From Xia to Shang
And from Shang to Zhou....
You know the story: Nine bronze tripods-- caste in the mists of great antiquity-- were treasured by ancient Kings as a symbol of their right to rule.
Passed down from dynasty to dynasty-- for nearly 2,000 years-(or so the story goes) until the time when the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, finally toppled the last Zhou King-- and rather than see their transfer to Shihuangdi’s new dynasty-- the last Zhou King cast them forever into the River Si (泗水?)
Given their symbolic significance, Shihuangdi actively attempted to dredge up the sacred bronzes from the river, but it was to no avail, and scholars of later dynasties saw this as further evidence of the lack of moral virtue of the First Emperor.
For you will recall the wise words of the Zhou King's steady servant Wáng-sūn Mǎn (王孫満):
The tripods do not matter, virtue does.
Perhaps in one sense different than the regalia of ancient kings of Europe, it was never that the tripods were treasures of state in and of themselves, but rather they served only as symbols of the virtuous character of a wise king-- linking current kings to those exemplary models in the past. In that way, I suppose the tripods had more in common with the Medieval concept of Excalibur.
Indeed, on that thought, I wonder what powerful object Obama will inherit as his right to rule? Please don't tell me the only thing we've got to pass down nowadays to our kings are launch codes for nuclear weapons...
Epicurus asks me, "What grabs you about the bronzes?"
I am too stingy to re-purchase the book, but I think it was Foucault (working off Heidegger) who did the best job of examining the way objects "present themselves" to us differently over time.
Well, one thing which I find so fascinating is the simple fact that they have been greatly treasured in an unbroken line for probably 4000 years-- is that possible? Over such a large expanse of time, it is therefore all the more interesting to think about both the continuity as well as the fluctuations in the way these once sacred objects have been viewed within Chinese culture. (Conrad's ancient Greek tripods have had almost as long a history, and I wonder if their meaning has changed in similar ways over time?)
Although outdated by jade carvings by several thousand years, their appreciation has followed a similar-- though much more dramatic--pattern, I think. As Beurdeley described and I quote in another post, these bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties were in huge demand among the elite during the Han dynasty and remained the most highly prized of all the Chinese collectors’ arts-- at least until the great rise of calligraphy much later in history.
Like jade, ritual bronzes were valued, in part, for their great beauty, which appealed to aesthetic preferences perhaps unique to the Chinese. Traditionally valued in China well above gold and precious gems, jade was prized for its soft lustrous color and subtle glowing quality which is so different from the dazzling shimmer of gold and sparkle of diamonds. Even more, jade was valued for its extreme hardness and fine resonance which was likened to music when struck. Bronze, as well as porcelain and the finest scholars’ stones of later times shared these attributes which had, at least by the time of Confucius become associated with concepts of virtue and the moral right to rule.
Also, like Jade, the creation of bronze vessels was highly labor-intensive, and therefore its use was confined to that of the most important rituals of ancient Shang and Zhou kings and aristocrats.The oldest Shang dynasty vessels were used in rituals centered around the sacrificial offering of food and wine to ancestors. Like elaborate banquets for the dead, foods which included meats and grains as well as rice or millet wine and sacrificial water were prepared and presented in bronze vessels and then ritually offered at family altars, often located in a separate structure within a family compound. As British scholar, Jessica Rawson, explains:
These were essentially family ceremonies in which both the dead and the living took part. The dead remained an integral part of everyday society, requiring the kind of attention also given to living members of the family. The banquets or rituals were a show of respect to the dead so as to ensure that they would help their descendents by interceding on their behalf with the gods and spirits. Without help from the dead, and a proper acknowledgement of their role, human affairs might fail and their descendents suffer.
This was especially so of kings, whose ancestors not only had the power to affect the fortunes of their descendants, but were semi-godlike, having power and influence over the entire population as well. Thus the most elaborate rituals-- more like ceremonies of state than the private rituals held by aristocratic families-- were performed by ancient kings. Highly decorated bronze vessels created in sets played a leading role in these rituals-- containing sacrifices and hosting their preparation.
(With this in mind, it stands to reason that the ghosts of the passage that were being riled to fury were not the collective ancestors of the people but rather were the ancestors of the fish-cooking king).
I was looking through an essay in a Japanese book last night which wanted to stress the manner in which these bronze vessels were set aside for ritual use only. In Japan, there was not this same rigid separation of vessels for ritual use and for everyday use. In ancient China, it seemed, these vessels were for ritual-- and for ritual alone-- and in that way were truly sacred objects-- much the like heirloom jars from Borneo that I so covet.
Over time, however, the role played by the bronzes changed and came to be associated less with religious observances, and instead associated more with aristocratic power and conspicuous consumption. This became especially so after the overthrow of the Shang and establishment of the Zhou dynasty. While the Zhou still used bronze vessels in elaborate rituals of great pageantry, which included poetry and music, their function changed from that of being the containers or instruments used to ritually communicate with gods, to becoming “monuments” in bronze commemorating great deeds or events in the lives of the person who had them commissioned.
