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Chinese Shang & Zhou Dynasties (1766-256 BCE)
Bi [ritual disk] with Seed Pattern.
15th-10th c BCE Chinese Shang Sculpture
SHANG DYNASTY Anonymous
(1527 BCE - 1027 BCE)
c. 1500 BCE-1000 BCE
15th-10th c BCE
Institute for Aesthetic Development. Brentwood CA.
College courses on Chinese Art usually begin with the Shang and Chou Dynasties of the Bronze Age which started about 3500 years ago. But the roots of those bronze forms and symbols are in the jade sculpture of the kind on display here. Most of them are from two neolithic cultures. The figurative pieces are from the Hongshan society in the north near the boarder of what is now Mongolia. Their chronology is still being established but they seem to have flourished from about 3500 BCE to about 2000 BCE. There are no documents to explain what these shapes mean. They lived long before writing but the shapes themselves say a great deal. Most if not all these pieces have shamanic associations. In the tribal world of Stone Age people it is common to depict combinatory beings who dwell in many dimensions not just one. For example we have here a “cat-man” who part man and part cat. The geometric pieces are from the Liangzhu society west of what is now Shanghai. They seem to have flourished between about 5000 BCE and 2500 BCE. The two most important of these sacred geometric shapes were designed to be buried with the bodies of the departed. This burial ritual continued through the Bronze Age. The flat circular discs called “bi” (formerly “pi”) were placed under and on top of the bodies. At first they were undecorated. Then they became richly decorated with various symbols including the mysterious “taotie” monster mask. The “cong” (formerly “t’sung”) is a rectangular shape in the center of which is a smooth circular tube. Seen from above or below the form is that of the mandala the circle-in-a-square which became a core symbol in Taoism- Hinduism and Buddhism. The square represents the material world and the circle represents the spiritual world or “nothingness.” The cong is a vessel that holds nothing or perhaps more accurately it contains “nothingness.” They were placed around the body. At first these ritual objects also were undecorated but became richly decorated with symbolic shapes and faces. Modern scholars are unsure of the meaning of these objects. However the surviving esoteric Taoist tradition explains that the “nothingness” at the center of the bi and the cong is the path that spirit takes from the earthly world to the heavenly world. The cong were made in many sizes apparently depending on the wealth of the deceased. Those on display here represent the known range of sizes from the tiny to the monumental. They are all made of sacred jade. Research on the exact dates for all of the Early Chinese pieces in this exhibition are an ongoing curatorial process.
|15th c BCE-10th c BCE| Chinese | Shang | ©CSU East Bay Art Gallery
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