Compiled by Robert J. Baran

Unusual Forms
Holder of Worlds

YANGSHAO (after 6000 B.C.E.

        From seven or eight thousand years ago and crafted in fishing settlements along the southern coast of what is today mainland China comes the earliest pottery currently known to us from there.  Bowls and large-globular jars were made from a thick gritty clay.  Ceramic imitation of other media is to be seen from the beginning.  A merely polished half-gourd may lie behind the hemispherical pots of the neolithic.
        Beautifully painted red earthenware pottery, some later pieces showing clear evidence of having been turned on the potter's wheel, was made by this Yangshao [Yang-hsiao] culture.  Two types of hemispherical bowls made in several standardized sizes were among the varied forms produced: the thin-walled, deeper bo basin with a straight mouth and the wider, flatter and sometimes footed pen bowl [aka pan or p'an or p'un]. 1

Basin with human head and fish designs
Red earthenware basin with black pigment human head and fish designs.  39.5 cm (15.55 in.) D ; 15.5 cm (6.1 in.) H.
Neolithic period, late 6th-5th millenium B.C.E., Banpo type.  Unearthed in 1955 just east of Xian.
(Source: Lee, Sherman  China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 114)
Earthenware basin with painted decoration.  27.9 cm (10.98 in.) D.
Neolithic period, c. 3200-2700 B.C.E.   Majiayao Yangshao culture, Majiayao phase (west-northwest of Xian).
(Source: Valenstein, Suzanne G.  A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics (NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1975, 1989), B&w Fig. 4 and pg. 6)

Dish of black earthenware, pen, on high foot,
excavated [and reassembled from fragments] at Weifang, Shandong Province (about 600 miles northeast of Xian).  3rd or early 2nd millennium B.C.E., Longshan neolithic period.
18.7 cm (7.4 in.) H ; 43.8 cm (17.2 in.) D.
People's Republic of China (Courtesy Robert Harding Associates)
(Source: Watson, William  Pre-Tang Ceramics of China, Chinese Pottery from 4000 BC to 600 AD (London: Faber and Faber Limited; 1991), Plate 28, pg. 69)

Grey and burnished black earthenware, Longshan middle phase, Jiao-xian, Shandong (about 640 miles northeast of Xian). 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC.
(Source: Watson, William  Ceramics, Fig. 9e, pg. 55)
Grey and burnished black earthenware, Longshan late phase, Jiao-xian Sanlihe, Shandong. 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC.
(Source: Watson, William  Ceramics, Fig. 9d, pg. 55)

Pottery Prototype
Early Shang
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SHANG (16th - 11th cent. B.C.E.)