Important political events, decisive battles, or honors bestowed by kings were described in sometimes very long inscriptions cast inside many of the Zhou vessels. As one scholar writes, such bronzes demand “reading not seeing.” The National Palace Museum in Taipei contains one ding tripod, the Mao Gong Ding, from the Western Zhou dynasty, which has an inscription of over 500 characters. Truly an amazing example of the high technical level having been attained by ancient Chinese craftsmen, the characters cover the entire curved surface of the inside of the tripod, and describe the many honors bestowed by the king on Mao Gong, a statesman of the period. These honors included gifts of horses as well as many bronze and jade vessels. The ding was cast to commemorate the event for all eternity (Use the magnifier here to see just how phenomenal the calligraphic carving is).
In trying here to explain the meaning of the "five dings" in this quote
which I translate as
"If I can't have it all, then boil me in one of the 5 dings."
(If I cannot partake in all five delicacies of the five dings, then I choose the worst punishment of the realm-- boil me in a ding)
Epicurus mentioned that the state stipulated the number of bronze vessels that one could use by rank. This is from the wikipedia article, for example:
The ritual books of old China minutely describe who was allowed to use what kinds of sacrificial vessels and how much. The king of Zhou was favoured to use 9 dings and 8 gui vessels, a duke was allowed to use 7 dings and 6 guis, a baron could use 5 dings and 3 guis, a nobleman was allowed to use 3 dings and 2 guis.
This was also similar to jade. I am pretty sure that during Confucius' time, aristocrats wore jade pendants around their neck whose number was also prescribed by rank. When they walked, one could hear the bell-like tinkling sound of the jade pieces clinking against each other so that those of higher rank (who had on a greater number of pendants) could be heard louder than those of a lower rank (with less jade).
This melodious sound, Confucius (I think?) called the "sound" of a virtuous man and according to the Japanese kojien, the etymology of the kanji, 玲玲 refers to this beautiful sound of jade (cf. 玲瓏). If Adonis had been a girl, I wanted to name "her" 玲香 ("the fragrance of the beautiful-- and virtuous-- sound of jade tinkling"-- isn't it nice how much information 2 kanji can squeeze in?)
So, to answer Epicurus' question: obviously I am deeply attracted to this "fragrance" of history and antiquarianism which surrounds bronzes; I also marvel at the tremendous technical (problem-solving) skills involved. The ancient bronzes were made in such a surprisingly large variety (given the times) of shapes, most which I find to be extraordinarily pleasing. Maybe that is what I love about them the most-- their shapes (which have greatly influenced ceramics, of course).
Finally, whenever I see an ancient Chinese bronze vessel, my mind inevitably turns to one of two people. The first, my beloved, spent a lifetime cataloging the ancient bronzes in his care. Even as his empire teetered dangerously on the edge of destruction, he kept steadfast in his research and cataloging, believing indeed that if he could just get the bronzes accurately described, then everything could well take care of itself. There are, I'm sure you will agree, worse ways to lose an empire.
The second person, I've also written about in these pages.
One of my all-time favorite art history books by my hero, Michel Beurdeley, The Chinese Collector through the Centuries devotes an entire chapter to Lady Li-- indeed she probably deserves an entire book.
Quite famous during the Song dynasty, Lady Li and her scholar-official husband had built up one of the finest collection of ancient bronzes-- not to mention books (unbelievable volumes of books) in Chinese history. She and her husband were known during Song times for their scholarship and passionate love poems (many to each other). They were like movie stars. That is until those damned Jurchens stormed the walls of Kaifeng and everyone had to run for their lives.
Leave behind the collection?
She screamed, Never! And so it went.
Here is her last poem
"The wind dies down, the scent of flowers fills the dusty air
The flowers are fading.
When evening comes I am too tired to dress
But I still have my pieces. My beloved is gone, all is finished.
I cannot speak without weeping."
Even as the outside world around them teetered and indeed they lost everything-- neither faltered in their heart's occupation. Indeed, that inner world seemed to hold the greater significance.
Inside a bronze ding-- again.
Lothar Ledderose describes the way these tripods were manufactured in his book Ten Thousand Things. Made in sets, they were mass-produced through division of labor and QA practices that perhaps are not all that different from goes on in a Chinese factory today.I would imagine that this was pretty different that what happened in ancient Greece-- although maybe not. Conrad, by the way, recommends Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
Photo at top by Wang Wusheng
From Kyoto Journal 2002 interview with Red Pine (available here, it is highly recommended reading)
“I tried to do things that I saw happening in Chinese — the Chinese language is a very telegraphic, terse language — time is almost irrelevant, their subject is also dispensed with. A line can be very ambiguous. So I started to play with that in English and still make sense.
“Words carry a lot on their surface, but a lot is under the surface that we don’t see when we see the word — a lot comes from contextual familiarity.
People identify words with context. I was intrigued by the nature of Chinese poetry and its brevity — there were these flashes of meaning.
“What I do now is more of a performance,” he says. “Before, I was usually sort of reading the lines like an actor, but now I perform the book — what I do now is closer to dance. The words have to follow along my physical feel for the rhythm, the feeling of what’s happening in the Chinese poem. I don’t see the Chinese as the origin anymore. The Chinese was what the authors used to write down what they were feeling.
“I’ve gotten so used to the words I don’t have to think about them anymore. I’m more concerned with the spirit. I don’t think I have a philosophy of translation, but you have to be very open.