-
strument for conveying social hierarchies and political and military achievements.
Thus, while Shang ritual bronzes usually included a single or small number of charac-
ters identifying their owner, Zhou ritual bronzes displayed long inscriptions referring
to political matters, land transfers, military victories, and the attainment of honors or
social status. While the stylistic richness of the decorations and the formal variety of
Shang ritual bronzes only enable us to deduce their owner’s importance and status, the
long inscriptions on the Zhou ritual bronzes record concrete facts related to the ac-
tivities of specific individuals or historical events. Inscriptions recording facts about
the life of one or more individuals served not only to impart their achievements or the
virtues of their actions to people in their own time, but also to influence future gen-
erations, so they could be proud of their ancestors and follow their virtuous examples.
Many of such ritual vessels dated from the Western Zhou dynasty contained long
inscriptions and were deposited in hoards alongside bronze ritual vessels of other
periods. This fact suggests they might have been kept in the family for several gen-
erations, only to be buried in a crisis or in haste so that their owners could escape
attackers unhindered or to prevent the objects from being plundered (Feng 2006;
Fong 1980; Rawson 1999).
Substantial changes in the decoration of ritual vessels were not introduced in the
early Western Zhou, but it is common to come across stylistic reformulations of the
representation of the real and mythological animals normally found on Shang-period
vessels. The Western Zhou placed a special emphasis on goats and water buffalo, al-
though taotie and long dragons were also common.
The social and political contexts of the Zhou favored narrative descriptions
(through inscriptions) over Shang-style ornamentation. Thus, many of the shamanistic
elements inherited from the Shang were replaced by a merely ornamental repertoire
around 950 b.c. that was marked by the strong presence of bird designs instead of the
traditional taotie and other zoomorphic representations of the Shang and early Western
Zhou. Influenced by cultures in south and southeastern China, stylized representa-
tions of birds with prominent beaks, curled feathers on their heads, and long tails
became common on both bronze and jade objects ( Rawson 1999). Techniques for
casting and joining precast components were developed throughout the middle phase
of the Western Zhou. For example, handles shaped like animals or ropes, lids, and
other decorative elements cast beforehand were joined to the vessels (Fig. 13).
Fig. 13. Ritual wine container ( you), Western Zhou dynasty (1046 –771 b.c.), 11th–10th century.
Height: 27.6 cm. Source: Accession Number 49.135.5a, b, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
218 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
During the late phase of the Western Zhou (c. 771 b.c.), zoomorphic representa-
tions started disappearing and giving way to narrow wavy bands, vertical grooves, and
other geometric elements, relegating the representation of animals to the handles,
legs, and other accessorial precasted elements. As a result of this sudden reconfigura-
tion of the sacred rites, along with the importance the Zhou attributed to food during
the rituals, food vessels of the ding and gui types became extremely common. This may
be due to the large surface area of the interior of such vessels, where inscriptions were
usually placed. However, wine vessels especially of the you and zun types also became
more common. They were often cast in animal shapes. The zun vessels are the primi-
tive form of the small bronze sculptures in the shape of animals that became popular
during the Warring States Period, often decorated with gold, silver, or copper and
inlaid with turquoise, jade, or other kinds of stone.
During the early phase of the Western Zhou, ritual jades retained the same design
as those from the Shang period, although production decreased relatively. The great
majority of jade objects were carved in the shapes of animals. One common motif
blended a man with a bird. The representation of fish was also very common; these
were often used as pendants. Other types of jade objects, such as ge weapons, bi discs,
and cong tubes, became increasingly rare. On the other hand, new types of ritual jade
objects emerged during the middle phase of the Zhou. For example, discovered frag-
ments of assorted sizes form masks, suggesting that those fragments were placed over
the face of the dead. The bird motif with prominent beak, curled feathers, and long
tail became predominant in the decoration of jade surfaces, as advanced incision and
carving techniques became a feature of the technical and artistic craftsmanship of the
late period of the Western Zhou.
