Zhou Dynasty Art
Types & Characteristics of Zhou Bronze Age Culture.

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Zhou Bronze mirror holder
c.1000 BCE
Hainan Provincial Museum, China.
A wonderful piece of Asian art from
the late Iron Age.

For dates of early art,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For classical antiquity,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For specific movements,
see: History of Art.

Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221 BCE)
History, Types and Characteristics


Zhou Bronzes
Zhou Arts and Crafts
Later Chinese Dynasties

Additional Resources

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic Art in China (c.7500-2000 BCE)
- Xia Dynasty Culture (c.2100-1600 BCE)

Note: For the effect of Zhou culture on Korea, see: Korean Art. For more about the historical context and background to Zhou Dynasty culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).


An important contributor to Chinese art, the Shaanxi-based Zhou Dynasty coexisted with the previous Shang Dynasty for many years before achieving power for itself sometime in the 11th century BCE. Although the Zhou Dynasty endured for longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, its ruling Ji family only retained control until 771 BCE, a period known as the Xi (Western) Zhou. This was followed by the Dong (Eastern) Zhou (c.771–475 BCE), traditionally divided into the Spring and Autumn (Chunqiu) period (771–475), when the country fragmented into a number of small turbulent territories, and the Warring States (Zhanguo) period (475–221 bc) when these small territories merged into seven larger entities, which then contended with one another for domination. The initial Zhou capital was situated near Xian on the Wei River above its confluence with the Yellow River (Huang He), but a second capital was built at Luoyang in the east. The Shang and Zhou eras traditionally comprise the Bronze Age of China, when bronze was used to make weapons, as well as ritual vessels, and played a significant role in the material culture of the time. During this era of Bronze Age art, the Zhou Dynasty maintained much of the ancient art of China - including the bronze casting of ceremonial vessels, and jade carving - and encouraged the growth of new visual arts like goldsmithing and lacquerware, as well as calligraphy and its cousin Chinese painting, nearly all of which has since been lost. Other cultural developments included the introduction of chopsticks, ox-drawn ploughs, large-scale irrigation projects and a program of new roads and waterways. In addition, Chinese writing evolved into its modern form. Later, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, iron appeared, as did the philosophical movements of Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism. Note: For the key principles underlying art in ancient China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.


Zhou Bronzes

Under the Western Zhou (Xi), the quality of bronze casting - which had reached a peak of excellence during the era of Shang Dynasty art - declined, before experiencing a renaissance during the Eastern Zhou (Dongzhou) period. Nonetheless, bronze metallurgy played an important part in the sacred ceremonies of the day.

As before, most bronze vessels were cast for use in temple sacrifices, while some were made as funerary objects for the tomb. (Zhou bronzeworkers also produced a large quantity of weaponry, chariot-fittings, equestrian items, and other utilitarian objects.) The bronze containers used in sacrificial rites varied according to function: vessels used for cooking food, included the "li" (a round vessel with a base supported by 3 legs); the "ding" (a hemispheric-shaped container on 3 legs); the "fangding" (square with four legs); and the "xian" or "yan" (a steamer/tripod). When offering food, the principal vessel was the "gui", a sort of modern-day wok. Bronze wine containers were known collectively by the name "zun". Individual types, as named by later Chinese antiquarians, included the "jue", which was a small 3-legged beaker with a pouring spout in front as well as a side handle, and the "he", with a cylindrical pouring spout; the "gong", which looked like a covered gravy boat; and the trumpet-mouthed "gu".

NOTE: Ceremonial vessels were also made out of fired-clay. Indeed, Chinese pottery remained the world's finest type of ancient pottery for centuries.

The Zhou introduced new decorative motifs, including magnificent long-tailed birds and large angular flanges. In addition, the Zhou greatly expanded the Late Shang practice of adding inscriptions to their ritualistic bronze vessels, indicating the patron, and the ancestor to whom the vessel was dedicated. Up to 400 characters might be used in a single inscription.