        The Bronze Age contained the Shang and Zhou dynasties.  The former, primarily in modern day Henan, Hebei and Shandong provinces, is the first completely scientifically verifiable Chinese dynasty, alternately dated 1766-1122 B.C.E.  (The earliest dated bronze object in China, however, a knife cast from a mold found in Gansu Province -- to the west and northwest of Xian -- is from about 3000 B.C.E..  It is believed that the high temperatures of the Neolithic kilns used to fire pottery were hot enough to melt metals from stone.  Pottery kilns found near Xian could maintain temperatures at 1400°C as early as the 6th millennium B.C.E., more than enough to melt copper.  For this reason, scholars believe Chinese artisans were able to develop bronze without the influence of other cultures.)
        Now, with the production of bronze -- an alloy of copper and tin, or copper and certain other metals -- life took on more sophistication.   Tin-copper bronzes were 14 to 20% tin; tin-copper-lead bronzes were 1 to 18% lead; copper-lead bronzes could be 30% or more lead. These latter seem to be more prominent in burial caches: perhaps cheaper lead was substituted for tin in bronzes, whether weapons or vessels, destined merely to be buried.  (In the course of time many of these bronzes -- originally somewhat shiny, moderate yellowish-brown -- have acquired a beautiful patina, much valued by connoisseurs, which ranges from malachite green and kingfisher blue to yellow or even red, according to the composition of the metal and the conditions under which the vessel was buried.  The bronze may have come into contact with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide gas, sulfides, salts and microbes in the soil.  Long-term chemical and biological reactions, along with foreign elements penetrating into the metal alloy, can easily cause corrosion.  Forgers have gone to enormous trouble to imitate these effects.  Copies can sometimes be discovered by metallurgical analysis which shows an uncharacteristic blend of metals for the claimed period of origin.)
        Bronze shapes were often originally derived from older pottery forms, and then the form and ornamentation of later superior ceramic wares became derived from those ritual and utilitarian bronze vessels which were their contemporaries.  It is quite possible that the kilns used for bronze production were sometimes simultaneously employed for hard-firing ceramics, if for no other reason than the best use of the supply of fuel wood.  The Shang pottery industry was highly advanced; they could easily reach the high sustained temperatures that made smelting and casting relatively easy.  (Also, many centuries later in post-Han times, a notable effort would be made to reproduce the detail of ornate bronze basins in the new green celadon ware, one of whose attractions was its resemblance to the patinated surface of bronzes recovered from ancient tombs or preserved in palace treasuries.  Other pottery vessels from the Han dynasty were lead-glazed in green or brown, both of these colors giving a fair imitation of patinated bronzes as well.)
        Bronze vessels made possible more civilized ways and means of preparing food, and laid the foundation for an elaborate system of etiquette and ceremonial rituals.  These became an important part of life for the ancient Shang rulers and aristocracy.  This metal was held in higher esteem than gold or silver.  All the known major weapons had their cutting or piercing parts made of bronze, and this gave the Shang superiority over neighboring kingdoms.  Not surprisingly, the mining of metals and the casting of molten bronze were industries tightly controlled by the Shang rulers.  It was not widely used for agricultural implements.  Bronze vessels and weapons were among the symbolic gifts bestowed upon a royal relative sent by the king to his own land to establish his own town and political domain.  When the provincial lineages became further segmented, the bronzes were again a part of the gifts handed down the aristocratic line.  They were both associated with rituals for ancestor worship and, as objects of precious materials that could only be acquired by those in control of vast technological and political machinery, they were suitable as symbols for sumptuary rule.
          The large-scale production of such technologically sophisticated bronzes must have required multistage operations by many kinds of specialists, who must have been organized and supervised by the state.  The production of bronze -- from mining, ingot smelting, transportation to foundries and workshops, guarding of the transportation routes, creation of the ceramic section-molds for casting, etc. -- depended on the presence of a stratified social order with sufficient organization and force to generate and replenish the required reservoir of forced labor.  Bronze products, hence, assumed the role of symbols of that order and then came to reinforce it.
        These ritual bronzes, acting as a kind of "collection plate," were made for the offerings of food and wine to ancestral spirits which formed the core of the sacrificial rites.  Symbolizing the legitimacy of the aristocratic rule of chosen groups of kin, the bronzes were then buried with nobles, whose spirits were assumed to continue with the same sort of rituals after death.  (Some scholars believe the latter Shang rulers were weakened by the use of high-lead-content bronze drinking and cooking vessels.)
         Pen basins attributable to the Shang dynasty are rare, and they appear to belong to the end of the dynasty, specially reserved for the use of the royal family.  The ring foot, a major advance in casting technology, was used to ensure that the core and the outer mould were aligned properly.  2

Above 12.3 cm (4.8 in.) H ; 32.4 cm (12.75 in.) W ; 5.3 kg (2.4 lb.).  Shang (Late Anyang, 12th - 11th cent. B.C.E.)
(Source: Pope, John Alexander et al  The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Vol. I Catalogue   (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Publication 4706; 1967), Plate 3, pp. 34-35.)

Below  Same Piece?  12.1 cm (4.76 in.) H ; 32.5 cm (12.8 in.) W.  12th to 11th cent. B.C.E.
(Source: China's Buried Kingdoms (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books; 1993) pg. 35 with color photo and Picture Credit on pg. 160.  "Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 56.26)

Ancient Chinese bronze pen

Pan with dragon-and-fish design
Pen with dragon-and-fish design.  16.3 cm (6.4 in.) H ; 43.2 cm (17.0 in.) W.  Late Shang dynasty (13-11th century B.C.E.)
(Source: Fong, Wen C. and James C.Y. Watt  Possessing the Past, Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Tapei  (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Taipei: National Palace Museum; 1996), Plate 47, pg. 83.

