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Chinese Bronze Vessels

What is Bronze?

Chinese Bronze refers to the alloy of pure copper and other chemicals like stannum, plumbum, nickel, and phosphorus. It has a history of 3000 years, spanning from Xia Dynasty to Han Dynasty. The Chinese Bronze Vessels are most found from the Bronze Age of China (1500-300 B.C), representing the culture and technology of Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

Chinese Bronze Age

It refers to the time span from Xia Dynasty (2100 B.C- 1600 B.C.) to Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C - 221 B.C.), when bronze vessels were developed, matured and prospered. The unique formation, exquisite carving patterns, and elegant inscriptions revealed the casting techniques, cultural characteristics and historical origins of pre-Qin period. Historians praised the bronze vessels as living records telling the Chinese history.

Xia Dynasty (2100 - 1600 B.C.)

It’s unclear when exactly the Chinese bronze vessels originated, but historical records have that there was some kind of copper smelting during the reign of Xia Qi (the second king of Xia Dynasty) and the archaeological excavations confirmed that the earliest Chinese bronze vessels were from Xia Dynasty (2100 - 1600 B.C.). In 1973, a fraction of circular copper sheet was discovered in a house of Jiangzhai Ruins of Yangshao culture. It was authenticated to belong to a brass vessel from 4700 B.C.. Two years later, a small bronze knife belonging to 3000 B.C. was excavated from the Majiayao Ruins of Gansu province, indicating Xia Dynasty might be the beginning of Bronze Age.

Later, archaeologists found residues, fractions and remains of copper crucible in Erlitou ruins and Donggangou ruins (both belong to Xia era) of Henan province, further proving that the bronze vessels appeared in Xia Dynasty.

The bronze vessels discovered from Xia Dynasty were mainly sacrificial vessels and weapons, settling the major function of Chinese bronze vessels. The bronze vessels excavated from Erlitou ruins represented the Xia era bronze vessels, including the bronze tools, weapons, ornaments and containers. Most of the bronze containers were Jue (vessels to contain alcohol). Those bronze Jues were made in Hefan Method (prepare the small pieces of the vessel first, and then fit them together) and their forms and patterns somewhat resemble the stone and pottery vessels from Neolithic Age. The bronze Ding, Ge, Jue and Jia also have their corresponding prototypes in pottery. Even the ornamental patterns and the inscriptions of the bronzes were found in stone and pottery wares. The colored drawings like pattern of cloud and lightning and the pattern of crouching dragon found in the potteries of Longshan ruins (2500-2000 B.C.) also appeared in the bronze wares discovered later.

Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 B.C.)

Since the Shang Dynasty, the development of bronze culture reached its prime times. Shang era bronze vessels can be roughly categorized into two kinds based on their phases, namely the Erligang era bronze wares and Yinxu era bronze wares.

Erligang era belongs to the early Shang Dynasty before Shang King Pangeng moved the capital city from Yan (current Qufu, Shandong province) to Yin (current Anyang, Henan province). The bronze vessels from Erligang era were mostly founded in Erligang Ruins and Liulige of Hui county of Henan province, they succeeded the traits of those from Erlitou age, but more diversified. There were utensils like Ding, Ge, and Yan, drinking vessels like Hu, Jue, Jia, Zun, You, Hu and Lei, water vessels like Pan and He, weapons like Dagger-axe, Spear, Knife, and Arrowhead, as well as tools like Axe and Ben. Craftsmen in Erligang age were able to build big bronze wares. In 1974, a square Ding with 100cm in height and 82.4km in weight was excavated in Zhangzhai, Shandong province. In 1982, similar square Dings were discovered in Zhengzhou. Henan province. In addition, the earliest inscriptions were found on the bronze vessels of Erligang era.

The bronze wares from Yinxu era represented the first peak of the Chinese bronze development. They were discovered in many areas like Inner Mongolia, Coastal Shandong, Shanxi and Guangxi, with capital city Yin in the center. With the improvement of techniques, the bronze vessels in this times were bigger, better-qualified, more stylish, more elaborate and gorgeous. The biggest bronze object ever discover, the Houmuwu Square Ding, was from this time. Not only a lot of sacrificial bronze vessels, weapons and tools were discovered, there were bronze instruments, carts and wares for horses.

The most prominent feature of Shang Dynasty bronze wares is that Shang people liked to decorated the bronze vessels with animal drawings, like Four-goat Zun, Elephant Zun, Pig Zun and Xiao Zun. The earliest inscriptions of bronze vessels appeared from early Shang Dynasty. However, whether those patterns are characters is still unclear.

Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 221 B.C.)

