From their first appearance in the later period of the Erlitou culture (3500–1250 BCE) until their disappearance during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE) China’s bronze ritual vessels had a flourishing history of over one thousand five hundred years. One thousand years after their disappearance bronze ritual vessels experienced a renaissance under the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1126) and continued to do so for almost another millennia. This talk will give a brief introduction to the background, unfolding and influence of the bronze ritual vessel renaissance of the Northern Song.
The continual unearthing of bronze vessels and the recording of this by a few scholars fervently committed to the study of ancient utensils fostered the emergence of epigraphy as a field of study. The ritual reforms initiated by several Song emperors and in particular Emperor Huizong (1082–1135) demanded that ritual vessels should comply with forms from the ancient Three Dynasties Period. This not only led to the casting of new ritual vessels according to unearthed ancient vessels but also to a search for ancient vessels throughout the entire realm. As a consequence the imperial court assembled a large collection of vessels and officially and privately compiled catalogues continuously appeared, thus setting the basic framework for the naming, categorizing and dating of bronze vessels, and the transcription of their inscriptions. As for the newly-cast ritual vessels, although it is difficult to identify specific models, it is possible to trace their various sources, reflecting the artistic ideas of a return to the past embodied in Song bronze vessels. People of Song times of course did not know how the vessels were made in antiquity. They could only use the lost wax method to cast new vessels, and their technique naturally shows traits peculiar to the Song period.
Lastly, four bronze dou vases from the palace workshops dating from the late Northern Song to the early Southern Song period whose forms are very similar and who all carry inscriptions show the fixed nature of the Song style. Among these vases is one used by the Huizong Emperor himself, and others were imperial gifts to great officials – showing another use of bronze vessels under the Song. By looking at Southern Song knowledge of these vessels we can see that, although the contribution of the study of vases to Song epigraphy was not insignificant, it had not yet established a fixed body of knowledge or paradigm and it was difficult for it to be passed on or to develop. It was only in the twentieth century that archaeology and art history allowed for a breakthrough and the establishment of a paradigm for the study of bronze ritual vessels.