Around 475 b.c., during the Warring States Period, Chinese artists started molding
bronze on a large scale using the lost wax technique, especially in producing small
objects and ritual vessels that furnished the tombs of the most prominent royal and
aristocratic figures. Such technological developments and artistic creativity were fos-
tered by the need for ostentatious displays of political and military power that re-
flected the authority, status, and prosperity of their owners. Also during the Warring
States Period, techniques for using gold, silver, and copper inlays, and sometimes
combinations of these precious metals, were developed. These objects were cast with
recesses open on the surface to hold the intended decoration. When these recesses
were subsequently filled with gold, silver, or copper, it created an impression of chro-
matic contrast and natural embellishment and enrichment. Decorations on this type
of vessel often depicted ritual activities, such as war and hunting scenes and groups of
people dancing.
I assume that these techniques and artistic innovations regarding the shape of some
of the objects derived from contact with coexistent peoples of the Near and Middle
East, since inlays in gold, silver, and copper were a common practice in Egypt and
Persia and already had a long tradition in Persian art. New shapes that emerged in
China, such as the hu wine vessels, closely emulate pear-shaped vessels with high,
cylindrical necks that were very common in Achaemenid Persia and in some areas of
the Eastern Mediterranean (Fig. 14).8
Bronze objects from each period show a clear affinity with the political and mili-
tary situation that China was going through at each time. During the Shang and the
early Zhou periods, sacred rites constituted an important part in state affairs. Conse-
quently the majority of bronze objects were designed to function specifically in the
Fig. 14. Bronze flask (hu), Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 –221 b.c.). Dimensions: h. 32 cm; diam. 6 cm.
Source: Museum Number 1973,0726.26, British Museum.
220 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
context of funerary and shamanic practices. When political instability spread across
China as great states arose and fought for political and military hegemony, objects
were increasingly intended to reflect the health and prosperity of warlords and politi-
cal sovereigns. For example, the tiger-shaped tally, traditionally called a hufu, was a
two-piece object that stood for political authority and the ability of a general to com-
mand troops on behalf of the ruler. Some of the most exuberant bronze objects
exemplifying the climate of military instability during the Warring States Period were
adornments on military attire: namely belt buckles with gold, silver, or copper and
often turquoise inlays. Scabbards in bronze and jade were also common.
After the unification of China, under the sovereignty of the first emperor, Qin Shi
Huang Di, a political shift occurred that contributed to a short-lived decline in the
importance of bronze in ritual practices. After the fall of the Qin dynasty, however,
the Han re-invigorated the production of bronze objects and made considerable in-
novations, including in their function in the funerary context as well as their artis-
tic significance. Han bronzes included animal-shaped censers and lanterns that
reflected new views on immortality and life after death manifested by the influx of
Buddhist beliefs.
In the transition between the Warring States Period and the Han dynasty, artisans
experimented with techniques for combining jade and bronze, probably based on
inlay techniques using copper, gold, and silver. Jade–bronze combinations are still very
rare, however. In the collections of the Hunan Provincial Museum, there is a cup in
golden bronze and jade inlays that comes from Tomb 2, belonging to the family of
Li Cang, Marquis of Dai and Chancellor of the Prince of the State of Changsha.
According to the registry inscription that lists information about the objects in-
cluded in the funerary chambers, the Li Cang family tomb was sealed in 168 b.c.
( Xiong and You 2006).
