Ancient Chinese Bronzes

Chinese civilization made great advances as it emerged from the Neolithic period and entered the Bronze Age. One factor in this change was the ability to locate and extract natural deposits of copper and tin for making bronze. Foundries capable of heating the ores to high enough temperatures for mixing and casting metal were established in northern areas of China around 1700 BCE.

One of the largest and most impressive early foundries was at Anyang, the capital of the late Shang dynasty from about 1300 to 1050 BCE. Located in northeastern Henan province, Anyang has been under almost constant archaeological excavation since 1928. The Bronze Age site encompassed a major settlement with huge tombs linked to twelve kings. All of these royal burials were looted centuries ago, but some of the undisturbed aristocratic tombs have yielded bronzes of astounding quality, including many of the ritual containers now in the Freer Gallery of Art.

With the establishment of foundries, northern cultures in China reaped the benefits of the Bronze Age earlier than peoples to the south. Tremendous social and political change resulted as technologically advanced cultures grew in wealth and power. Tools and weapons made of durable bronze replaced stone implements and revolutionized agriculture and warfare. Trade expanded to distant areas. Rituals for honoring ancestors by equipping tombs and offering symbolic banquets, replete with highly decorated cast bronze containers for wine and rice, became more elaborate. Writing systems developed from single symbols that represent a family or clan to complex pictographs that record significant moments in Chinese history in lengthy inscriptions. These cultural and artistic advancements, historic episodes, and more are conveyed in these exceptional bronzes.