Teaching about Chinese Bronzes

As the semester is winding down, our academic readers are no doubt very busy doing their work. If you would like to do my work, however, we have something of a tradition here of posting our syllabi and asking for advice from older and wiser heads.

This is a rough syllabus for a class segment to be called “A Gu indeed” which I will be teaching in the Spring. This is ½ of an Honors college thing for freshmen and this is for the segment on Art. I am supposed to be looking at art like a historian would. I chose to do bronzes and this is the reading list. I tried to cover all of the major ways you can get meaning out of old bronzes. Any tips on what to add, subtract, or substitute are very welcome. These are supposed to be smart kids, but not history majors, so I am using some fairly high-level stuff and counting on them to be able to deal with chapters pulled out of books.

1 Introduction

Background Just enough Chinese history to be dangerous.

-Lu Liancheng and Yan Wenming “Society during the Three Dynasties” from Kwang-chih Chang et. al. The Formation of Chinese Civilization: An Archeological Perspective Yale, 2005
-Wyatt, James “The Bronze Age and the First Empires” From Wen Fong, et. al. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum. Taipei 1996

Art and Authority
4,5 Chang, K. C. Art, Myth and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China. Harvard University Press, 1988. (A bit of a golden oldie, but I want them to read a book and this one brings in a lot of different themes. Plus it is more or less before all the recent changes, so if we want to look at the development of the historiography this is good.)

6 ”The Shang Kings at Anyang” from Thorp, Robert L. China in the Early Bronze Age: Shang Civilization. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. (More recent than Chang, and has more history of archeology)

How they (Ancient Chinese) understood Bronzes

7-Keightley, David “The Science of the Ancestors: Divination, Curing and Bronze-Casting in Late Shang China”
-Selections from the Book of Songs. Maybe something from Lewis’s Sanctioned Violence

8-Rites and music
-Xunzi 19 & 10 and Lu Buwei (transitioning into the end of the bronze age and other ways to interact with heaven)

9 -Puett, Michael “Humans and Gods: The Theme of Self-Divination in Early China and Early Greece” From Ancient China Early Greece
-“The Natural Philosophy of Writing” from Lewis, Mark Edward. Writing and Authority in Early China. SUNY Press, 2007.

Bronzes as art
10 Allen vs. Bagley (Sets up the major debates on how to look at these things)
-Sarah Allan “Art and Meaning” and Robert Bagley “Meaning and Explanation” both from Whitfield, Roderick. The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993.

11 Taotie .(a specific question on getting meaning out of bronzes )
-Li, Rawson, Xiong and Wang, all from Whitfield, Roderick. The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993
– Kesner, Ladislav. “The Taotie Reconsidered: Meanings and Functions of the Shang Theriomorphic Imagery.” Artibus Asiae 51, no. 1/2 (1991): 29-53.

12 Wu Hung “The Nine Tripods and Traditional Chinese Concepts of Monumentality” from Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture. Stanford University Press, 1997. (Cause you can’t do a class like this without some Chicago stuff)

13 Picture day. Slide lecture on bronzes and how to classify them (Not sure if this should be moved up, but I like the idea of doing it now when they will have some clue what is going on. I may just split them into groups and have them come up with presentations.)

Bronzes as technology
14-Li Liu “The Products of Minds as Well as of Hands”: Production of Prestige Goods in the Neolithic and Early State Periods of China
-“Casting Bronze the Complicated Way” Ledderose, Lothar. Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton University Press, 2001.

How bronzes show social change

15,16 Stuff from -Falkenhausen, Lothar Von. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (Monumenta Archaeologica). Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2006.
-Rawson from CHAC (Ritual Revolution and the debates about it)

17 “The Household” from Lewis, Mark Edward. The Construction of Space in Early China. State University of New York Press, 2006.

18 “Things of the past” from Clunas, Craig. Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. University of Hawaii Press, 2004. (A ncie bit on how Chinese collectors understood these things. Could use something on modern collectors)


  1. Well, you’re way beyond my level of expertise, clearly, so the only thing I’ll say is that there is a wonderful thread running through Hessler’s Oracle Bones in which he investigates the fate of a famous bronze scholar during the Cultural revolution, in the process of which he interviews Keightley, among others. It could bring the discussion up to the present, and put the historiography in an interesting light, or it might be a distraction. Anyway, looks like some really solid stuff.

  2. I wish I could have taken this unit C. However, since HC kids are supposed to read pretty often, you may want to give some more Chinese history background, especially on theoretical stuff, like the importance of ritual, mandate of heaven, etc. HC kids, in general, know nothing more about Chinese history than what they see in video games. Since, from my experience, the class is supposed to be more discussion than anything else, teaching this background stuff through reading would leave more time for meaningful discussion (where people have a vague idea what they are talking about) and less time for lecture.

    And whatever you do, steer clear of the “what is considered art?” question; all the HC kids liked to argue about it, and they were the most counterproductive discussions I ever witnessed.

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