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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


  1. 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.
  2. Robert W. Bagley, "Meaning and Explanation," in The Problem of Meaning, pp. 34-55.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, New York and Evantson: Harper & Row, 1963, p. 6.
  11. Max Loehr, Ritual Vessels of Bronze Age China, Greenwich, Conn.: Asia Society, 1968.
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