Chinese Ancient Relics

The bronze Tripod or Cauldron

The bronze ding, a cooking utensil in remote times, was use like a cauldron for boiling fish and meat. At first, about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the ding was made of fired clay, usually with three legs, occasionally with four that is why it is loosely referred to as ¡°tripod¡± in English. It stands steadily and has a nice shape.

With the advent of the slavery system, China entered the bronze age, and the earthen ding was gradually replaced by the bronze one. In time, it assumed the role of an important sacrificial vessel used by the slave-owning aristocrats at ceremonies of worship.

Leading among the bronze ding that have been discovered to date, and by far the largest, is the ¡°Si Mu Wu¡± ding which dates to the late Shang Dynasty (17 th ¡ª11 th B.C.). Weighting 875 kilograms, it is 133 centimeters high and rectangular in shape, standing on four legs. It was made for the King of Shang to offer sacrifices to his dead mother Wu. Exquisitely cast, it is considered a rare masterpiece of the bronze culture the world over. The ding of this historical period have a unique shape and are often decorated with patterns of animal masks and other distinctive features characteristic of the period. They are important material objects for the study of the ancient society concerned.

Towards the end of the slave society, the ding became a vessel which, by its size and numbers, indicated the power and status of its aristocrat owner. At rites, the emperor used a series of 9 ding, the dukes and barons 7, senior officials 5, and scholarly gentlemen 3. From the number of ding yielded by an ancient tomb, one can tell the status of its dead occupant.

Today visitors to palaces, imperial gardens and temples of the Ming and Qing courts can still see beautiful arrays of bronze tripods which were, in their time, both decorations and status symbols.

In the period when Buddhism was the predominant faith in the country, the ding was also used as a religious incenseburner. Such burners, made of bronze, iron or stone in various sizes, can still be seen in many old temples. In Yonghegong, the famous Beijing lamasery, there is a large bronze ding with an overall height of 4.2 meters, cast with the inscription ¡°Made in the 12 th year of Qianlong¡± (1747). It was in this ding that Qing emperors, when they went to the temple for worship, were believed to have offered bundles of burning joss sticks.

Bronze tripods and cauldrons have always fascinated people with their hierarchical associations and their simple but stately forms. So there has always been a thriving craft devoted to the making of copies or imitations of them. Normally they are miniatures for table-top decoration often made of other materials such as jade, stage, lacquer and so on. They represent an important branch of China 's arts and crafts.

Musical Bells and Chime Stones

These are percussion musical instruments unique to ancient China . The zhong are made of bronze while the qing generally of stone. They may be played either individually or in groups. In the latter case, they are hung in rows on wooden racks and known respectively as bianzhong and bianqing . Struck with wooden hammers, they produce melodious sounds of various notes. In their time, they were the important instruments played---either in solo performance or in ensemble or as accompaniment---during imperial audiences, palace banquets and religious ceremonies.

Stone and Jade Qing ---It can be easily imagined that the stone qing must have been one of the earliest musical instruments in China . During the Stone Age, the Chinese forefathers, working with stone implements, found out that certain sonorous rocks, when knocked, produced musical sounds and that, by knocking at rocks of different sizes, they could make music. So the earliest manmade chime stones were born out of those natural rocks. In 1973 a Shang Dynasty (c. 17 th ¡ª11 th century B.C) chime stone was discovered from the ruins of that age in Anyang , Henan Province. It is grey-colored and has tiger patterns engraved on it, showing that it had been used by the imperial court.

The key step in the making of a chime stone is to give it the right note. Artisans learned long ago how to achieve this. If the pitch of a stone was too high, they would grind the two flat faces of the slab, making it thinner if the pitch was on the low side, they would grind the ends and make the slab shorter, until the right tone was arrived at.

The jade qing was made much later, following the same idea as fro chime stones but using the more valuable jade as the material. In the Hall of Treasures of the Forbidden City can be seen a chime consisting of 12 jade qing. They were made during the reign of Qinglong (1736¡ª1795) of a precious black jade exquisitely finished on both sides with gold-painted dragons playing with balls. It is said that the twelve were chosen out of 160 pieces made at the time by the jade carvers of Suzhou , Jiangsu Province, involving 90,000 workdays and untold costs.

Chime of Bells Bianzhong ---To make the chime of bells, an important metal instrument in ancient times, bronze was invariably used for the best acoustic effect. Early bells are called yongzhong , rather flat in shape and very much like two concave tiles joined face to face. Later, however, people stressed the beauty of their shape and gave them a more and more round body, at the expense of the tonal qualities.

It seems that there was no fixed number of bells for each chime. Judging by those unearthed to date, a chime may be very simple, consisting of 3, 6 or 9 bells, or very complicated with 13,14,16 or as many as 36 bells.

The most elaborate ancient bianzhong , a set of 65 bells, was unearthed in 1978 in Suixian Country, Hubei, Province, from the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng dating from the Warring States Period (475¡ª221 B.C). Their total weight is over 2,500 kilograms, and they were found hung on a three-tiered rack. The biggest of the bells has an overall height of 153.4 centimeters and a weight of 203.6 kilograms. The whole chime, unprecedented discovery in the history of musical instrument ever brought to light¡ªnot only in China but in the world as a whole.

