A set of bianzhong unearthed from a grave of the Spring and Autumn Period
BRONZE vessels and porcelains were once considered the epitome of Chinese culture as they played the role of ritual utensils. The former thrived in today’s Henan Province, which was home to many ancient kingdoms in olden times, while the latter boomed in present-day Zhejiang Province, the birthplace of many noteworthy ceramic varieties.
In the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-221 BC), bronze vessels reached their peak as they symbolized sovereignty and hierarchy. During the same period, the first porcelains had just came into being in Zhejiang Province.
An exhibition displaying Zhou-style bronze vessels and porcelains is underway in Hangzhou Museum through April 18. Visitors can see two different types of workmanship through the antiques now on view.
Bronze vessels fall into five categories, namely water and wine vessels, food containers, musical instruments and weapons. Among them, musical instruments occupied a high status due to the ritual traditions of ancient times.
The Zhou Dynasty established a sophisticated ritual system in worshipping the heaven and deities. It was used as a moral law to control the country and protect the harmonious relationship between society and nature.
Worshippers danced and played the musical instruments as the ritual progressed. This system laid the foundation of Chinese culture and later became the core
Bianzhong, consisting of a set of bronze bells, dominated the ritual music at the time. These bells were used as polyphonic musical instruments. They were hung in a frame and struck with a mallet. Historians see them as the origin of traditional Chinese music, especially royal music. Bianzhong was unchallenged for status in ancient Chinese music throughout millennia.
The exhibition displays a set of bianzhong unearthed from the grave of Fu Chai’s wife. Fu Chai was the king of Wu State during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).
The Zhou Dynasty thrived for about 75 years and then slowly lost power. The lands were divided into hereditary fiefs, which became increasingly independent of the royal court.
One of the fiefs was Guo State, which was located in present-day Sanmenxia city, in Henan Province. Hundreds of the elite’s tombs have been discovered since the 1950s. The rigid hierarchy of Zhou Dynasty was reflected through their burial objects and methods.
The exhibition displays dozens of bronze fish from Guo State graves. According to historical records, stone, jade and bronze fish were common ornaments on coffins at the time.
Another fief was Ying State in what is today’s Pingdingshan city of Henan Province. Archeologists excavated a group of exquisite bronze vessels from a tomb that is believed to have belonged to a noble.
On a food container, characters were carved on the bottom depicting an archery contest hosted by the king of Zhou Dynasty. It recorded details such as date, location, participants’ names and competition result. Historians see it as a precious antique to research archery-related rituals in ancient times.
Though bronze vessels had varied shapes and designs, they adhered to specific manufacturing criterion, and each of them had a particular name. The vessels used to hold grain were named gui, while those containing meat were called ding.
The use of food containers stuck to a rigid system. They were divided into five levels, each with a specific number vessels. The top level had nine ding and eight gui, which were only for the king. The lowest level had only one ding, for court officials.
The highlight of the exhibition are the nine ding and eight gui unearthed from Zheng State, which grew increasingly independent of the Zhou Dynasty and finally threatened the royal court.
Many displayed bronze vessels were embossed with mythical creature motifs, including panchi, a horn-less dragon with a mouth open, and taotie, a bilaterally symmetrical dragon with a pair of raised eyes and no lower jaw. These patterns deeply influenced Chinese crafts in later dynasties.
The second part of the exhibition showcases primitive porcelains from Zhejiang Province. The first porcelains developed from pottery.
The majority of early porcelains feature simple, plain designs and were mainly used as containers. Due to immature firing techniques, the glazed layer was too thin to take on a transparent, smooth finish.
These early porcelains imitated the design of bronze vessels, because the latter dominated society at that time. The displayed ceramic bianzhong is a typical example of this. They have survived many centuries since being buried.
Some of the exhibits came from the Tingziqiao Kiln Relic in Deqing, in northern Zhejiang Province. Archeologists consider it home to many burial objects unearthed from Zhou Dynasty graves in Zhejiang Province.
On the other hand, many Zhejiang-produced porcelains were distributed to northern China and taken as treasures of newer crafts. Some relics were discovered in the tombs of elites in Henan Province. Historians see them as evidence of cultural exchange between China’s central plains and the lower reaches of Yangtze River Delta.
Date: Through April 18 (closed on Mondays)
Address: 18 Liangdao Hill
Edited by Hunan Provincial Museum