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Bronze Vessels

About 5,000 years ago the Chinese began casting bronzeware. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, aristocrats used bronze vessels for ancestral rituals and for the more mundane tasks of daily life. Ancestral worship was a central belief of this era and bronze vessels played an important role in the ritual offerings. As befitting their important role in society at the time, they were kept in places of honour, such as in ancestral halls and were used during banquets and celebrations.

Common bronze vessels were used for utilitarian purposes such as cooking or to heat mulled wine, but large ornate vessels would become symbols of power and status. A ding, which is a cauldron with three or four legs, was originally used both for cooking and during ceremonies but eventually became a symbol of power because they required considerable wealth to commission. Dings also had their surfaces etched with details of important political events and memorials to the deceased. These items of intricate and beautiful detail are now important historic markers detailing political alliances and tributes to the lives of those who lived thousands of years ago.

Bronze work in China developed much faster than in other parts of the world because of extensive use. Technically, Chinese bronzes were unmatched during this period. Early bronzes vessels such as jue and zhi wine goblets, zun wine beakers and hu wine goblet beakers were highly sophisticated.

In 1976, archaeologists uncovered a Shang tomb in Anyang in north Henan Province, the former capital of the Shang dynasty. The tomb was the burial chamber of Fuhao, who was Emperor Wuding's consort as well as a top general. The tomb, located at the Yin Palace Ruins Ancestral Worship Temple, remains the only Shang imperial tomb found intact and revealed a rich find of artifacts. Many bronze vessels were found within; some were probably used by Fuhao, while others were funerary objects.

Several famous Shang bronze vessels currently displayed around the world belong to the legacy of Fuhao's tomb. Most Shang ritual vessels take the form of animals and are decorated with highly stylized animal designs and motifs. One example is the ancient Chinese totem known as the taotie monster mask; a mythical beast with piercing eyes that is used to express fierceness and strength. This mythical beast is commonly seen in Shang bronzes, as it played a central role in Shang spiritual beliefs. Offerings put into this animal shaped vessel were symbolically consumed by the taotie and transported to the spirit realm. Later, this motif became an artistic motif in itself, signifying the mysticism and artistry of China's Bronze Age.