China's great age of bronze

It's quite an experience coming upon the eight life-size and uncannily realistic figures of Chinese warriors and horses from the 2nd century before Christ.

They're part of the Metropolitan Museum's "The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition From the People's Republic of China." Roughly 7,500 of these figures, individually modeled in clay and equipped with real chariots and bronze weapons, were found by chance in 1974 in the burial complex of the First Emperor of Qin ( 221-210 BC). Originally painted in bright colors, these soldiers formed a life-size army of clay figures standing guard over the Emperor's body. Six thousand of them, arranged as though for imperial review, were discovered in one underground complex. Rows of archers faced outward, shielding 36 files of armored infantrymen, with 3 unarmored infantry squads and 6 chariots, each drawn by a team of 4 life-size clay horses completing the army.

Once completely excavated, the army will be housed together as a national treasure, creating what will most certainly be an incomparable sight. Even the 8 figures -- 6 warriors and 2 horses -- on view at the Metropolitan are impressive and leave one very much in awe of the accomplishments of the Chinese Bronze Age.

But the exhibition has a great deal more to offer than that. Its 105 objects of bronze, jade, and terra cotta on loan from the Chinese government reflect the artistic achievements of the Chinese Bronze Age from its beginning some time after 2000 BC. to its final flowering in the 2nd centurey before Christ early in the Han dynasty. These objects are among the most important archaeological discoveries of the past 30 years. Many have just recently been excavated. Among the latter is a group of small jade sculptures and bronze ritual vessels found in an undisturbed Shang dynasty royal tomb in 1976.

The works in this beautifully mounted exhibition are displayed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest-known decorated bronze up (ca. 1700 BC) -- shown together with two jade ceremonial blades from the same site -- and ending with the group of warriors mentioned above.

The ability to produce bronze object is an important moment in the development of any civilization. Its production demands a settled and tightly organized community as well as access to copper and tin. Mining and smelting are difficult operations requiring large quantities of labor, elaborate kilns, and fires of great intensity.

That China was able to manage all that so rapidly was due partly to the high level of technical skills commanded by the Chinese artisans and partly to the fact that bronze very quickly became an extremely precious commodity greatly desired by the ruling class. Also, bronze was required for the production of the majestic vessels that played central roles in state rituals and ancestor worship.

Bronze cauldrons were the symbols of the state, and bronze ritual vessels, used by the rulers to hold religious offerings of food and wine, became expressions of power and royal legitimacy. They were the principal art form of the Chinese Bronze Age.

Seventy of these vessels, spanning more than a thousand years of continuous production, run like a thread through this exhibition. Among the most impressive is a vessel of the Shang dynasty, Anyang period, (ca. 1300-1030 BC) discovered in 1970. Heavily ornamented and with a dark gray-green surface, it has a monumental presence quite remarkable for an object only a little over 15 inches high.

By the late Bronze Age, during the Eastern Zhou period (770-476 BC), Chinese culture had become more cosmopolitan and luxury-loving. Bronze was used for more exquisite and sinuous works of art, and often included refined gold and silver inlaid decoration. The works from this period have an intricate delicacy and charm.

The Bronze Age of China was nearing its end during the Western Han period ( 206 BC-AD 8). Lacquer, wood, and bamboo were replacing bronze in the manufacture of weapons, tools, and agricultural implements. The glorious days of the great bronze vessels were over. Only coins and mirrors were to be extensively made from bronze in the future.

Although the bronze vessels and the terra cotta warriors and horses dominate the show, there are other pieces whose charm and incredible workmanship will delight the viewer. Among those I found a rhinoceros container, discovered in 1963 by a farmer plowing his field, particularly irresistible. Done in the late 3rd century before Christ, this work is covered with a dense raised pattern of scalloped cloud scrolls, which adds a marvelous textural effect to the chunky and slightly pompous animal. It's one of those works of art that transcend time and cultural differences and stand as quiet monuments to man's creative spirit.

After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on July 6, the exhibition will travel to the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (Aug. 20-Oct. 29); Kimbell Art Misemum, Fort Worth, Texas (Dec. 10Feb. 18, 1981); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (April 1-June 10, 1981); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (July 22-Sept. 30, 1981).

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