Although buried underground for over 2,400 years, the bells still produce fine tones. Ancient and modern music, including tunes from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, received ancient tunes of the Tang Dynasty and theme tunes of modern Chinese operas, has been played on them with satisfying results.

The Bronze Mirror

The bronze mirror, like its modern glass counterpart, was a household article of daily use in which to look at oneself. Its obverse side is so smoothly polished that it can reflect the image of the user's face. The reverse side is often cast with a knob and decorations, so it is also an art object. Most of the authentic bronze mirrors are finds form ancient tombs; some have been handed down from generating to generation in old families.

Ancient Chinese began to use bronze mirrors in very emote times, at the latest in the 11century B.C. in the late Shang Dynasty, as evidenced by five of them discovered in Tomb No.4 at the Yin Remains in Anyang, Henan Province.

The mirror became a popular object during the period of the Warring States (475¡ª221 B.C). The mirror of this period is often found to bear one or two rings of decorations, the usual designs being animal masks, flowers and leaves, dragon and phoenix¡­during the Western Han (206 B.C.¡ª 25A .D), the mirror became thicker, and the popular designs at the back were geometric patterns, supernatural beings, birds and animals. It was also in this period that simple, short inscriptions appeared, such as ¡°keep me in mind, forget me not¡±, ¡°perpetual fortune, endless joy¡± or other words of good wishes. The form of the bronze mirror became more varied during the Song and the Yuan dynasty (10 th ¡ª14 th century). It may be round, oblong, lozenge or octagonal, with or without a handle. During the Qing (1616¡ª1911), it was gradually replaced by the glass mirror.

Of particular interest is bronze mirror dating from the Western Han. With a diameter of 11.5 cm and patterns at the back, it looks no different from other mirrors except an inscription which reads: ¡°With light from the sun, the world is greatly illuminated¡±. The strange thing about it is that, when a sunbeam falls on its smooth surface, its reflection on the wall shows the design and inscription on the reverse side as if the light had penetrated the bronze. This phenomenon of the mirror had puzzled people, including scientists, over long ages, and it was called the ¡°magic mirror¡±. A specimen of this mirror can be seen in the Shanghai Museum . Today, not only the strange reaction of the mirror to sunlight has been scientifically explained, but imitations have been made of it to amuse collectors.

Bronze mirrors, as usual funerary objects of ancient times, are often found in old tombs. They are placed near the head or chest of he dead or packed with combs in lacquer boxes or punches within easy reach. Some of them are found at the top of the burial chamber or at the four corners of the coffin, suggesting a belief that the mirror had the magic power of warding off evil spirits.

The Bronze Drum

The bronze drum is not covered with skin but made entirely of hollowed bronze, and it is the most popular instrument among the ethnic minorities in the south and southwest of China . Its beginning may be traced to be bronze cauldron, a cooking utensil in ancient times.

It was used in its time as a sacrificial vessel at offerings and rituals, or as a percussion instrument to give the signals to summon the people of the tribe. In battles it was struck to direct the fighting. For this reason, it was in the possession of the clan headman or tribal chief as a symbol of ruling power. With the decline of chieftain dominance, the bronze drum usually fell into the hands of powerful or rich families.

Today the drum is still a favorite instrument with the Zhuang, Buyi, Dai, Dong, Miao and Yao nationalities of China . At festival celebrations or other important activities such as a horse race or a singing competition, the drum is usually played to add to the fun.

Up to now, a total of 1,300 bronze drums, have been collected and unearthed in China , which are displayed in museums at various places. By far the richest collection of them is at the Museum of the Gangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in Nanning , which has a special pavilion devoted to them.

The oldest bronze drum unearthed so far dates from the Warring States Period more than 2,600 years ago.

The average size of the drums of this type is bout one meter in diameter, and most of them are decorated on the surface with cloud and thunder patterns, characteristic of ethnic arts.

The biggest bronze drum unearthed up to the time of writing saw the light in 1972 in Beiliu, Guangxi. It has a diameter of 1.65 meters, a height of 37.5 centimeters and a weight of 300 kilograms, and is now exhibited in Nanjing Museum .

¡°As You Wish¡±

Visitors to Beijing 's Forbidden City will notice a valuable exhibit called ruyi (formerly spelt as juyi) with a head like a shred of cloud and a long body or handle in the shape of a flat S. It may be made of any of a wide range of valuable materials: gold, jade, jadeite, crystal, agate, coral, agolloch eaglewood, bamboo bone, and what not. And the workmanship is often quite meticulous: it is carved with patterns in incision, low-relief or openwork and sometimes inlaid with silver, gold and gems. The designs may be simple or very elaborate but invariably convey messages of good wishes, such as ¡°pine and crane¡± (standing for vigorous old age), ¡°immortals wishing you longevity¡±, ¡°phoenix and peony¡± (standing for wealth, happiness and prosperity), and the like.

Then ruyi, it is said, was born out of a common Chinese article of household use¡ªthe itch-scratcher. This is a stick about 1.5 feet long, with one end in the form of a miniature hand with bent fingers. Holding it, a man can scratch the itches on his own back and thus get a feeling of well-being. It is still used by some people in China today. Usually made of common-place wood or bamboo, it is popularly called by the descriptive name laotoule (¡°old man's joy¡±).

The itch-scratcher, being a joy, began o be made of more valuable materials for those who could afford it. But apart from being an art object, it continued to be used for it original purpose until sometimes during the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). It gradually became a pure ornamental object called ruyi (¡°as you wish¡±). The right place for the elevated and transformed itch-scratcher was now on the bedside table of the imperial sleeping chamber, by the side of the throne¡ªto be appreciated daily by the emperor and his numerous wives. On every occasion of court celebrations, such as enthronement, royal wedding or birthday, the nobles and courtiers would be busy raising money and ordering whole sets of ruyi for presentation. On the 60 th birthday of Emperor Qianlong (1700), for instance, the ministers presented to him 60 ruyi of gold filigree. Likewise, on the 60 th birthday of the Emperor Dowager Cixi (1894), she got 9 times 9 or 81 ruyi. The ruyi was also used by the emperor, when he chose a concubine out of a number of candidates, to point at the one catching his fancy.

The presentation of ruyi was not a one-way affair: it was often bestowed by the emperor upon his ministers or subjects. There is still a valuable collection of them in the Mansion of Confucius in Qufu , Shandong . They were given by various emperors to the descendants of the great sage.

It is still difficult to pinpoint the time of the first emergence of the ruyi, although no archaeological finds of them date from before the Qing Dynasty. They are much valued but commonly seen objects of decoration in the old Qing palaces, but outside of Beijing one rarely comes across them in provincial museums.


The sedan or sedanchair ( jiaozi ), a traditional vehicle of transportation carried by bearers, was called at the beginning jianyu (shoulder carriage), being a carriage that traveled on human shoulders. Jiaozi is its comparatively modern name.

In old times, sedans fell into two major categories: the guanjiao (official sedan) and the minjiao (private sedan). Those of the former type were used by the royal family and government officials, and they varied in elaborateness according to the status of the person carried inside, following strict rules laid down for different levels of the hierarchy.

Even for the emperor himself, he was to sit in palanquins or sedanchairs of different grades on different occasions: the ceremonial palanquin to go to a formal court of audience, the sedanchair when he made rounds of inspection inside the Forbidden City, the light sedan for hunts and excursions outside the capital, and finally the casual litter, a spare sedan accompanying him on his trips, into which he might want to change at any moment. For his everyday use in the palace, it was usually the casual litter. Then the furnishings also differed with the seasons: the warm sedan for winter and the cool type for summer. The two sedanchairs now on display in the Hall of Complete Harmony (Zhonghedian) of the Forbidden City are the casual litters used by the emperor for everyday purposes.

Sedanchairs for the ministers and lower officials varied in grandeur with their ranks. In all cases, an official sedan out in the street was heralded by the beating of gongs to clear the way and surrounded by a number of attendants. Common people meeting such a procession must keep quiet and step aside. The higher the official, the greater the number of followers and sedan bearers. The latter might vary from two for a petty official to eight for a very eminent personage. The emperor himself might have as many as sixteen carriers.

Private sedans were of simple make, yet they were owned only by the landed gentry or urban rich. Built of wood or bamboo, they could be carried either on flat roads or along mountain paths. Some of the self-pampered potbellies inside, like the officials, were also accompanied by bodyguards walking by the side of the sedans.

There was yet another type of sedans for hire to the common people for use on weddings. They were called huajiao (flowery sedan) or xijiao (happiness sedan). The deluxe model of this type was covered by bright-colored silks embroidered with gaudy designs of good luck and even decorated with sparling gems. The run-of-the-mill model was also bedecked with colorful silk ribbons. In feudal times a bride was not to be seen by outsides, so there was an elaborate ¡°double-sedan¡± with a small one inside the outer one so that the bride could get into (or out of) the inner sedan indoors and then be carried into the outer sedan without exposing herself to public view.

Wedding sedanchairs continued to be in vogue for some time in certain regions after the founding of New China in 1949. Nowadays young people prefer the motorized sedan for their weddings, and the sedanchair has been relegated to the realm of history.

Ancient Figurines

Most ancient figurines have come down as funerary objects. They have their origin in the institution of immolation or burying the living with the dead.

Immolation was practiced in the period of slavery. In 1950, excavations made of a Shang Dynasty (c. 17 th ¡ª11 th century B.C) aristocrat's tomb at Wuguan Village, Anyang, Henan Province, brought to light the remains of 79 slaves who had been buried alive with their dead master. Besides, in 27 pits arranged in rows in front and at the back of the tomb were discovered, buried en masse, the skeletons of 207 other slaves beheaded in immolation.

The cruel custom of burying the living with the dead, though replaced by the burying of tomb figurines, lingered on and was practiced in isolated cases under nearly every dynasty. In the Ming (1368-1644), according to contemporary notes, a human sacrifice was entertained to a sumptuous temple to meet his last day before being led down to a underground temple to meet his horrible end. At the funeral of an emperor, palace maids were reportedly pushed, one after another, onto bed-like racks, and their heads into nooses, and were hanged after the racks had been removed. When Emperor Changzu of the Ming died in 1424, sixteen persons were buried alive with him. In the eastern and western ¡°well¡± on either side of the Changling Mausoleum (the largest of the Ming Tomb) are the remains of his immolated concubines.

After the Qin and Han dynasties, tomb figurines began to be used instead of human beings. And vast numbers of them, dating from the Warring States Period (475¡ª221 B,C) down to the Ming (1368¡ª1644) have been unearthed. They are of various descriptions but most are made of pottery and porcelain, next come wood and lacquer, and occasionally jade. They represent people of different status and walks¡ªcourt officials, generals, cavaliers, attendants, musicians, dancers and acrobats. As a rule, they are nicely modeled in different postures, constituting a valuable part of China 's ancient art.

Jade figurines first appeared in China during the 8 th to 3 rd century B.C. A number of tiny jade figurines were unearthed in 1974 from a mausoleum of the ancient state of Zhongshan. Most of them appear to be females, though some are lads. They have their hair done up in buns on the head---double buns for women and single one for the boys. They all stand, holding their hands before the chest. The females are clad in tight-sleeved dresses, buttoned down the middle, and chequered long skirts. The hairdo and costume must be true-to-life reproductions of those prevalent in Zhongshan at the time.

The Qin (221¡ª206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C.¡ª 220 A .D.) dynasties are noted for the high quality and large numbers of pottery figurines they produced. In 1974 the famous terracotta warriors and horses of Qin Shi Huang (the first Emperor of the Qin) were discovered just east of his mausoleum. The excavation is still going on and vault No.1 alone is expected to yield 6,000 of them. The lifesized figurines of men and horses are in neat battle formation, with the men holding real bronze weapons of the time and reflecting the formidable might of the legions of the First Emperor.

In the winter of 1980, another valuable find was made to the west of the mausoleum. Two bronze carriages, standing one behind the other, were discovered. Each was drawn by a team of four bronze horses and driven by a driver, also made of bronze. All figures are half life-size, weighing a total of 1,800 kilograms. They are the earliest, largest, most elaborate and best-preserved models of ancient bronze carriages, complete with animals and drivers, ever found in this country.

Each discovery at and near the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum has caused¡ªand will cause¡ªa stir among archaeologists the world over.

Han Dynasty figurines show clear influences of the Qin, but are smaller in size. An impressive discovery was made a few years ago in Han tomb at Yangjiawan, Xianyang , Shanxi Province of a total of 3,000 painted pottery figures. Most of the standing figurines represent warriors, and some of them are equestrians. Compared with the human figures, the horses are more expressive: some stand quietly and others rear up with an unheard neigh. They must be truthful portraits in sculpture of the foot and mounted troops of the Han Dynasty.

With the flourishing of ceramics during the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties (10 th ¡ª17 th century), the tomb figurines of this long period are mostly glazed pottery and porcelain, among which the ¡°tricoloured glazed pottery of the Tang¡± is world-famous. Out of the ancient tombs of Xi'an and Luoyang have been unearthed many color-glazed females, horses and camel. Noteworthy especially are the pottery camel drivers with their deep-set eyes, protruding noses and hairy faces, evidently Central Asians who plied the Silk Road with their caravans. The ¡°tricolored Tangs¡± represent in effect a special handicraft art catering solely to the funerary needs of the aristocracy at the heyday of China 's feudalism.

Wooden figurines have a much longer history which extends back to the Warring States Period (475¡ª221 B.C.). They have been found in many ancient tombs of different ages and in different localities. The tomb of Zhu Tan, prince of Lu (the tenth son of the founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming), situated in Zouxian, Shandong Province, yielded in 1974 a total of 406 painted wood figures in the formation of a long funeral procession. It consists of three parts: musicians leading in front, followed by attendants and military officers in the middle and civil officials bringing up the rear. The figures---a sculptured model of an early Ming (2 nd half of the 14 century) funeral---are on display in the Provincial Museum of Shangdong in Jinan .

Some of figurines have been found in the Dingling Mausoleum of the Ming Tombs. They are few in number and crude in workmanship, showing that wood figurines were already going out of vogue toward the end of the dynasty.

During the Qing Dynasty (1616¡ª1911), paper figures appeared; they were not buried with the dead but were burnt at funerals to follow the dead to the nether world. After the fall of the Qing, tomb figures have fallen completely into disuse.

The Chinese Grandfather Chair

The taishiyi means literally the ¡°Imperial Rector's chair¡± but has been loosely called by some old-time Western residents in China the ¡°grandfather chair¡±. It is different from its Western counterpart in that it is not upholstered but made of hard wood and with a straight back ad arms. Rector's chair of various descriptions can still be seen in the imperial palaces and the mansions of former countries and officials. They can also be found in some old families among the people.

The name for the chair first appeared at the end of the Northern Song in the 12 th century. A man, in order to please Qin Hui, the powerful and traitorous prime minister and Imperial Rector, presented to him a roomy, cross-legged chair specially made with a head-rest that resembled a lotus leaf, which he named the ¡°Imperial Rector's chair¡±. The novel design of the chair became the fashion among the upper strata of the Song officialdom, and the name stuck.

Down in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Rector's chair was reshaped, with its back and arms forming a semicircle.

The ¡°grandfather chairs¡± commonly seen today are mostly handed down from the Qing Dyansty (1616¡ª1911). With the armrests at right angles and with the back, they are generally made of rosewood, red sandalwood or padauk and often inset with marble bearing beautiful natural veins. In south China , some of the chairs may have seats woven with rattan skin for greater coolness.

As a rule, grandfather chairs are large in size, and in a saloon they are normally arranged in pairs with a teatable in between, creating a stately atmosphere.

The cross-legged chair of the Song, the semi-circular chair of the Ming and the straight-backed armchair of the Qing, though different in shape and structure, are all called ¡°Imperial Rector's chairs¡±. They were made at the beginning for eminent officials, so they have always been reserved as the seats of honor for important visitors. When historical plays are staged, one of the indispensable props of certain scenes is the grandfather chair to highlight the features of the age.

The Sacred Way and Stone Statues

In the front part of imperial necropolises there is usually a ¡°sacred way¡± or ¡°divine road¡± for the spirits of the royal dead---in which the ancients believed ---to walk on. This road is often lined with stone statues of men and animals as important decorations of the grounds.

The traditional name for the giant-sized statues of men, popularly called ¡°stone men¡±, is strictly wegnzhong. It is said that a Herculean giant by the name of Ruan Wengzhong lived in the Qin Dynasty (221¡ª206 B.C.) and distinguished himself with great service in garrisoning the borders in Gansu and in fighting the Huns. After he died, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, to commemorate him , had a bronze statue carved in his likeness and erected at his palace in Xianyang. It is also said that, when Huns came to Xinyang and saw the statue, they thought Wengzhong was still alive. After that, all bronze men (and then stone statues) standing guard at palaces and imperial tombs came to be known as Wengzhong .

As for the stone animals, they have their origin in the following historical event: Huo Qubing (140¡ª117 B.C.) was a young military genius in the period of the Western Han. Distinguished in archery and horsemanship, he became an imperial attendant at age 17 and was several times sent on expeditions under his uncle Wei Qing, a famous commander, to fight the marauding Huns. He was given a command himself at 19 and twice led government forces to what was present-day Gansu and dealt telling blows to the Huns. He died at the age of 23 only. Emperor Wudi built for his beloved young general a magnificent tomb at Maoling and, to perpetuate the fame of his exploits in the northwest, had the mausoleum grounds landscaped like the Qiliang Mountains where the battles had been fought. And as the mountain range is marked by rugged rocks that resemble wild beasts, so Huo's tumulus was strewn with grotesque rocks; furthermore, masons building the tomb sculptured many stone statues of animals---leaping and squatting horses, resting tigers, kneeling elephants, piglets and fish, bears and other wild beasts preying on sheep¡­of the sculptures, the most renowned is one showing a Hun under the hoof of a galloping horse, a work of art aptly summing up the achievements of the young general in his meteoric career.

The group of statues are the earliest giant-sized stone sculptures known to stand in front of an ancient tomb in China .

Emperor in later epochs, taking their cue from this, had stone men and animals made for their own tombs, and they are now a common sight to greet visitors to imperial mausoleums of the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The group of giant stone figures that stand on the grounds of the Ming Tombs near Beijing are te best preserved, the most true-to-life and most skillfully carved of their kind.

Erected where they are in A.D. 1435 (or the 10 th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Xuande), they consist of 12human figures (civil and military officials and courtiers with meritorious records) and 24 animals (lions, camels, xiezhi , elephants, qilin , and horses---four of each, two standing and two squatting). The human figures were meant to imply firm and popular support to the imperial house, while the animals in different postures signified alternate day and night services to the dead monarchs.

Besides, different animals had each their symbolic significance: The lion, ferocious in nature and lording it over the animal kingdom, symbolized awesome solemnity.

The camel and elephant, being dependable means of transport in the deserts and tropics, put together at the imperial tombs, were meant to suggest the vastness of the territory controlled by the court.

The xiezhi , a mythological unicorn which was supposed to possess a sixth sense to tell between right and wrong and which, when two men were embroiled in a fight, would gore the wicked one, was put there to keep evil spirits away.

The qilin, one of the four ¡°divine animals¡± (the other three are dragon, phoeix and tortoise), was represented at the tombs as an auspicious symbol.

The horse, being the emperor's mount on many occasions, was of course indispensable.

Stele on the Back of Stone Tortoise

Visitors to China 's mausoleums, temples and parks will come across many a stone stele standing on a stone pedestal in the form of a tortoise. Some of these stelae are well shaped out of high-grade smooth stone and bear inscriptions engraved in elegant calligraphy; the more important ones are sheltered by pavilions from weathering.

A stele of this type consists of three parts: the crown, the body and the pedestal. The crown is usually carved with a pattern of chi, a mythological animal supposed to be one of the nine sons of Dragon. It has often been taken as a dragon's head, which it resembles.

The carving of inscriptions on stelae has history extending a long time back. When a stele bears an inscription written by an emperor, it invariably has a stone tortoise as the base. Such inscriptions whether written personally by emperors or by their ministers on their behalf, normally extol the emperor's virtues and achievements so that they might be remembered b posterity. Some stelae were erected for other purposes, too. A huge one standing in front of the hill in the Summer Palace bears an account of the building of the Hill of Longevity and Kunming Lake written in the hand of the 18 th century Qing Emperor Qianlong. The whole block, magnificently shaped and exquisitely carved, has an overall height of 9.8 meters with distinctive Chinese features.

Although ancient stelae were meant to bear inscriptions, yet a small number have nothing in writing on them at all. These are popularly called ¡°wordless stelae¡±, and most of those in front of the Ming Tombs fall into this category, though they are also named ¡°stelae of divine achievements and holy virtues¡±. The explanation for this can be found in a historical work devoted to the study of imperial mausoleums. Zhu Yuanzhang (1328¡ª1398), founding emperor of the Ming, once said, ¡°Stele inscriptions at imperial tombs have always been written by scholars to whitewash the royal dead; the practice should not be taken as the standard for posterity¡±. So, the practice was suspended during the Ming (1368¡ª1644), yet it did not prevent beautiful stelae from being carved and erected. For instance, the one at Dingling, the tomb that has been opened for visitors is sculpted in low relief with six chi coiled round one another, so expressive that they seem to be fighting playfully on water for a big pearl. The huge stone tortoise at the base is no less a masterpiece of sculpture. Raising its head, it looks into the distance with almost real attention. Around the tortoise are carved images of prawns, crabs, fish and turtles, partly concealed in patterns of waves. All this provides the backdrop of a surging sea, which helps with its buoyancy the tortoise to bear the dozens of tons of stone on its back, while still doggedly forging ahead.

It may be necessary to point out that the animal under the stele is no tortoise at all as it is popularly supposed to be. Strictly speaking, its name is Bixi , the ninth son of the mythological dragon. It was born with such unparalleled strength that it could move the mountains and used to play havoc in the seas. Somehow it was tamed by the Great Yu, the legendary hero who fought the Flood, and help him move obstacles and dig canals, contributing much to the conquest of the rampant waters. After the Flood had subsided, Yu was afraid that Bixi might slip back to his old ways and, to prevent this, made it carry a mammoth stone with an inscription praising its meritorious feats. This cost Bixi forever its freedom, as the heavy weigh proved too cumbersome. In time, its image was confused with that of the mundane tortoise. Still it was supposed to possess extraordinary capacity for great weight and, for this, has been employed by emperors of all ages to bear their stelae. And for the Chinese who are accustomed to the sight of Bixi or the tortoise under the stele, it would be unthinkable to see anything else in its place.

One might be tempted to ask how the stelae, some of which are as tall as a dozen meters, were lifted up and erected on the back of the stone tortoises in the days when mechanical devices were unknown. The problem, legend has it, was solved at the suggestions of a deity who appeared to the Ming Emperor Chengzu in his dream. The emperor wanted to erect a monumental stele for his father Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, but the stele was too big, and the workers were all at loss what to do. The god in the dream told the vexed emperor to use a method in which ¡°the stele and the tortoise will not see each other¡±. Enlightened by the cryptic message, the engineers and masons buried the stone tortoise and made a slope with earth, along which the stele was moved up and placed on top of the buried tortoise. With the earth removed, the stele was stood well in place. After that this became the standard operation for erecting stelae.

Tortoise-borne stelae are now regarded as important cultural relics, valued for the light they throw on historical events, studies of calligraphic arts and related subjects.

Picture of the Ultimate and the Eight Diagrams

The picture is a composite of the Ultimate and the Eight Diagrams, and is found even now in some Chinese temples. The picture of the Ultimate consists of a black and a white fish---also called the yin and yang fish. The picture of the Eight Diagrams is an octagon formed of eight combinations of three whole or broken lines.

