Art History: Introduction + Claim


The general purpose of Chinese bronze vessels was to communicate with spirits, usually that of their ancestors. Food and wine are placed in these bronze vessels as offerings, and communication was usually through inscriptions on the bronzes for the ancestors as well as to future generations. The bronze vessels are decorated with intricate designs called “tao tie” 饕餮, often recognized by a protruding frontal animal-like mask with prominent eyes. These “tao tie” creatures were transformed from naturalistic prototypes such as the ox, sheep, tiger and reptiles, representing the spirits of these animals that were sacrificed in order to communicate with the unseen spirits. [1] These bronze vessels were hence an essential element in the cultural life of a group of people who employed these artefacts in some aspects of their lives.  This essay aims to assess whether the bronze vessels in the Shang dynasty were merely ornamental crafts or if they serve a certain cultural purpose. Two bronze vessels, li 鬲, have been chosen to examine the claim. Firstly, the Bo Ju li伯钜 鬲(Figure 1) is decorated with prominent taotie design. It features a protruding buffalo-horned creature on its cover-lid. Bo Ju li possesses ornaments fashioned in an early Zhou style, a variant of the late Shang phase of the ornament system.[2] The second vessel chosen for examination is the Mai li 麥鬲 (Figure 2). Its simple style of an inward curved neck dates it as an early Zhou creation though some posit that it is a debatable late Shang vessel. It is important to note that the determining the period the vessel was created depends on the study of its form and decoration, and we should viewed with a certain flexibility instead of confining it to a set period of dynasty. In this essay, I would like to argue that the bronze vessels do possess cultural significance although some may argue that is it mainly for its aesthetical and ornamental purposes.

[1] Department of Asian Art. “Shang and Zhou Dynasties: The Bronze Age of China.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004

[2] Shih, Hsio-Yen. 1972. “The Study of Ancient Chinese Bronzes as Art and Craft”. World Archaeology 3 (3). Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 267–75.