Pan with coiling dragon design
Pen with coiling dragon design whose three-dimensional head rises most convincingly from its two-dimensional snake-like body.  61.6 cm (24.25 in.) D ; 26 cm (10.24 in.) H.
Unearthed in 1984 Wenling, Zhejiang Province (about 840 miles southeast of Xian, near the South China Sea).
Shang Period (c. 1600-1100 B.C.E.)
(Source: Lee, Sherman  China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 29, also pg. 78)

Late Shang
Early Zhou
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ZHOU (late 11th cent. - 221 B.C.E.)

        During these first centuries of the historical age, there was actually no such people as "the Chinese."  There were instead several kinds of kindred stock and common culture loosely united in a political and religious federation.  There were also other states, apparently of equal culture and certainly not of very different race, which were outside this federation.  Each of these peoples/states were groups of related tribes.
        The first known Chinese dictionary was produced around 1100 B.C.E.   The three-radical character pen was listed as a shallow basin or large, flat, low-rimmed bowl.
        For perhaps a century after the Zhou conquest, the Shang bronze style survived, particularly in the Luoyang region of northern Henan province.  It became increasingly modified by the taste of the Zhou court.  Gradually, once popular Shang shapes disappeared, the range of wine vessels decreased, and religious overtones vanished.  The bronze vessels -- now about FIFTY types -- generally have thinner walls compared to the Shang versions.  The pen water bowl became more common.  It was used for ablutions or, possibly, even to hold fruit.  A frequent scheme of decoration on the early pen consists of a fish and a large serpentine dragon coiled in the center of the bowl.  Both of these are appropriate to a water holder and this motif appears to have persisted into the eighth or early seventh century B.C.E.  Early Zhou pen also have loop handles.  In the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. they have three small feet below the foot-rim.  Both foot-rim and tripod pen were made in the south beginning  about 500 B.C.E., and are often decorated with the fully modelled dragons which were then fashionable for the best bronzes.
        The inscriptions were markedly longer than those of the late Shang and had become veritable documents.  One particular pen bowl -- part of the 103-piece Zhuangbai hoard made up of three-quarters inscribed bronzes -- records events relating to the first kings of the Western Zhou dynasty and the history of the Wei family.  The basin with an inscription of 284 characters was uncovered in 1976 in Shaanxi Province.  The maker of this vessel, who may have been court historian to the seventh Zhou king, names the first six kings in order and praises each for his notable deeds.  He then traces his own descent from a Shang vassal state.

A pen (right of center) in Storage Pit No. 1 at Zhuangbo, near Fufeng (about 60 miles west of Xian), unearthed in 1976.  The pit contained a total of 103 bronzes, of which 74 were inscribed; many bear what seems to be the clan sign of a single family.  The bronzes from the pit span virtually the entire Western Zhou period, so that some of them were heirlooms already centuries old when they were interred.  The contents of this one hoard would probably suffice to write the history of the Western Zhou bronze vessels.
(Source: The Great Bronze Age of China,  B&w Fig. 78, pp. 242, 241)
Shi Qiang pan, Western Zhou dynasty. 16.8 cm (6.6 in.) H ; 47.2 cm (18.6 in.) D ; 12.5kg (27.6 lb.).
It was cast sometime during the reign of King Gong of Zhou (r. 917/15 to 900 B.C.E.)
for a member of the Wei clan whose name was Qiáng.
It is inscribed with a text that has been described as "the first conscious attempt in China to write history."
Unearthed 1976 in Fufeng County, Zhuangbai Village. Found in the 1st hoard,
now located in the Baoji Bronze Ware Museum.
In 2002 it was listed as one of sixty-four cultural relics prohibited from leaving Chinese soil.
(Source:, accessed 07/22/17.
Image by Yōu líng Bā ní (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons,

        Of the works added to the imperial collection during the Chia-ch'ing period (1796-1820) (see bottom of next page), the San Pan bronze basin dating to the late Western Zhou period is the most valuable.  Inside the vessel is an inscription of over three hundred characters that records a contract between the states of San and Che to settle a territorial dispute.  Excavated during the K'ang-his period (1662-1722), the San Pan basin was in the collections of several families in the Chiang-nan region (what is now South Jiangsu Province).  In 1809, when the Chia-ch'ing emperor was celebrating his fiftieth birthday, he declared that precious objects were unacceptable as gifts but that paintings and calligraphy were permissible.  With that allowance, the salt distribution commissioner O Le-pu presented the San Pan basin, explaining that it was an example of late Western Zhou calligraphy.