The art of bronze has entered the golden age in late Shang Dynasty and early Zhou Dynasty. The bronze wares could be found everywhere and in many forms. Instead of attaching importance to the drinking in Shang Dynasty sacrificial rituals, Zhou people emphasized the eating in sacrificial rituals. Along with that, the bronze art went through a big transition. In middle and late Western Zhou Dynasty, the bronze vessels turned from exquisiteness and elaboration to elegant and massive. They are simpler and practical, and the decorative patterns were modest and plain. With the disappearance of drinking vessels, the food vessels began to dominate. Those food vessels were usually decorated with abstract patterns and inscribed with standard characters containing rich contents. In early Spring and Autumn Period, people still respected and honored the old tradition and imperial power, the bronze wares in this time remained similar to before. While in the late Spring of Autumn Period, the old etiquette was broken and the economic development of the vassal states promoted the prosperity of bronze industry. The new bronze vessels took place and they were more practical and variegated. New crafts like inlaying, silver and gold plating, gilding, and painting began to appear on the bronze wares. The inscriptions were more diversified and characterized. In the late Warring Period, with the prevailing of iron, the bronze wares began to lose its crucial position in daily life.

What were bronze vessels used for?

There are altogether five categories of bronze vessels: drinking vessels, food vessels, water vessels, instruments and weapons.

Drinking Vessels

Jue (爵): Jue refers to the vessel used for pouring drinks, it’s the earliest bronze vessel used on sacrificial occasions. A Jue usually has a small groove in front to let the drinking content coming out, a Pan in the back easy to carry, and a pillar inside (functioning as a filter perhaps). There are three feet to hold the whole vessel.


Jue (角): Different from the Jue mentioned earlier, this Jue functions like today’s drinking cup. There is no pillar and groove on it. It’s about one fourth in capacity of the Jue mentioned before. The earliest Jue excavated is housed in Shanghai Museum.


Zun(尊): Zun refers to the big or medium-sized drinking containers.

Hu (壶): Hu is similar to today’s pot that used to contain drinkings.

You (卣): You is another kind of drinking container, prevailing in late Shang and early Zhou Dynasties.

Gong (觥): Gong is similar to You, appeared in the same time of You.

Yi (彝): Yi is also a drinking container, usually in square shape, appeared in late Shang Dynasty.

Food Vessels

Dou (豆): It’s a vessel specially for preserving pickles, meat paste, and seasonings. Appeared in late Shang Dynasty and prevailing in both Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring Period, the Dou is one of the sacrificial wares, usually used in pairs. There was strict regulations on how many Dous one could use. For example, the emperors was allowed with 26 Dous, the feudal lords with 16 Dous, senior ministers with 8 Dous and the junior ministers with 6 Dous. There are few bronze Dous discovered, the Bronze Dou with Bell excavated in Baode, Shanxi province was regarded as the earliest bronze Dou.

Ding (鼎): It’s used for boiling meat, offering sacrificial animals, and containing food in feast. As the vessel that had been used for a long time, the Ding has experienced Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, even Wei and Jin Dynasties. The fact is Ding has nothing special as a food container. It was rather a symbol of hierarchy and power as a ritual vessel. In ancient China, there was rules how many Dings that people were allowed to use in basis of their status quo. In Western Zhou Dynasty, the King could use 9 Dings, in which the first Ding must serve ox meat while the rest serving the meat of goat, pig, fish, fat, intestines, grease, fresh fish, and dried meat. The feudal lords could use 7 Dings, serving the same meats as the King’s except two dishes less (fresh meat and dried meat). For other ministers in different positions, different amount of Dings and meats were allowed.

Yan (甗): It’s a utensil used for steaming food. It’s composed of two parts with an apertured cage drawer in between to allow the steam to go through. The upper part can contain rice, and the lower part can contain water. Yan appeared in early Shang Dynasty and prevailed in Zhou Dynasty and Spring and Autumn Period. It’s a customary burial object.

Gui (簋): It’s the utensil to contain boiled rice and grains. As one of the important ritual wares, Guis is used together with Dings on sacrificial and banquet occasions. It’s said that the King could use eight Guis and lords six Guis. The excavated Guis are mostly in even numbers.

Dui (敦): It’s the utensil to contain millet, rice, and other grains, developed based on Ding and Gui. Appeared in middle Spring and Autumn Period, the Dui prevailed in the late Spring and Autumn period until the late Warring Period.

Li (鬲): It’s the vessel for eating porridge. It appeared in early Shang Dynasty and the early ones had big stomachs to enable the fillings to be easily boiled. In late Shang Dynasty, those big stomachs were gone, most of the bronze Li were used to contain boiled porridge.

Water Vessels

Plate: It’s a vessel to contain water, appeared in early Shang Dynasty and prevailed in late Shang Dynasty.

