Although carvings in marble, bone and jade exist, the great art of the Shang dynasty (1523 to 1028 B.C.) was that of ritual bronze vessels. These were intended to hold wine, water, grain and meat to be used in sacrificial rites.
The vessels were decorated with stylised representations of animals, governed by rigid conventions. A common motif is an animal divided in half lengthwise with the two halves spread out on the vessel symmetrically. The two head parts meet in the centre, often to create a frontal animal mask.
The Chou, who overthrew the Shang, were a relatively primitive people. Their bronze ritual vessels were explosive and vital. Gradually, the vitality diminished. The animal forms became twisted and lost in patterns.
The mastery of bronze continued during the Han Dynasty 207 B.C. to 220 A.D. A superb example being the “Flying Horse” (from the second century A.D.) discovered in 1969 in a tomb at Wuwei. The horse was revered for its power and majesty and has an important place in Chinese art.
Being such an ancient form, original Chinese bronzes are very rare in Australia.