Ritual wine vessel (the so-called Yayi jia), approx. 1300–1050. Shang dynasty (1600–1050 B.C.E.). China; Henan province. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B61B11+.
Ritual bronze vessels were more than just elegant objects of status, but symbols of power, commanding respect. They were cast using ceramic piece molds, built around a clay model. The molds were imprinted with designs from the model, then the model was cut or carved down to allow for bronze to be poured in the empty space between the model and the molds. Each piece was unique, since the ceramic piece molds had to be broken to release the bronze inside. The bronzes were used in rituals conducted by the ruling elite. These rituals required the use of wine vessels, water containers and food containers, for heating and serving purposes.
What makes the bronzes unique are the precise, intricate designs and motifs that cover their surfaces and the interesting repertoire of shapes developed during the Shang (approx. 1500‒1050 B.C.E.) and Zhou dynasties. The shapes of the bronzes appear to have developed from ceramic prototypes, and experimentation with hammered shapes and different forms. The designs employ composite animal motifs, from fairly straightforward linear patterns on the surface to more intricate patterns with main motifs protruding from background designs. A characteristic design is the so-called taotie or monster mask, essentially a face divided in the middle and splayed across the bronze so that there appears to be two profiles or a single face.
The Shang dynasty brought a new level of sophistication to the production of weaponry, luxury and ritual items for the ruling elite, as well as tomb construction. This involved considerable mobilization of labor and resources. The presence of sacrificial victims suggests a harsh regime. The Shang were frequently at war with their neighbors, and eventually were overtaken by the Zhou, a subservient state which rose in power to the southwest of Anyang along the Wei River Valley.
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