During the Warring States Period, the political division between the great states
gave rise to a moral crisis and to a period of great instability, propitious for the
dissemination of Taoism and Confucianism throughout the fifth century b.c. The
Classics, such as the Book of Rites (Li Ji 礼记), demonstrate the importance of jade as
a symbol of the knowledge and morality of the virtuous man. When Zi Gong, one of
Confucius’ disciples, questioned his mentor on the importance of jade for the noble
man, Confucius replied:
It is not because the soapstone is plentiful that he thinks but little of it, and because
jade is rare that he sets a high value on it. Anciently superior men found the likeness
of all excellent qualities in jade. Soft, smooth, and glossy, it appeared to them like be-
nevolence; fine, compact, and strong,—like intelligence; angular, but not sharp and
cutting,—like righteousness; hanging down (in beads) as if it would fall to the ground,—
like (the humility of ) propriety; when struck, yielding a note, clear and prolonged, yet
terminating abruptly,—like music; its flaws not concealing its beauty, nor its beauty
concealing its flaws,—like loyalty; with an internal radiance issuing from it on every
side,—like good faith; bright as a brilliant rainbow,—like heaven; exquisite and mysteri-
ous, appearing in the hills and streams,—like the earth; standing out conspicuous in the
symbols of rank,—like virtue; esteemed by all under the sky,—like the path of truth and
duty. As is said in the ode: Such my lord’s car. He rises in my mind, lovely and bland, like
jade of richest kind. (Legge 1885 : 464)
In the time of Confucius it was common for all noble and exemplary men to wear
jade objects as symbols of their social status and the moral virtues that characterized
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
them. This gave rise to a range of new meanings associated with jade, completely
distinct from those jade had held throughout the previous periods, even if objects still
retained common iconographic elements or were a recast of old types. Bi discs sig-
nificantly decreased in size and evolved in the direction of a remarkable diversifica-
tion, so as to be used as clothing accessories, usually hung from the waist or adapted
to long chest pendants.
For Taoists on the other hand, jade was viewed as an immortal substance, a spiri-
tual source of purity and truth, and an object with alchemic properties that favored
longevity, becoming particularly popular during the Warring States Period and the
Han dynasty. The funerary rites of members of the aristocracy during the Warring
States Period and the Han dynasty reveal jade objects being placed in strategic parts of
the body, namely the mouth and the eyes, with the view of preventing natural decom-
position. In some cases, jade masks and suits have been unearthed, similar to those
found in the tombs of Liu Sheng and Dou Wan in Hebei Province, and of Zhao Mo,
known as King Nanyue, in Guangzhou. According to the Book of the Later Han or
History of the Eastern Han (Hou Hanshu 后汉书), compiled by Fan Ye in the fifth
century, the hundreds of jade plaques that made up the suit were joined by means of
wire, which could be made of gold, silver, or silk, corresponding to the person’s status
or position in Chinese aristocracy. However, the archaeological evidence indicates
that these practices were not always duly employed.
Despite not being as numerous as during the Warring States Period, the sets of jade
objects found in tombs of the Han dynasty are often symbolical representations of
imperial authority, where the dragon is the most prominent iconographic element
as a symbol of imperial power. The dragon is often depicted juxtaposed in harmony
with the tiger, symbol of military power. During the Han, a new attitude toward the
historical events of the first sovereigns emerged, and the practice of collecting objects
from those periods became common. Consequently, some of the more usual shapes,
like discs, were stylistically redesigned to suit contemporary trends in ornamenta-
tion. Meanwhile, interest grew in collecting exotic objects that were entering China
through the Silk Road trade, especially unique objects brought from the Persian
world. These exotic objects inspired new artistic forms in China. Libation cups, com-
monly known as rhytons (called takuk in Persia) were some of the rarest objects, but
they spread throughout Asia Minor and influenced China. In the tomb of King
Nanyue of the Han dynasty, along with silver boxes imported from Persia was a jade
libation cup in the shape of a rhinoceros horn; the shape of the cup was probably
based on Persian models ( Wu et al. 2007).
The tombs of important aristocratic figures were furnished with countless objects
made of different materials. Musical instruments, lacquered wooden statues, silk, fur-
niture, and exotic boxes have been found in conjunction with jades and collections
of different types of bronze vessels. During the Warring States Period, the presence of
large numbers of bells and other musical instruments suggests that funerary rites were
followed by an elaborate ceremony attended by a large audience of guests, reflecting
the greatness of the deceased and the desire to prolong life after death.
