One look at the Yayi jia ritual wine vessel and it is already apparent that such an object is more inclined for use by the upper class of Chinese society. The reasoning behind such a statement is due to the relatively large size of the object (roughly the same proportions as a man’s chest) and that it was made of solid bronze.
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Considering that the working class of Chinese society focused more on practicality and functionality rather than ostentatious displays of wealth for mere decoration, it is more than likely that the Yayi jia belonged to a rich household1. For example, in the painting “Life along the River” by Zhang Zeduan and the animated version created for the 2010 Shanghai Expo in China, the lives of everyday people in Chinese society can be seen with various depictions of people drinking and enjoying themselves2.
In no instance throughout the entire painting, which is one of the most acclaimed vessels of Chinese artwork in the world, is the Yayi jia ritual wine vessel seen. When people were depicted as eating and drinking, their jar of choice seemed to closer to that of the amphorae of ancient Greece rather than the large and hugely elaborate Yayi jia.
This is further proof that the item was most likely used as a means of depicting wealth and was utilized primarily as a household decoration or during funerals since its size makes it impractical as a method of actually serving everyday liquids that people would drink. The association of luxury goods with wealth and prestige is actually nothing new and is seen throughout many examples within past and present day Chinese society3.
Utilizing impractical objects as a method of showing off wealth and prestige is seen in many cultures and, as such, it is not surprising to see such an example exemplified in historic Chinese society. It is based on this example that I have come to the conclusion that historical Chinese society is dominated by the influence of popular culture (in this case showing wealth and prestige) with many believing that in order to fit in or be popular there is a distinct need to look the part.
This particular assumption is exemplified by the Yayi jia ritual wine vessel since it is an impractical method of serving drinks. The trend in purchasing luxury goods to look the part is a practice that is unlikely to be going away anytime soon. Up till today, such a practice continues to be prevalent within China.
After doing a brief skim through various articles on Chinese history and culture, I have come to the conclusion that one of the belief systems within China during the time of the Shang dynasty when the Yayi jia was created was that people who look the part and act the part were more likely to be given more opportunities than a person who chooses to base their look on what they perceive as an adequate dress code for their social and financial class4.
The ostentatious nature of the Yayi jia is meant as a method of showing that a family is wealthy enough that they can afford to waste money on useless depictions of wealth. This creates an impression on visitors which results in greater levels of prestige which, more likely than not, would create more opportunities for them in the future.
It is due to reasons such as this that luxury brands and external trappings of wealth within various cultures around the world from thousands of years in the past till the present have continued to thrive the way they do. They represent an aspect of society that people want to attain in order to show success and be judged as being successful.
While this may indicate that human society itself has a streak of vanity, this is not far from the truth when taking into account the fact that throughout history, the classes of society have been distinguished not by accomplishments but rather by their appearance wherein the peasantry, the middle class and the upper class itself have been distinguished by the manner in which they dressed or what sort of possessions they had within their home.
Fully Identify the Object
The Yayi jia is a ritual wine vessel that was made sometime during the Shang dynasty in China (roughly during 1600 – 1050 BCE). Its overall size is roughly the same as that of a man’s chest and its original purpose was as a type wine vessel that was used during ritual ceremonies at the time. This can be related to funeral practices, celebrations and other such events that include the consumption of alcohol.
The surface of the vessel is covered in motifs that have been etched into the oxidized metallic surface and have long since faded away. Overall, the artefact itself is quite interesting and says a lot about the practices and rituals that took place within China during this particular period of time.
What is impressive about this wine vessel is that despite the base which seems out of balance and fragile, the entire artefact actually stays steady. On the other hand, it cannot be stated that there is balance in the creation of the work since the shapes on the surface seem to be haphazardly added here and there along with hard geometric lines. Such a distinction though may just be due to time removing the original details of the vessel itself.
When first examining art, one must take into account each art’s inherent theme and message in order to understand the stylistic justifications that went into the usage of colour, shapes, contours and lines in the art itself.
While the metal work itself is far from the quality of the old masters of Ming dynasty art work, it does bring out a certain emotional response as the dragon head motif on the handle is probably meant to connote some sort of awe since dragon symbols were permitted by use on personal belongings only by important members of Chinese society at the time.
The vessel itself was most likely painted or emphasized in some way as it can be seen through the use of relatively thin lines, its slightly open composition in terms of the scarcity within the work and its emphasis on the accurate usage of lighting in the vessel itself. This means that it was either minimalist in design or had some form of outer decoration that wore away over time.
The entire bronze sculpture seems to exude a feeling of artifice wherein through its use of curving straight lines any form of actual emotional connection established with viewers is lost. The art work feels too “modern” (i.e. it lacks any of the beauty seen in Ming dynasty vases) and too “artificial” in the sense that it has lost its artistry by trying to appeal to too many audiences (the overall appearance does not seem all that unique).
While there are various colours utilized in the work (though this could just be the result of age affecting the vessel over time resulting in a distortion of its overall appearance), they feel flat, dead and lack any form of actual liveliness. While it may be true that the work itself may have been created through some use of bronze working, this just further emphasizes its divergence from other types of Chinese art that I am used to that usually portray a sense of delicateness to the vessel.
In fact, in terms of the overall balance and texture of the vessel it just seems too “clean” in the sense that it feels far too planned out, that the realism that can be captured in the moment is not there at all.
While it may be true that its utilization of space and contours is efficient, therein lies the problem wherein the wine vessel seems too “perfect” in the sense that it lacks any divergent emotion from the artist and merely looks like a vessel that can be created within a few hours by a bronze worker.