Other bronze objects associated with sacrificial rites included bells, of which the oldest type is a small clappered bell called a "ling", but the most famous is the "zhong", a suspended, clapperless type of bell, usually made in sets of eight or more, thus forming a musical scale. The oldest surviving "zhong" was unearthed at Pudu Cun, dating to around 850 BCE.

The bronzes of the Eastern Zhou reveal a noticable upturn in quality and complexity. Often decorated with unusual handles in the form of animal heads, their more elegant forms were frequently adorned with scrolls, spirals, interlaced serpents and other continuous patterns often encircling the whole vessel. Lids and mouths might be embellished with dragons, tigers and other zoomorphic shapes. During the 7th century, the casting process was enhanced by the introduction of the lost wax method of production (cire perdue). From hereon, Zhou bronzes became as increasingly refined as the aesthetics upon which they were based. Excavations at Jincun near Luoyang, for instance, have uncovered bronzes of great elegance and classical restraint, which were not merely functional but beautiful in themselves.

Bronze mirrors - found as early as the 8th century BCE in a tomb at Shangcunling in Henan, but especially popular during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE - were used in not only for toiletry but also as funerary items, in line with the ancient Chinese belief that a mirror was a source of light and could therefore illuminate the darkness of the tomb. Mostly produced at Shouzhou, their decorative designs included quatrefoil petals, zigzag lozenges, scallops, and occasionally animal (dragon and zoomorph) shapes superimposed on a continuous pattern of hooks and spirals. See also: Celtic designs.

In time, ornamentation of bronze objects became increasingly sophisticated and involved inlays of gold, silver, glass, jade, and semiprecious gems, as well as other techniques of goldsmithery.

Zhou Arts and Crafts

The visual art of the Zhou era reflected the diverse mixture of its component states. The arts of the Western Zhou Dynasty were mainly a continuation of Shang art which had flourished during the years 1700 to 1050 BCE , such as bronze metallurgy and bronze sculpture. In addition, a large quantity of Jade ornaments and objects continued to be made for both ritual ceremonies and ornamental purposes. Ceramic art also continued to flourish, and was further extended and refined during the Warring States period and the era of Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE). As the urban and commercial infrastructure improved, architecture became more important, although most Zhou-style buildings have long since disappeared. It was also during the Zhou era that Nail Art first appeared in China.


The same applies to painting, as - apart from a few works on silk - few pictures have survived from the Zhou era. We are left only with written descriptions of works, which featured principally figure painting and portrait art, as well as some historical scenes. Even so, the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) was an important watershed in Chinese art, since it was the first time that Chinese painters began to represent the world around them. Pottery painting and mural painting on tomb walls were two common types of painting, while primitive ink and wash painting was performed on silk.

The closely related art of Chinese writing - known as calligraphy - had first appeared during the Shang era and now blossomed in the Zhou regime, during which its main forms were the jiaguwen (chia-ku-wen) bone-and-shell script, and the jinwen (chin-wen) bronze script. These scripts, named after the materials upon which they were inscribed, remained in fashion until the beginning of Qin Dynasty art in the 3rd century BCE.


Chinese lacquerware (including gold and silver inlays) was also fully developed during the Zhou Dynasty. Lacquer - a very toxic substance that was extracted from the resin or sap of the indigenous species Toxicodendron vernicifluum, commonly known as the Lacquer Tree - was a natural durable coating originally intended as a form of waterproof protection for wood and bamboo, but the process rapidly became a much-prized method of decorating fine objects. The resin was applied in a series of thin layers to produce a glossy finish, and was often mixed with oxides of iron to produced a deep black or a deep rich red, or gold or silver powders for an especially luxurious finish. The work was hazardous, and extremely time-consuming, sometimes costing ten times as much as bronze casting.

For a comparison, see: Japanese Art, and India: Painting & Sculpture.

Later Chinese Dynasties

Later Chinese art and culture is traditionally divided as follows:

- See the Qin-era Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)
- Song Dynasty art (960-1279)
- Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368)
- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

• For more about the visual arts in ancient China, see: Homepage.

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