During the Han dynasty bronze became less important in sacred rites and funerary
practices. Eventually, Buddhist iconography influenced the Han imperial court and
gave rise to a substantial sociological transformation, not only regarding thought,
religion, and politics, but also in regard to art, through the introduction of new
222 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
representational codes, new materials and techniques, and the role that Chinese
painting had after the fall of the Han dynasty. Nevertheless, from the Han dynasty to
the present, jades and bronzes of ancient China have been preserved and regarded as
the most important cultural relics of China.
This work was supported by Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia [FCT/SFRH/
1. Shamans used the bones and shells of various animals, especially turtle plastrons and ox scapulae, for
divination. They inscribed them with questions directed toward ancestral spirits. The oracle bones
were subsequently heated in a fire and the stress cracks that appeared were then interpreted. These
readings were then carved on the opposite side, close to the edge ( Keightley 1978, 1989).
2. On Erlitou culture during the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, see Allan
3. On the sacred dimension of Heaven and the Mountain, see Eliade 1949 and Durand 1992.
4. On myths related to the dragon or serpent in the mythological traditions of Indo-European cultures,
see Dumézil 1968–1971 and Watkins 1995. In the mythology of Mesoamerican cultures, Kukulkan
and Quetzalcoatl were represented as a man-devouring feathered serpent in Yaxchilan and Chichen
Itza, and were probably inspired by the same motif rendered at the Juxtlahuaca Cave, of the Olmec
culture ( Joralemon 1996).
5. Although some authors translate the character wu () as object or thing, it can also be translated as
creature, which in this context seems more correct.
6. These approaches have been developed by neuroscientists in their effort to establish a relationship
between artistic creativity and the functioning of the visual cortex ( Ramachandran 2005; Zeki 1999).
7. On the resolution of problems of visual perception and the emotional responses of the limbic system,
see the concept of “grouping” in Ramachandran 2005.
8. Despite it being assumed that the Silk Road was established following the missions of exploration to
the west led by Zhang Qian, around 140 –134 b.c., it is probable that caravan routes that enabled the
transport of goods in the steppes of Central Asia already existed (Liu 2010).
references cited
Allan, Sarah
1991 The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China. Albany: State University of New
York Press.
1993 Art and meaning, in The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes: 9–33, ed. Whit-
field Roderick. London: SOAS. Colloquies on Art & Archeology in Asia No. 15.
2007 Erlitou and the formation of Chinese civilization: Toward a new paradigm. The Journal of Asian
Studies 66 (2) : 461– 496.
Bachelard, Gaston
1943 L’air et les songes. Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement. Paris: Librairie José Corti.
Bagley, Robert
1987 Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler
1990 Shang ritual bronzes: Casting technique and vessel design. Archives of Asian Art 43 : 6 –20.
1993 Meaning and explanation, in The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes: 34 –55,
ed. Whitfield Roderick. London: SOAS. Colloquies on Art & Archeology in Asia No. 15.
Bavarian, Behzad, and Lisa Reiner
2006 Piece Mold, Lost Wax and Composite Casting Techniques of the Chinese Bronze Age. Northridge:
California State University Press.
Chang, Kwang-chih
1981 The animal in Shang and Chou bronze art. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 41 (2) : 527–554.
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
1999 China on the eve of the historical period, in The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the
Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.: 37–73, ed. M. Loewe and E. L. Shaughnessy. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Chase, W. Thomas
1994 Chinese bronzes: Casting, finishing, patination and corrosion, in Ancient and Historic Metals:
Conservation and Scientific Research: 85–117, ed. David A. Scott, Jerry Podany, and Brian B.
Considine. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.
Childs-Johnson, Elisabeth
1988 Dragons, masks, axes and blades from four newly documented jade-working cultures of
Ancient China. Orientations 19 (4) : 30 41.
Demattè, Paola
2006 The Chinese Jade Age: Between antiquarianism and archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology
6 : 202–226.
Dumézil, George
1968– Mythe et épopée. Paris: Gallimard.
