Bronze is an alloy of copper, tin, and a small amount of lead. Its appearance signaled the advancement in human civilization from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. For the approximately 2,000 years between the 17th century B.C. up until the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-200 A.D.), the Chinese people used rare and precious bronze to cast large quantities of ritual vessels, musical instruments, and weapons that were elegant in form, finely decorated, and clearly inscribed with Chinese characters. These articles attest to the artistic achievement of ancient China and demonstrate how early Chinese used their ingenuity to create works incorporating both science and art from resources in nature.
In the ritualistic society of ancient China, bronze was used primarily for casting ceremonial temple vessels used in sacrifices to the gods of heaven, earth, the mountains, and the rivers. It was used to create vessels for banquets, honor awards, and funerals of the nobility. Because bronze was and still is such a durable material resistant to cracking and breaking, it was used by emperors to cast inscribed memorial vessels honoring the ancestors of dukes, princes, and ministers who had made a great contribution to their nation.
In most of the designs used on bronzes, a main motif combined with a border design to emphasize its three-dimensional character. The "beast of gluttony" design had a side view of two separate symmetrical beasts embossed on a vessel; when viewed together from the front, they combined their features into one beast. After the Western Chou period (11th century B.C. to 771 B.C.), bird designs gradually replaced the "beast of gluttony" as the main designs while still maintaining the principle of symmetry. After the mid and late Western Chou period, chain link patterns, fish scale patterns, and wave patterns superseded animals as the main design of bronze vessels. At this point, the principle of symmetry began to be broken and substituted by repeating chain link designs that encircled the vessel. After the mid-Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.), the most frequently used design was a vertically interlocking geometrical animal band design. Since the middle of the Western Chou period, border design became increasingly spare and obsolete. However, after the Spring and Autumn period, the "sprouting grain" and other designs began appearing in borders.
Over long periods of time, bronze articles exposed to high humidity or buried underground undergo a natural change in which they develop a bright and beautiful coating or patina. The patina serves to protect the metal underneath from further damage. However, the color of the patina, which may range from rouge red to emerald green to sapphire blue, adds beauty and elegance to the article. The Chinese are particularly fond of this colorful coating, and preserve it intact.
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