Chinese weapons of Bronze Age on display
About 100 ancient Chinese weapons will be on display at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence from tomorrow (March 17) until September 20 to give visitors an insight into the military tactics, art and cultural beliefs of pre-Han China, and the development of the Chinese writing system.
The exhibition, "Ancient Chinese Weapons", featuring the drama and beauty of China's bronze age, shows a variety of ancient weapons that were not only implements of armed struggle, but also props for ritual sacrifices to the ancestors, badges of rank, works of art, displays of conspicuous luxury and tools of everyday life.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition today (March 16), the Deputy Director of Leisure and Cultural Services (Culture), Mr Chung Ling-hoi, expressed his gratitude to Mr Stephen Selby, the honourable adviser to the Hong Kong Museum of History, for loaning 80 ancient Chinese bronze weapons for the exhibition, enabling visitors to better understand the military tactics, culture, art and living of the Han Chinese and their surrounding minorities from a fresh point of view.
"Bronze is an artistic craft used very early in ancient China. Finely made and in vast variety, bronze was treasured. Among the many bronze products, weapons have an important position.
"The earliest bronze product found in China is a knife unearthed in the Majiayao archaeological site, Gansu province. Four thousand years ago in the Xia period (2070-1600BC), the technology used for bronze production became sophisticated and reached its peak in the Shang period (c. 16th century-11th century BC). Bronze weapons included dragger axes, spears, axes, knives and arrowheads. The technology at that time was more advanced and decorations were more beautiful. Some of the weapons even carried inscriptions. Later in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), weapons made a rapid development due to frequent wars," said Mr Chung.
From the mid-Neolithic period (c. 4,000 BC-2,500 BC), stone and bone were used to make weapons and the invention of new materials did not stop their use. Bronze was so rare and valuable that it could only be used to make the best weapons for noble warriors during that period.
In the Shang period, meteoric bronze was used to make the blades of some weapons. But melted iron only appeared towards the end of the Western Zhou period (c. 1040-771 BC). Over the course of the following 1,000 years, technological advances led to the production of steel, allowing weapons to be made longer and stronger. During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD220), the use of bronze to make weapons (other than crossbow mechanisms) died out. A secret bronze formula continued to be used for crossbow mechanisms because it did not rust like iron.
"Weapons" are usually considered as instruments of war, but in ancient China they had much wider significance. Ancient China witnessed many wars, with the victorious sides establishing new kingdoms. Weapons therefore became symbols of power and authority. In court rituals, nobles held weapons as symbols of their rank, and when they died, weapons were buried with them.
Some court rituals and dances required weapons to be used by those who took part. In the Shang period, great bronze or jade axes were used for ritual human and animal sacrifices. In Western Zhou times, there was a court dance in which the dancers held bows and arrows.
In the Early Eastern Zhou period (770-256 BC), metal ingots were transported in the shape of knives or other tools. In this way, weapons started to relate to the abstract concept of money. Some of the earliest examples of Chinese bronze money are in the form of knives and other tools.
From the Shang period, early forms of Chinese characters have appeared on weapons. The earliest examples from the Shang dynasty have heraldic emblems, which are thought to indicate the noble clan to which the owner belonged. In the Western Zhou period, clan emblems gave way to the bronze script, and the inscriptions usually indicated the place where weapons had been made. The Spring and Autumn period ushered in the fashion for applying an elaborate "bird script", in which names and inscriptions were hidden within complex strokes suggesting birds or insects.
During the Warring States period (475-221 BC), court officials, fearing that weapons might leak out from royal armouries into the hands of enemy states, decreed that "artisans shall engrave their names" on the weapons. As a result, many weapons carried lengthy inscriptions identifying the year, place and supervisor of their manufacture. The style of writing was that used by common people. While difficult to read, these inscriptions give us a rare insight into the organisation of weapons manufacture in those times.
China has long been a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Among many nationalities, craftsmanship in making weapons equalled and sometimes excelled those of the Han Chinese people. The weapons of many nationalities discovered in Northwest China and Inner Mongolia are often described as "ordos". However, this group of bronze weapons reflects the products of many cultures, including Chersen/Indo-Iranian, Xiongnu/Proto-Mongolian, and Donghu/Proto-Korean. There are also many weapons that cannot be ascribed to any known nationality. Their weapons are the only clues to their society, technology, art and religious beliefs that have come down to us.
Fine weapons made for the nobility of ancient China and its minorities incorporate many conventions and techniques of the art of those times. In the Shang period, political and clan emblems were incorporated in some weapons, such as the dragon, sun, animal mask and royal bird designs. Other heraldic designs denoting branches of the royal family and clan members were also common. The Shang practice of placing designs on the hefting flange of dagger axes was maintained into the Spring and Autumn period. These designs are very abstract, but appear to conform to a convention.
To tie in with the exhibition, a symposium, in Putonghua, entitled "Ancient Chinese Military History and the Thoughts of Sun Zi" will be held tomorrow and Saturday. For details and reservations, please call 2569 1270.
The Museum of Coastal Defence is located at 175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong. It opens from 10am to 5pm and is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and half-price concessions are applicable to full-time students, people with disabilities and senior citizens aged 60 or above. Admission is free on Wednesdays.
For details of the exhibition, please visit the Museum of Coastal Defence's website at http://hk.coastaldefence.museum
/ or call 2569 1500.
Ends/Thursday, March 16, 2006