Durand, Gilbert
1992 Les structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire. Paris: Dunod.
Eliade, Mircea
1949 Traité d’histoire des religions. Paris: Éditions Payot.
Feng, Li
2006 Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045–771 bc.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fong, Wen, ed.
1980 The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China. New York:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Guo, Da-shun
1995 Hongshan and related cultures, in The Archaeology of Northeast China: Beyond the Great Wall:
21– 64, ed. Sarah Nelson. London: Routledge.
Joralemon, Peter David
1996 In search of the Olmec cosmos: Reconstructing the world view of Mexico’s first civilization,
in Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico: 51– 60, ed. E. P. Benson and B. del la Fuente. Washington,
D.C.: National Gallery of Art.
Keightley, David
1978 Sources of Shang History: The Oracle–Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University
of California Press.
1989 The origins of writing in China: Scripts and cultural contexts, in The Origins of Writing:
171–202, ed. Wayne M. Senner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Kesner, Ladislav
1991 The taotie reconsidered: Meanings and functions of Shang theriomorphic imagery. Artibus
Asiae 51 (2) : 29–53.
Legge, James, trans.
1872 Master Zuo’s Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Chinese Classics, vol. 5.
London: Trübner.
1885 The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, part 4: The Li Ki, XI–XLVI). Sacred
Books of the East, vol. 28, ed. F. Max Müller. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude
1963 Split representation in the art of Asia and America, in Structural Anthropology: 245–268,
ed. Claude Lévi–Strauss. New York: Basic Books.
Li, Xueqin
1993 Liangzhu culture and Shang dynasty taotie motif, in The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese
Ritual Bronzes: 55– 65, ed. Whitfield Roderick. London: SOAS. Colloquies on Art & Arche-
ology in Asia No. 15.
Lin, James
2000 The Immortal Stone–Chinese Jades from the Neolithic Period to the Twentieth Century. London:
224 asian perspectives
. 53(2)
. fall 2014
Liu, Li
2004 The Chinese Neolithic Trajectories to Early States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Liu, Li, and Xingcan Chen
2002 Sociopolitical change from Neolithic to Bronze Age China, in Archaeology of Asia: 149–176,
ed. Miriam T. Stark. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Liu, Xinru
2010 The Silk Road in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Loehr, Max
1953 The bronze styles of the Anyang period (1300 –1028 b.c.). Archives of the Chinese Art Society
of America 7 : 42–53.
Nelson, Sarah M., ed.
1995 The Archaeology of Northeast China: Beyond the Great Wall. London: Routledge.
Ramachandran, Vilayanur
2005 A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. New York: Pi
Rawson, Jessica
1999 Western Zhou archaeology, in The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of
Civilization to 221 b.c.: 352– 449, ed. Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rawson, Jessica, ed.
1992 The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: The British Museum Press.
2009 Treasures from Shanghai: Ancient Chinese Bronzes and Jades. London: The British Museum Press.
Sax, Margaret, Nigel D. Meeks, and Carol Michaelson
2007 The introduction of rotary incising wheels for working jade in China, in Scientific Research on
the Sculptural Arts of Asia: Proceedings of the Forbes Symposium at the Freer Gallery of Art: 20 –25,
ed. J. G. Douglas, P. Jett, and J. Winter. Washington, D.C.: Archetype Publications with the
Freer Gallery of Art.
Sax, Margaret, Nigel D. Meeks, Carol Michaelson, and Angela P. Middleton
2004 The identification of carving techniques on Chinese jade. Journal of Archaeological Science 31
(10) : 1413–1428.
Tang Chung, Yang Hu, and Liu Guoxiang, eds.
2007 The Origin of Jades in East Asia: Jades of the Xinglongwa Culture. Hong Kong: Centre for Chinese
Archaeology and Art / The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Teng, Shu P’ing
2000 The original significance of bi disks: Insights based on Liangzhu jade bi with incised symbolic
motifs. Journal of East Asian Archaeology 2 (1) : 165–194.