Yi (匜): It’s vessel to contain water for washing hand. It’s usually used together with Plate.

Jian (鉴): It’s the big vessel that used to contain water or ice.


Bell: It’s a kind of percussion instrument prevailing in Western and Eastern Dynasties. There are two kinds of bells, the one obliquely hang is Yong Bell, while the straightly hanging one is Niu Bell.

Drum: It’s a kind of percussion instrument, very few left today as most of the drums were wooden.

Nao (铙): Also a percussion instrument, the Nao was used to spread the military orders.

Zheng (钲): It’s another percussion instrument used during the marching.

Bronze Weapons

Ge (戈): It’s very common in Shang and Zhou Dynasties and used as a hook.

Spear (矛): It’s a weapon with long handle, used during the sprint.

Yue (钺): It’s a lethal weapon, a lot like axe, but bigger. Unlike other weapons, Yue is mostly used by the guard of honor or funerary object, symbolizing power like sceptre in western world.

Ji (戟): It’s a combination of Ge and Spear, with both vertical and horizontal blades.

Sword (剑): It’s a weapon that ancient lords and warriors bear everyday. Most swords are accompanied with a scabbard.

Ten Most Valuable Bronze Vessels in China

1.Simuwu Ding (司母戊鼎) - Shang Dynasty

Simuwu Ding is the largest and heaviest piece of bronze ware in China. In 1939, the Ding was unearthed from Fu Jing’s tomb in An Yang, Henan province and preserved in National Museum of China.

Simuwu Ding

2.Four-goat Square Zun (四羊方尊) - Shang Dynasty

Unearthed in 1938, from a mountain in Ningxiang county, Hunan province, the Four-goat Square Zun is the biggest bronze square Zun from Shang Dynsaty and possessed by National Museum of China.

Four-goat Square Zun

3.Upright Bronze Figure (青铜大立人像) - Shang Dynasty

Discovered in Sanxingdui Ruins of Chengdu city, the Upright Bronze Figure is the tallest and most complete existing bronze figure in the world. It’s praised as the King of the World Bronze Figure and collected by the Sanxingdui Museum.

Upright Bronze Figure

4.Maogong Ding (毛公鼎) - Western Zhou Dynasty

Discovered in Qishan county, Shaanxi province, the Maogong Ding was built by Duke Mao in late Western Zhou Dynasty. Inside the Ding was an inscription in developed Zhou calligraphy telling the story how Duke Mao advised Zhou King Xuan. The Ding is collected in Taipei National Museum.

Maogong Ding

5.Lotus and Crane Rectangular Hu (莲鹤方壶) - Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Unearthed from Duke Zheng’s tomb in Xinzheng, Henan province, in 1923, the Lotus and Crane Rectangular Hu was extremely beautiful and many complex techniques that are missing nowadays were applied. It’s now housed in Henan Provincial Museum.

Lotus and Crane Rectangular Hu

6.Sword of Goujian (越王勾践剑) - Spring and Autumn Period

Found in 1965 from a Chu Tomb in Hubei province, the Sword of Goujian is famous for its unusual sharpness and resistance to rust due to a thin layer of chromium on its surface. It’s now in possession of Hubei Provincial Museum.

Sword of Goujian

7.Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng (曾侯乙编钟) - Warring Period

Unearthed in Suizhou city, Hubei province in 1978, the Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng is the best-preserved, most exquisite and most complete large-scale instruments in the world. It has changed the music world and was regarded as a true rare treasure. It’s now possessed by Hubei Provincial Museum.

Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng

8.The Bronze Chariots and Horses Unearthed from Qinshihuang's Mausoleum (秦始皇陵铜车马) - Qin Dynasty

Excavated in Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum in 1980, the Bronze Chariots and Horses are the earliest, biggest and best-preserved bronze chariots and horses. It has represented the highest smelting and engraving art of Qin Dynasty. Now, it’s collected in Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum.

Bronze Chariots and Horses

9.Changxin Palace Lamp (长信宫灯) - Western Han Dynasty

Excavated in Dou Wan (King Jing Liu Sheng in Western Han Dynasty)’s Tomb in 1968, the Changxin Palace Lamp is light, practical, yet gorgeous (unlike other heavy and complicated bronze wares). The ingenious design and superb artistry make the lamp the No.1 Lamp in China.

Changxin Palace Lamp

10.Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow (马踏飞燕) - Eastern Han Dynasty

Unearthed in Leitaihan Tomb of Wuwei, Gansu province in 1969, the Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow stands for the highest foundry industry of ancient China. It’s quite amazing how the ancient craftsmen found the right spot on the swallow to support the whole horse, making it stable in the current position. This relic is now housed in Gansu Provincial Museum. In 1985, Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow became the logo of Chinese Tourism Industry.

Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow