A unique show decodes the mythical motifs of the Chinese Bronze Age

Have you ever wondered why Chinese visual culture is full of images of dragons, phoenixes and other mythical creatures? Archaeologists certainly have. For centuries, they searched in vain for their origins in the country’s extensive but fractured archaeological record.

Relatively recent discoveries of artifacts from the Zhou Dynasty, an ancient state that predated the Qin Dynasty that unified China, provided answers, and now they will be on display at an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco titled ‘Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of the Chinese Bronze Age.”

Double-walled square jian-fou from Zhang, Warring States period (ca. 433 BC) Photo: Hubei Provincial Museum and Asian Art Museum.

The show is the first of its kind in the United States and features ritual vessels of jade and bronze, ceremonial lacquerware, weapons and musical instruments. The objects, more than 150 in total, come from five different Chinese museums specializing in Bronze Age archaeology, including the Hubei Provincial Museum, the Jingzhou Museum and the Suizhou Museum.

Lei wine barrel with dragon from Zhang in Western Zhou ca. 1050-771 BCE Photo: Suizhou City Museum and Museum of Asian Art.

The collection includes a jade mask from 2200 BCE, decorated with two birds of prey; a bronze drum decorated with 16 snake-like dragons, recovered from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, built around 433 BCE; and a bronze double-walled wine cooler or jian-fou. Archaeologists have also recovered from the grave and believe it was used as a kind of metal refrigerator to store millet and beer during hot summers.

Dou food vessel with lid from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), ca. 433 BC. Photo: Suizhou Municipal Museum and Museum of Asian Art.

The majority of the objects come from Zeng and Chu, two mysterious vassal states of the Zhou dynasty in northwestern China. Little is known about their cultures and histories, which were erased when the area was conquered by the Qin, the founders of Imperial China, in 229 BC throughout Chinese history.

The tomb of Marquis Yi, discovered in 1978, was a turning point in Chinese archaeology, described by historian and Asian Art Museum curator Jeremy Zhang as “akin to (the discovery of) the tomb of Tutankhamun, Pompeii or Knossos.”

Body armor and helmet from the Warring States period (ca. 300 BC) made of leather, lacquer and fabric. Photo: Hubei Provincial Museum and Asian Art Museum.

“We are living in what is truly a Golden Age of archeology – Chinese archaeology,” said Jay Xu, director of Barbara Bass Bakar and current CEO of the Asian Art Museum, in a statement. “There were always obvious gaps in the record that never made sense. We knew which states the Qin conquered – their historians were happy to record that – but what we missed was the artistic evidence that linked the beliefs of older kingdoms to images that spread in later dynasties.

Base of a bronze drum stand excavated from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suizhou from the Warring States period (ca. 433 BC) Photo: Hubei Provincial Museum and Asian Art Museum.

“Many of the extravagant works of art in ‘Phoenix Kingdoms’ are considered national treasures because of their rarity and beauty,” said Zhang, who organized the show. “Our original exhibition highlights the importance of the Yangzi River region in shaping a recognizable southern style that would influence centuries of Chinese art and religion. We couldn’t be more excited to update our understanding of this historical era by inviting our audiences to unlock the glorious mystery of China at the dawn of the First Empire.”

“Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age” is on view through July 22 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, California.

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