Watkins, Calvert
1995 How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo–European Poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wu, Lingyun, Tang Zhenquan, Jia Junshi, Cao Sui, Liu Jinshun, and Xiang Jinyan
2007 Treasures from the Museum of the Nanyue King. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House.
Xiong, Chuanxin and You Zhenqun
2006 Mawangdui Han Tombs in Changsha. Hong Kong: SDX Joint Publishing Company.
Zeki, Semir
1999 Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
For decades scholars have been discussing the meaning, purpose, and function of the
various styles of decoration found in jade and bronze objects produced in the period
spanning the Neolithic to the Han dynasty. Max Loehr made a significant contribution
to this discussion in 1953 when he made the first attempt to understand the nature and
sequence of styles of bronze décor from the Anyang period (1300 –1038 b.c.), which
corresponds to the late Shang dynasty. Since then scholars have been divided by two
different points of view. Taking one side are those who concentrate on the iconograph-
. securing the harmony between the high and the low
ical meaning of the figures represented on the surface of jades and bronzes, suggesting
that ornaments are correlated with, and an expression of, a preexistent system of beliefs.
On the other side are those who consider the nature and evolution of the sequence of
designs and styles as an artistic sophistication that must be considered independently of
any exterior motivation, such as a system of religious beliefs. This article aims to explore
the purpose and meaning of jade and bronze decorations, particularly those representa-
tions of real and mythical animals as forms of spiritual and political empowerment.
Through the examination of the nature and sequence of iconographic motifs inter-
preted as archetypal forms, this article demonstrates the existence of distinct moments
for the meaning and purpose of jade and bronze ornaments. During the moments when
spirituality and the sacred rituals are dominant and overlap political power, the use of
jade and bronze objects decorated with power-animals are manifestations of a system
of beliefs. On the other hand, during the moments when political power enlists spiri-
tuality and sacred rituals as instruments of sovereignty, the designs tend to be more in-
ventive and sophisticated, corresponding to technological improvements. Consequently,
iconographic motifs lose their spiritual meaning and purpose to an immanent sense of
design within an artistic phenomenon. Keywords: China, bronze, jade, Shang, Zhou,
iconography, animal power, archetypes.
... The horse can be seen in Figure 1. In China, the horse was the symbol of property and power [21]. Ceramic artists also produce several camel statues. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Full-text available
Extract from the Book : Antique Chinese Turquoise Talismans and Amulets . Publisher: Arts of southeast Asia srl , A publication from the Hungarian southeast Asian research institute 2021
The ascendancy of the Western Zhou in Bronze Age China, 1045-771 BC, was a critical period in the development of Chinese civilisation and culture. This book addresses the complex relationship between geography and political power in the context of the crisis and fall of the Western Zhou state. Drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries, the book shows how inscribed bronze vessels can be used to reveal changes in the political space of the period and explores literary and geographical evidence to produce a coherent understanding of the Bronze Age past. By taking an interdisciplinary approach which embraces archaeology, history and geography, the book thoroughly reinterprets late Western Zhou history and probes the causes of its gradual decline and eventual fall. Supported throughout by maps created from the GIS datasets and by numerous on-site photographs, Landscape and Power in Early China gives significant insights into this important Bronze Age society.
This book studies the formation of complex societies in prehistoric China during the Neolithic and early state periods, c. 7000–1500 BC. Archaeological materials are interpreted through anthropological perspectives, using systematic analytic methods in settlement and burial patterns. Both agency and process are considered in the development of chiefdoms and in the emergence of early states in the Yellow River region. Interrelationships between factors such as mortuary practice, craft specialization, ritual activities, warfare, exchange of elite goods, climatic fluctuations, and environmental changes are emphasized. This study offers a critical evaluation of current archaeological data from Chinese sources, and argues that, although some general tendencies are noted, social changes were affected by multiple factors in no pre-determined sequence. In this most comprehensive study to date, Li Liu attempts to reconstruct developmental trajectories toward early states in Chinese civilization and discusses theoretical implications of Chinese archaeology for the understanding of social evolution.