Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bronzes Don't Float!

On October 10, 2012, Professor Adam Smith gave a presentation on ancient Chinese bronze artifacts. Most Chinese are familiar in some way with the story of the nine bronzes. Also known as the nine "ding"  九鼎 (jiu3ding4), or bronze tripods that were originally cast by Yu the Great of the Xia Dynasty, these bronzes were lost when they sank as they were being transported on the Si River to the Qin capitol of Xianyang. While bronzes are usually a topic about as dense as the material of which they are made up of, Professor Adam Smith turned to a slightly lighter topic as he discussed "floating" bronzes or, rather, the inscriptions on them for many of which the author, origins, and other contextual information is unknown.
Bronzes were artifacts used in ancient times for rituals conducted by the ruling elite. The peasantry provided the labor and craftsmen the skill - the heads of the state in ancient China monopolized Bronze Age infrastructure, technology, and products. Bronzes often have inscriptions detailing the endeavors of its commissioner, i.e. a tale of one of the King's more successful ventures that displays incredible virtue. Some do not have an inscription, but have other mysterious stories behind them, like the one shown below. Known as the Chen Zhang Fanghu (square vessel), it originally belonged to the state of Yan, which was crushed as the Qin Dynasty was born. Serving under general Zhong Hui (a playable character in the popular Dynasty Warriors videogame), General Chen Zhang captured this fanghu and scratched some characters into it so that all who later saw it would know he conquered Yan. The museum artifact page can be viewed here.



Professor Smith discussed many particulars, but he focused primarily on the inscriptions and how for many Bronzes with inscriptions or vanity signatures, scholars really don't know who wrote them or why. In these instances the text is "divorced" from the context of its production, or "floating." The inscriptions purport to be a dialogue between several learned/powerful individuals or an account of something that happened, but at the end, give few or no evidence to where it came from.
Also, Professor Smith discussed the topic of literary texts on Bronzes. What exactly is a literary text? In Chinese, an ancient literary text is usually considered to be one of the profusely copied and transmitted classics or other books that contain (usually Confucian) philosophical thought. He argued that many of the inscriptions are neither literary texts nor refer to literary texts - that is - that they are "free-floating," are not replicated, do not have the universal appeal that other texts enjoy, and are not often used as the basis for other texts.
            Some inscriptions that Professor Smith showed during his presentation included a couple lines from a bronze that reflects ethical themes pervading the content of ancient Chinese bronzes. One part of such an inscription reads:

When one's speech and etiquette are respectful, men of worth will draw near;
When one's X and solicitude are deep, men of worth will become one's intimates;
When agricultural labor and taxation are set just right, the commoners will adhere.

            Well, we might not know who wrote these words or even whose words they are (although they may be attributed to some head of an ancient Chinese State), standards for the ancient leaders were pretty high. Perhaps our leaders could learn something from these early inscribers of ancient Chinese artifacts. 

The event was hosted by the Center for East Asian Studies in Steitler Hall B26.

F. Miller SAS '13




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