The Chinese Sheng dynasty was rich in symbolism and artistic prowess even though it dates back to over 2000 BC. There are a vast number of ornaments, sculptures and artefacts which have been recovered through archaeological diggings and the two examples discussed here provide some interesting comparisons and concepts. Although the first vessel dates from almost 2000 years before the second one and is made out of bronze while the latter is composed of earthenware, there are similarities between both objects as well as a demonstration that the artefacts have developed in style. They are both supreme examples of sculpture in different materials.
Vessel and vase
The first artefact we will be discussing in this essay is the Ritual Vessel from the Shang Dynasty dating from the mid-16th century BC. Initially one can glean very intriguing shapes on the outside of the vessel showing the strikingly intricate designs which make up the outer sides.
The vessel has the appearance of a vase and could have been used for several different aspects. It appears to be made from solid bronze and there is also a sense of solidity in the object, perhaps it had to do with bathing and other similar tasks. The patron appears to be unknown at this stage but was probably some nobleman who was very much involved with the court proceedings of the day. The functionality of the vessel is something which can be attributed to the fact that the Chinese put great store on the storage of water and this vessel could have served this purpose in more ways than one. The use of bronze as a material is also instructive as it demonstrates the astonishing technique used by the Chinese smiths who could shape the material to their fancy and come out with some strikingly realistic designs.
The purpose of the vessel was undoubtedly to store water for everyday use but its elaborate design also means that it formed part of the prestigious furniture of some illustrious figure. The Shang Dynasty came up with some astonishing examples of beautifully designed ornaments and vases which have stood the test of time and have also led to singular discoveries. The appearance of this vessel is quite imposing since it shows a certain amount of elaboration whilst the iconography and design on the outside also shows a mystical appearance which is direct and intriguing at the same time.
The second artefact discussed here is the Hill Jar made from glazed earthenware and which dates from much later or 202 BC. The materials used for the construction of this jar are glazed earthenware and here one can also observe at close quarters the creativity of proceedings.
Yet again the patron is not someone who can be identified but the ornate and elaborate stonework which adorns the jar demonstrates that someone quite rich must have commissioned it. The purpose of the jar seems to be initially decorative but there could also have been storage implications in the way it is constructed.
What is extremely interesting is the iconography on the jar which is very elaborate and ornate. The cover is shaped in the form of a fire which is actively burning – rather similar to those figures which we find in cemeteries and which show a link to the regions of the netherland. Perhaps the Chinese were preoccupied with the afterlife in their iconography? It is a question we need to ask ourselves occasionally when discussing such works where very little information is extant.
The bottom part of the vase shows a number of animals such as tigers prancing about and here we are made to observe the fascinating and intricate detail which is on offer by the sculptor.
Comparisons between the two works.
Although there are almost 2000 years between the vase and the jar, some similarities do tend to emerge. The preoccupation with animals and fire is a common theme which tends to come out in both works and which demonstrates that the Chinese seemed to be preoccupied with the elements in this sculpture style. Undoubtedly the Chinese viewed fire as an important element for survival and this is reflected in their sculpture. The ornate designs featuring animals are also important and show a certain level of technique which seemed to prevail in this school. It is also evident that architectural styles with regard to Chinese buildings are also prevalent in their sculptures.
An interesting comparison would be with the world famous Terracotta figures which were found in China in the early 1970’s and which espouse the concept of funerary art. Although these vases and jars seem to have a domestic focus to them, they could be related to funerary art from certain aspects.
The sculptures are funerary art at their best. It was known that the emperor wished to take his army with him after his death and this meant that a large number of labourers and craftsman took over the task of creating these terracotta figures to populate the pits close to the mausoleum of the emperor. The jar and vase would be ideal companions to the afterlife
Funerary art is a subtle way of linking the dead with the living and this comes across quite brilliantly in the depiction of the figures. The attention to detail is fantastic and incredible, from the army suits to the belts and the boots which come fantastically to life in the Terracotta army, something which seems to be replicated on the latter jar where the attention to details is quite ornate and very creative. . This detail undoubtedly had a lot to do with the focus to recreate the military life that the emperor wanted to take with him to the grave. This type of homage to the dead is quite unique both for the sheer scale of the undertaking and for the astonishing accuracy of the lifelike replicas.
Both works show that the Chinese were astonishingly forward looking in their ideas of sculpture both with bronze and in pottery. The skill of the smiths and sculptors in producing imagery from their materials developed over the centuries but had already reached an astonishingly high standard even almost 2000 BC. The vessel also had several uses but was primarily a water storage artefact whilst the vase was more of a funerary ornament with the connection to fire. Both seem to have been very important to their owner and are prime examples of Chinese art in the centuries before Christ.
Cheung, Kwong-yue (1983). "Recent archaeological evidence relating to the origin of Chinese characters". In Keightley, David N.; Barnard, Noel. The Origins of Chinese Civilization. trans. Noel Barnard. University of California Press. pp. 323–391. ISBN 978-0-520-04229-2.
Beck, Roger B.; Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. ISBN 0-395-87274-X.