While there are many interpretations of what can be called “art”, the fact remains that I know what I like and this bronze work diverges from everything that I would actually call “likable” art. On the other hand, from a more positive perspective the use of light and shadows lends the bronze work a surreal realistic quality wherein the dragon head handle seems almost lifelike.
This is surprising when taking into consideration the rather minimalist perspective the bronze worker utilizes wherein the surface of the wine vessel is nothing more than a series of striated and curved lines that have faded over time.
The most striking and realistic feature is the face of the dragon on the handle where the use of lines, slightly raised ears and the use of a distinct curve to emphasize a mouth on the left most portion of the handle while emphasizing the ears on the top side creates an almost lifelike like realistic effect where the subject within seems to have been paused momentarily in a stitch in time.
In fact, when examining the rest of the wine vessel it can be see that the most painstaking detail applied to it was concentrated on the surface with the rest of the subject’s body being akin to a sparse outline.
This particular facet of the work itself could be considered purposeful on the part of the artist as he attempts to concentrate the perception of the viewer directly on the face of wine vessel and bring about the fanciful introspection of wondering what the various symbols on the jar mean and, as a result, causes the viewer to come closer to the object for a better look.
Overall, the use of lines in this particular vessel is dominated by either thin line outlines as seen in a majority of the work or faded curled lines utilized to create some effect that has long since faded. The one dominating colour in this artwork is the colour green as seen directly in the middle of the work which is evidence of considerable levels of oxidation which lends credence to the authenticity of the vessel.
Aspects of Civilization and Cultural Development
Just by viewing the Yayi jia itself, it becomes obvious that it represents not only the advanced nature of the field of bronze metalwork during this particular time period within ancient Chinese civilization but it also represents how important iconography was to the ancient Chinese people since the vessel itself is rife with various faded icons that used to cover its surface.
Influence of Previous Civilizations
It must be noted that the Yayi jia is not unique in the sense that it is the only example of its kind, such an assumption is fallacious since that the iconography of the Yayi jia (i.e. the dragon head motif) was featured prominently in various other artwork from ancient China hundreds of years before its creation.
Rather, a far more accurate statement would be that the Yayi jia from the Shang dynasty is merely one of the largest and most well known example of its kind (i.e. a ritual wine vessel) and is a representation of hundreds of years of ancient Chinese tradition in which the dragon was known as a guardian of tombs, temples and a representation of an aspect of their society.
Related to Artwork within the Same Civilization
It is quite interesting to note that the Yayi jia has several stylistic elements which were quite prominent within this particular period of ancient Chinese civilization. For instance, the same dragon theme often was utilized on a variety of dragon statues on temples.
In the case of the Yayi jia, it can be stated that the overall shape of the body is somewhat dragon like in nature with the tripod like formation at the bottom looking almost like legs. In fact, it can even be said that the Yayi jia is nothing more than an older and smaller version of its counterparts seen in a variety of ancient Chinese tombs and temples.
My Thoughts on the Work
Art is completely subject to interpretation however in this particular case I would have to say that in my opinion, while the bronze sculpture does look overly intricate, it lacks a sufficient “pull” so to speak in that it does not capture the attention as much as other vessels within the area.
While it is interesting to look at, the use of rusted colours of the sculpture actually makes it rather forgettable since it makes itself seem rather subdued and not eye-catching or memorable. Further examination of the vessel reveals that the sterile green colour of the sculpture and the use of geometric shapes with a hardness and sharpness not found in nature is in fact intentional which gives it a nice contrast to the overly natural shapes in the background.
In terms of its impact on me, I would have to say that I was not significantly affected in the least due to the fact that the sculpture seems overly subdued when it could have had a greater impact if the colour was different instead of the rust colour it had.
As such, while the work is being featured by a museum, I would still say that it lacks the necessary impact necessary to continue to attract visitors, however, art is completely subject to interpretation with others having a different interpretation of the sculpture itself. I do have to admit though that its vivid nature and the way it stood in stark contrast to its surrounding environment makes one think of the nature of man and how he stands in contrast to nature.
While I do not disparage the work of the artist, it definitely seems subdued and less eye-catching as compared to the various examples of Ming Dynasty art that I have seen. It is based on my impression of the vessel that I definitely agree that it belongs in a museum and that its worth as a vessel of art is in its ability to create a deep contrast between the artificial nature of humanity and the shapes of the natural world.
How does your object fit into a broad historical context?
An examination of the work of various Chinese sculptures during the Shang dynasty reveals a continuing theme in most of the metal work which often incorporates unique animal forms. These forms are usually skeletal in appearance yet when hit with the light at a certain angle they show a unique representation of an animal from China’s natural environment or mythologies.
From a broad historical context, the vessel actually represents the excesses of the Chinese upper class at the time since the ostentatious nature of the wine vessel far outpaces its overall level of practicality since it is far too big and heavy to act as a conventional drinking receptacle.
Illustration of Object
Example of Yayi jia ritual wine vessel as seen in Mysteries of Ancient China5
Childs-Johnson, Elizabeth. The Meaning of the Graph YI and its Implications for Shang Belief and Art. London: Saffron Books, 2008.
Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Ledderose, Lothar. Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Rawson, Jessica. Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties. New York: Braziller, 1996.
1 Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, The Meaning of the Graph Yi and its Implications for Shang Belief and Art (London: Saffron Books, 2008), 33
2 Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook (New York: Free Press, 1993), 11
3 Jessica Rawson, Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties (New York: Braziller, 1996), 5-6
4 Lothar Ledderose, Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 1-4
5 Jessica Rawson, Mysteries of Ancient China: New Discoveries from the Early Dynasties (New York: Braziller, 1996), 5-6