Early Chinese Bronze

Assembled by Gerry Rupp

Historical / Cultural Significance

The art of China's earliest dynastic periods, often called the First Bronze Age, from the Shang to the Han dynasties, focussed on the "Cult of the Dead". Concerned with securing immortality, and safe passage to the afterlife, kings and their officers constructed and decorated lavish tombs. The Chinese favoured underground burials, and many tombs remain intact. Intricately fashioned bronze vessels and weapons were placed near the coffin to provid comfort and protection in the next world. In contrast, the Han dynasty focussed on the "Celebration of the Living." The Han dynasty bronzes, often called the Second Bronze Age, were premised on aesthetic brilliance. These two opposing styles encompassed the period known as "Early Chinese Bronze."

China's emporers were the earliest and most frequent patrons of the arts. Most artists were government employees, working by royal order. In contrast, amateur artists, often retired or exiled officials, were free from the restraints of court control; their work reflects an important individualism that often differs from the imperial styles. The rise or decline of a particular royal household would affect profoundly the course of Chinese art. Although widely diverse in the cultural inclinations, all dynastic rulers shared an interest in preserving tradition. Chinese kings, especially those establishing a new dynasty, were anxious to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. A common way to secure support was to continue the artistic achievements of past dynasties. New influences, often entering China from India or the Middle East, were also sanctioned by the court, but any innovative ideas in art were carefully woven into the pre-exisiting fabric of Chinese life.

Principles and Elements of Design

The principle that underlies all aspects of Chinese culture - harmonious balance - is exemplified in its art. Chinese bronze art is a careful balance of traditions and innovations, of both native and foreign ideas, and of religious and secular images.

Han Dynasty artifact


The production of bronze by mixing copper and tin was an established practice by about 1500 BC throughout the Eurasian landmass. By then tin ores and copper ores were being smelted together to produce what was recognized as a superior form of copper-more fluid when hot and harder when cold. Bronze was easier to cast than copper and produced better tools, weapons, and art. A refinement of the mixing method was soon developed, in which tin and copper were smelted separately and were then melted together in controlled proportions. Although the tools used by Chinese artists were relatively simple, such as a bamboo brush or a wooden beater, the construction of their looms, kilns, and foundaries releals an understanding of complex production procedures. The remarkable results of bronze casting are testimony to the high technical skill of these early Chinese artists. These artists employed the "Lost Wax" process, using wax casting, to produce their magnificant bronzes. A model was prepared with the decoration cut and incised on the inner face (which would result in equivalent projections on the cast vessel). This model was then coated with wax. The solidified wax was encased in a two-layer mold of plaster or clay. It was then melted or otherwise removed from the mold, and metal was then poured into the space where the wax had been. After cooling, the model was broken to free the metal object.

Ch'in Dynasty Artifact

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