According to legend, the picture was created by Fuxi, an ancient Chinese sage. It is written in the ancient book Zhou Yi (Zhou Book of Changes) that ¡°Changes originate in the Ultimate; form the Ultimate issue the two spheres. From the Ultimate spheres issue the four elements, and from the four elements the eight diagrams¡±. That was the basic theory of the Ultimate giving rise to the eight diagrams. By the Ultimate, the ancient meant the origin of all things and creatures. The philosopher Zhu Xi (1130¡ª1200) of southern Song Dynasty said, ¡°The Ultimate is the way of all things in heaven and earth'. The two spheres refer to heaven and earth, or yin (feminine, negative) and yang (masculine, positive). The four elements are metal, wood, water, and fire, which are everywhere. The eight diagrams symbolize the eight natural phenomena: sky, earth, thunder, wind, water, fire, mountain and lake. So the picture represented the ancient Chinese's earliest knowledge of the universe, which contained a simple dialectical materialist point of view.

What is more interesting is the picture of the Eight Diagrams, which are formed of yao (lines), namely, the yangyao (male line, whole line written as --) and the yinyao (female line, a broken line written as - -). The two forms are contradictory opposites and they from the eight combinations.

By taking two of them or doubling them, 64 combinations can be made.

It has been suggested that the German mathematician Wilhelm von Leibuiz (1646¡ª1716) was inspired by the Chinese eight Diagrams to create the binary system. If this was true, then the Chinese picture of the Ultimate and the Eight Diagrams made some historic contribution to the modern computer science.

In the early 1930' s the Chinese scholar Liu Zihua, 27 years of age who was in France on a work-study basis, used the Eight Diagrams, without recourse to Newton's theory of gravity, to forecast the existence o the tenth planet of the solar system, and wrote a thesis entitled ¡° The Eight Diagrams Theory of the Universe and Modern Astronomy¡±, which won him the French national doctorate in 1938 and thrilled the world astronomist profession.

The Chinese picture of the Ultimate and the Eight Diagrams is still being studied by some Western scholars as a source of ancient science. It is certainly an important heritage of Chinese science and culture, though at times it was used for divination and other superstitious activities.

Sealing Clay

In ancient China official and private documents were inscribed on bamboo or wooden slips. Before these documents were announced slips were bound with a piece of thread and sealed whit clay. The sealing clay was imprinted with the impression of an official or private seal to prevent illegal opening. The clay-sealing method, which was also used for the shipping of goods, gradually fell into oblivion with the invention of paper and silk fabrics. Since clay sealing was first discovered by historians in the late Qing Dyansty (1616-1911), it has commanded the attention of epigraphers and collectors. For archaeologists it makes excellent material for the study of history and ancient epigraphy and calligraphy.

The Beijing Museum of ancient Ceramic Civilization's collection of more than 1,000 pieces of sealing clay of the Qin Dynasty (221¡ª206 B.C.) has been regarded as an archive for the study of the origin of the political system of ancient China.

Bi and Cong ---Ancient Jade Carvings

Bi and Cong are both objects of art fashioned out of jade in ancient times. As symbols of good luck and the blue sky, they were used b aristocrats as ritual objects when attending audience with the emperor, religious functions and funerals. Most often found in the tombs of the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties, they also were used as jewellery.

Bi is a round flat piece of jade with a round hole in the middle. In 1936, 24 pieces of bi and 33 pieces of cong were unearthed from Tomb No.3 at Liangzhu Town of Yuhang, Zhejiang Province.

Cong is a rectangular piece of jade with a round hollow to accentuate the ancient Chinese theory that heaven is round and earth square. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, cong was a fashionable talisman of good luck which served as ritual object for worshipping heaven and earth. When it was used as a burial object, it was placed on the deceased's head and feet or around it.


Fu, or tally, was a kind of talisman in ancient China . Before paper was invented in China , tallies were made from bamboo or wood. A tally consists of two pieces and is used to a general as imperial authorization for troop movement or other schemes. Among the populace, the tally was used as proof of authorization for exchanges of goods or leases.

In ancient China the official tally was made of gold, silver, jade or bronze in the shape of tiger, dragon, human figure, turtle, snake, fish, etc. Most of them, however, appear in the shape of a tiger. The ¡°tiger tally¡± was used by an emperor for delegating his generals with the power to command and dispatch the army. A tiger tally is inscribed with a text on its back and consists of two parts, with the right part retained in the central government and the left part issued to a local official or a commander. Only when the tally was authenticated could the authorization take effect, a practice which was fashionable during the Warring States , Qin and Han periods.

To fashion a tally in the image of a tiger was also meant to indicate that with the emperor's authorization, the command should act as promptly and courageously as a tiger. By tradition the Chinese regard the tiger as a symbol of valour. Even today a crack force in the army is likely to be named ¡°Flying Tiger Detachment¡±. It is thus understandable for our ancients to use the tiger tally for the manoeuvring of soldiers.

Jade Clothes Sewn with Gold Thread

According to an ancient Chinese belief, when a man had put on clothes made of jade piece sewn together with gold thread when he died, his remains would never go rotten.

