As one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, China has artistic traditions dating back more than seven thousand years. From Neolithic ceramics to archaic jades and ritual bronzes, the arts of China’s ancient past demonstrate technical sophistication, brilliant craftsmanship, and the frequent implementation of large-scale production methods, especially in objects created for the elite.
Even before the widespread use of metal implements, Neolithic cultures in China produced fine pottery and carved jades, the most elaborate of which were buried in the graves of important personages. A belief in the afterlife and in the ability of deceased forebears to exert influence over life in the present world led to the practice of ancestor worship, especially among those in power in Bronze Age China. To appease ancestral spirits, ritual offerings of food and wine were presented in highly decorated bronze vessels; these vessels were later interred in their owners’ tombs, along with numerous other grave goods designed for use in the afterlife. The demand for bronze vessels reached its peak during the Shang (c. 1600–c. 1050 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1050–256 BCE) dynasties. Jades used for either ritual or ornamental purposes were buried with the dead from the late Neolithic period (c. 5000–c. 2000 BCE) to the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The creation of these intricate objects required the control of vast quantities of raw materials and skilled labor—something possible only for the ruling class. Bronzes and other tomb objects required for religious rites thus came to symbolize the power of the elite.
Designed as ritual objects, the works in this gallery are now appreciated both for their aesthetic qualities and for what they reveal about China’s illustrious past, as it evolved from a series of Neolithic settlements to clusters of powerful kingdoms, and eventually to a unified empire.