Bronze is a high-grade copper-tin alloy. Articles made of bronze are durable collectibles because they are not as brittle or fragile as earthen tiles and bricks, bone oracles, porcelain, paintings or copies of stone inscription. Bronze antiques also come in a great variety of elegant designs with distinctive outlines far superior to other types of antiques.
At the outset, Chinese bronze antiques are numerous and come in many different shapes and designs. No one knows the exact number of these antiques. It is estimated that more than 10,000 inscribed bronze antiques have been unearthed from the Han Dynasty to the present. It is not hard to imagine how many more there are if we count those without inscriptions. This plethora of bronze antiques also comes in a great variety of forms, including wine vessels, water containers, weapons, ritual vessels, carriage equipment, agricultural implements and tools, as well as a compilation of other household articles. The numerous colourful bronze artifacts with vivid designs often overwhelm our ability to enjoy their beauty. Therefore, the first characteristic of Chinese bronze craft is the arduous task of evaluating their worth because of the large number and variety.
Secondly, superior Chinese bronze craft is widely distributed. The archaeological sites where bronze antiquities are found are concentrated in Central China, but the distribution is far wider. They are found in the Northeast, Northwest, Sichuan, South, Tibet, and Southeastern islands. Antique bronze articles with vivid designs and fine craftsmanship demonstrate different styles and artistic tastes. The bronze antiques from Shang and Zhou Dynasties with exotic shapes and harmonious flow of elegant patterns were meticulously crafted. A small sampling includes Sima Wu square tripod wine vessel, man-eating tiger sculpture, twin-sheep bronze wine container, Dake tripod wine vessel, Lord Mao tripod wine vessel, lotus-stork square pot, two-edged sword, Goujian sword, Changxing palace lantern, crouching deer with embedded turquoise, and horse and carriage set. The intricately cast figurines are cherished by collectors because of their overwhelming artistic beauty and vivacity. The Chinese artisans controlled the alloy compositions with painstaking attention to detail to meet different hardness requirements and produced bronze craft superlative in quality that is unsurpassed by foreign competitors.
The third characteristic of ancient Chinese bronze craft is the inscription. The vast majority of bronze antiques found elsewhere, except for a few in India with short inscriptions, have no inscriptions at all. Over 10, 000 bronze antiques with inscriptions have already been unearthed in China. Some inscriptions are lengthy treatises. For example, the inscription on the Lord Mao tripod wine vessel contains 497 Chinese characters. The masculine or unbridled writing styles made the inscriptions highly valued calligraphic treasures. The inscriptions are one of the most difficult areas to assess.
The fourth characteristic is the fact that most Chinese bronze antiques are containers, which is unique in the world. From the Indus River valley to the Balkans, from the Minoan civilisation to the Mycenaean civilisation, the representative bronze artifacts are weapons such as spears, lances, knives, arrows, swords, double-pointed lances, and arrowheads. However, the majority of Chinese bronze antiques are vessels with complex patterns that are difficult to cast. The vessels, especially the tripod wine vessels, are important State symbols with profound implications and rich connotations. They have intrigued assessors and collectors for generations. Weapons represent the European bronze culture but vessels represent the Chinese counterpart. Those who are interested in assessing the antique Chinese bronze craft must not lose sight of these four basic characteristics.
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