Late Western Zhou period (1046-771 B.C.E.) 20.6 cm (8.1 in.) H ; 54.6 cm (21.5 in.) D ; depth of belly: 9.8 cm (3.9 in.) ; diameter of base: 41.4 cm (16.3 in.) ; 21.312 kg (9.7 lb.).
The body of this bronze vessel is decorated with the k'uei dragon motif, with three animal heads in the center.  The ring foot is decorated with the animal mask motif.  The inscription records an agreement arrived at following a dispute between two states, Ts'e and San.  For the damage that Ts'e wreaked on San, it was ordered to cede two districts of rice fields in compensation.  The official court historian, Chung Nung, was sent by the Zhou king to act as witness to the signing of the treaty.  The treaty inscription on this piece marks it as a very important document and heirloom.
(Source: National Palace Museum,

        Bronzes of this period tended to be more coarsely modelled, shapes were heavier, flanges large and spiky, the vessels more treasured by later Chinese connoisseurs for their inscriptions than for any beauty of form.  No other age or culture has ever equalled the craftsmanship and artistry of the finest Zhou bronzes.  Given the probable absolute increase in the number of metal vessels being put into circulation, bronzes of this period have to shout to be noticed; they have to be exceptionally large, or else they have to resort to devices such as inlay with copper, gold, or silver wire and other precious materials, since the meaning of bronze itself has undergone a transformation.  Bronze, still the major metal of this culture, was now merely one kind of luxury among others, and not, as in the Shang and Western Zhou (late 11th cent. - 770 B.C.E.) periods, as a uniquely privileged bearer of cultural meanings and prestige. 3

17.46 cm (6.87 in.) H ; 53.98 cm (21.25 in.) W ; 53.98 cm (21.25 in.") D.
Bronze Ritual Water Vessel from Middle Zhou.
(Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts,, Accession number: 50.46.82, accessed 04/14/2008.)
15.0 cm (5.9 in.) H ; 42.3 (16.65 in.) cm W ; 5.19 kg (2.36 lb.).  Eastern Zhou (7th cent. B.C.E.)
(Source: Pope, John Alexander et al  The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Vol. I Catalogue   (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Publication 4706; 1967), Plate 82, pp. 448-449.)

14.2 cm (5.59 in.) H ; 34.5 cm (13.58 in.) D.  Chunqiu period (Spring and Autumn Annals, 770 - 476 B.C.E.)
(Source: Akiyama, Terukazu et al  Arts of China, Neolithic Cultures to the T'ang Dynasty Recent Discoveries (Tokyo: Kodansha International; 1968), Fig. 62 a,b, pg. 44)

7.6 cm (2.99 in.) H ; 25.7 cm (10.12 in.) W.  "Chinese Spring Autumn Bronze Dragon Plate 500 BC"  Gilt bronze with very fine carving and dragon motif.  Provenance: It was displayed in a Swiss museum for around 30 years before being disaccensioned to a Swiss Private Collection.
(Source: eBay, HRTM, Item number: 160136495272, accessed 07/16/2007.)

The earliest known ceramic pen our researches have uncovered!
9.8 cm (3.87 in.) H ; 43.8 cm (17.25 in.) W ; 44.9 cm (17.67 in.) D.  Spring and Autumn or Warring States Period Tripod Basin.  High-fired stoneware with incised designs under a light yellow-green glaze. This shallow round basin is hand-built from clay coils and is very heavily potted. The vessel closely follows the shape of bronze tripod water basins of the Eastern Zhou period. The outside has three animal masks holding loose rings similar to the bronze vessels it imitates. The broad rim and exterior are decorated with stamped spiral designs also in vague imitation of late Zhou bronze decoration.
(Source: Minneapolis Institute of Arts,, Accession number: 2000.145.3, accessed 04/14/2008.)

Basin of dappled greyish celadon, with a pair of incised fish (a wish for progeny). On the side is ornament of impressed trellis and mask-cum-ring.
This, and deeper bowls with similar decoration, much varied in shape within narrow limits, were the product of the new celadon kilns of the South-east zone, where they represent the archaizing taste that presided over this first venture in widely marketed hard pottery.
Proto-Yue ware. 3rd century AD. Western Jin period.  33.1 cm (13 in.) D.
The Percival Foundation of Chinese Art (Courtesy of the Foundation)
(Source: Watson, Ceramics, Plate 93, pg. 140, and pg. 184)
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Unusual Forms
Holder of Worlds

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