In 1968, Chinese archaeologists working in Mancheng, Heibei Province , found such clothes in tomb buried with the remains of Liu Sheng, a princes of the Western Han Dynasty, and those of his wife, Dou Pass. Only a few teeth and a pile of bone were left of the remains, the jade clothes remained intact. Liu's clothes were made of a total of 2,498 pieces of jade, sewn together with lengths of thread that is 96 percent gold, 4 to 5 cm in length and 0.35¡ª 0.5 mm in diameter. There were also soft and sturdy gold ropes made by twisting 12 pieces of gold thread 0.08¡ª 0.13 mm in diameter. It took about 1,100 grams of gold to put Liu's clothes together. His wife's clothes were fashioned out of 2,160 pieces of jade and sewn with 700 grams of gold. Judging from the technology of today, it takes an entire decade for an artisan to finishing making such piece of jade clothes.

Bronze Ware

The bronze ware were unique national treasures for China in ancient times for their impressive designs, classical decorative ornamentation, and wealth of inscriptions.

The ancient Chinese society fell into the Stone Tool Age and the Iron Tool Age. The earliest stoneware in China was found in 3000 B.C. The Shang and Zhou dynasties ushered China into the height of the Bronze Age. During this period the making of bronze ware reached its zenith. After the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods China entered the Iron Tool Age.

Bronze is the alloy of copper and zinc or copper and lead that is bluish grey. The museums across China and some important museums outside China , have all collected Chiense bronze ware dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Some of them are part of the cultural hertigae passed down through the generations, but most of them were dug up from underneath the earth.

Ancient Chinese bronze ware fall into three types: ritual vessels, weapons, and miscellaneous objects.

Ritual vessels refer to those objects employed by aristocrats in sacrificial ceremonies or audiences. Therefore there is something distinctively religious and shamanist about them. These vessels include food containers, wine vessels, water pots and musical instruments.

Bronze weapons come in such varieties as knife, sword, spear, halberd, axe, and dagger.

The miscellaneous objects refer to bronze utensils for daily use.

In ancient China the making of bronze ware was dominated by the imperial families and aristocrats. And the possession of such wares regarded as a status symbol.

In comparison with counterparts in other parts of the world, the Chinese bronze ware stand out for their inscriptions which are regarded as major chapters in the Chinese history of calligraphy.

Ancient Coins

The currency is a medium for the exchange of commodities; it was the inevitable outcome of such exchanges. In ancient China the currency came in different forms and was made variously from shells, jade, gold, silver, and paper. The following is a brief introduction to ancient coins in China .

Shell money---Shell money was the oldest form of currency in ancient China . As the shells were small and hard in texture, they came in handy as money. By the Shang and Zhou dynasties the use of shell money reached its zenith, and shell money became a symbol of wealth. Even today the Chinese like to call their most valuable objects ¡°baobei¡±, which is derived from the name of the Chinese shell money. In ancient China it was not uncommon to use shell money as burial objects.

Hoe-like Money---The hoe-like money was evolved from an ancient Chinese farming tool. In the early day it bore close resemblance to a hoe. Because the hoe is similar to the shovel. This is why the hoe-like money is also shown as ¡°shovel money¡±.

Bronze money in the design of seashells. With the development of commodity exchange, the supply of natural shells as the currency ran out of supply. Imitation shell money made from stone, bone, ceramics and bronze was thus invented to make up for the shortage. But eventually it was bronze shell-shaped money that replaced natural shells. It was not until Qinshihuang unified the currency in 221 B.C. that shells finally were withdrawn from commodity circulation.

Knife-shaped money---Cast of bronze during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, the money's knife-like shape was derived from a certain weapon from old days.

Bronze coin with a square hold in the centre---In the late Warring States Period, bronze coins with a round hole in the centre first appeared in China . The hole made it convenient to string the coins together. When Qinshihuang unified the nation and the currency, he had the round hole in the bronze coins changed into a square, as the round coin and its square hole is regarded as a reflection of the ancient theory that ¡°heaven is round and earth square¡±. Feudalism lasted for more than 2,000 years, however, despite the change of times and the currency, the round bronze coins with a square hole in the centre was in use for roughly the same duration. It was after the demise of the Qing Dynasty that they were gradually replaced with paper money.

Hitching Post

China has been a major agricultural country since ancient times. The use of horses as farm implements and means of transportation gave rise to hitching posts. The hitching posts of early days were made from timber. But the left to this day are mostly those made of stone during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today, the hitching posts have long lost its practical value, but their artistic value is becoming increasingly appreciated.

The art of the hitching posts finds expression in the carving of the capital and neck of such a post. Round sculpture is integrated with relief and linear carving, and the motifs run the gamut from the Sakyamuni cult and Confucius preaching his doctrines to Lao Zi riding a buffalo, the Eight Immortals of Taoism, and the duke of Zhuang consulting some wise men. There are also such auspicious animals and plants as lions, unicorns, magpies, sweetscented osmanthus, glossy ganoderma, and celestial grass. There motifs are mostly derived from historical tales, fold legends, celebrations and festivals, and traditional operas.

The hitching posts, besides their practical purpose for lassoing draft animals, also served to show off the prosperity of a family in old days. Some of them stand as tall as 3 meters---they were obviously not for hitching horses but served as symbols of a family's social status and cultural attainment.

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