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Ancient Chinese ritual bronzes
Meaning and Explanation
Much has been
said about the meaning and explanation of decoration on the Shang
ritual bronzes. There is a distinct disagreement among the researchers
of ancient China whether the design on the vessels has any meaning at
all. Some scholars, like S. Allen and K.C. Chang, believe that the
decorations are directly related to mythology and are representing the
religious ideology of Shang people;(1)
other scholars argue that the design is purely decorative and has no
religious connotation. Robert W. Bagley's article on the meaning of
Shang bronze art raises the same problem: do the Shang bronze
decoration motifs have a meaning at all or are simply of decorative
value? Bagley insists that the design of ritual utensils is ornamental
and cannot be traced back to Shang religion or mythology.(2)
Most of the controversy arises from the lack of
textual references on the function of these motifs, since, as K.C.
Chang says, "without an understanding of the function of these animals
in myths and in art, one can hardly appreciate their meaning."(3)
Without trying to decipher the actual meaning of the taotie and other
objects found on the Shang ritual vessels, I would like to concentrate
on the issue whether these ornaments have any meaning at all and
whether they are related to mythological and religious tradition.
The design seen on ancient Chinese bronzes strikes the viewer by its
stern and angular appearance; the images are not amiable motifs with a
function to please the eye, in fact, they have quite an opposite
effect. As Bagley pointed out, "ancient Chinese bronzes have an exotic
and mysterious character, at least in the eyes of modern observers,
because ornaments drawn from the vegetable kingdom are completely
absent. The bronze decoration relies instead on a vocabulary of
animals or animal-like designs, and the difference in vocabulary
accounts for a radical difference in effect: the animal faces and
staring eyes of the bronze decoration give it a compelling focus. No
plant motif so rivets the viewer's attention."(4)
The most stunning element is the pair of animal eyes projecting from
the bronze surface and staring at the viewer with a bewitching force.
These protruding eyes are the eyes of a predator and, therefore,
cannot be regarded in the same manner as other, more cheerful, images
in art history.
Despite the relatively large number of examples it is still hard to
come up with an acceptable explanation regarding the identity of the
animal depicted on the bronze vessels. Sometimes it looks like a bull,
sometimes like a tiger or the leopards on the Maya stone sculptures,
and sometimes like a mixture of the two. The shape and the details are
changing but the fixed gaze of the eyes remains the same, even in the
Western Zhou when the animal face becomes almost entirely decorative
and only the eyes can be clearly identified. Such a compelling
dominance of the eyes in the design emphasizes their significance on
the ritual utensils and, consequently, during the sacrificial
ceremony. The key word regarding the role of the ornament could,
therefore, be "presence." The staring face indicates the presence of
the beast and its physical vicinity which was probably an important
aspect of the sacrificial ceremony.
The fact that
in Shang art the taotie motifs appear on sacrificial vessels and not
somewhere else is not circumstantial and cannot be overlooked. Art, in
its earliest form, claims Croix,(5) is
always related to religion and magic.(6)
The taotie was part of the Shang religious tradition, even if we have
not found textual reference to its mythical identity.
Beast face on a vessel
Bagley argues that "although the taotie alludes to the animal world,
it is not a proper picture because the arrangement of lines in the
frieze unit contains inconsistencies which defeat any attempt to find
a coherent image."(7) To me it would seem
that all this is the proof for just the opposite: the fact that the
taotie image cannot be identified as a living animal yet it has a more
or less consistent appearance, enough to be called by the same name,
verifies its solid place in the belief system of the Shang. There are
numerous examples of imaginary animals or animal-like creatures, in
different cultures who, while not being duplicates of living animals,
play an important role both in religious and mythological ideology.(8)
Another important factor in determining the connection of Shang bronze
decorations to mythology is the understanding of the concept of myths.
At the age when the Mezoamerican beast-faced gods were carved into
stone, they presumably were not regarded as a myth but as reality. The
same is true for the taotie faces; myths come to be myths probably
only after the mythical time has gone, they are always remembrances
and not contemporary stories.(9) Eliade
says that "the myth is regarded as a sacred story, and hence a 'true
history,' because it always deals with realities. The cosmogonic myth
is 'true' because the existence of the World is there to prove it; the
myth of the origin of death is equally true because man's mortality
proves it, and so on."(10) Consequently,
the correct thing to say would not be that the Shang bronze
decorations are related to Shang mythology, although from a certain
point of view they definitely are, but that they represent the
contemporary religious reality and belief system. Viewing them from
this angle, they by no means can be regarded as "iconographically
meaningless, or meaningful only as pure form.(11)
Written by Imre Galambos
© All Rights Reserved
A good example for this trend is Sarah Allen, "Art and Meaning,"
in ed. Roderick Whitfield, The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese
Ritual Bronzes,. (London: SOAS. Colloquies on Art & Archeology in
Asia No. 15, 1992), pp. 9-33.
Robert W. Bagley, "Meaning and Explanation," in The Problem of
Meaning, pp. 34-55.
K.C. Chang, "Changing Relationship of Man and Animal in Shang
and Chou Myths and Art." in Early Chinese Civilization:
Antropological Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1976), p. 175.
Robert W. Bagley, "Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Charlotte C.
and John C. Weber Galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art,"
Orientations (May 1988), p. 40.
Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Art through the Ages,
San Diego, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., London, Sydney,
Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. p.30.
An equally religious role of art was present in Mesopotamia too,
starting from the fourth millennium B.C.: "The earliest written
documents of Mesopotamia ... facilitated the administration of large
economic units, the temple communities. .. The earliest representations
in Mesopotamian art are predominantly religious; in Egyptian art, they
celebrate royal achievements and consist of historical subjects.
Monumental architecture consists, in Mesopotamia, of temples; in Egypt,
of royal tombs. The earliest civilized society of Mesopotamia
crystallized, in separate nuclei, a number of distinct autonomous cities
-- clear-cut, self-assertive polities -- with the surrounding lands to
sustain each one." Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the
Ancient Orient, Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler
Collections, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Such examples are the Minotaur, the Sirens, the animal-head gods
of Egypt etc; even the dragon, one of the main symbols in Chinese
mythology is not a mere copy of a living animal. Nevertheless, nobody
denies their existence within the the belief systems of these cultures.
Taking an analogy from Christian tradition we can say that
Christ for the true believer is not the myth of dying and resurrecting
god that can be traced to centuries before Christianity but an everyday
reality. To see a myth as a myth, requires an outside stance.
Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, New York and Evantson:
Harper & Row, 1963, p. 6.
Max Loehr, Ritual Vessels of Bronze Age China, Greenwich,
Conn.: Asia Society, 1968.
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