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 Cast and Chased

The Influence of Ancient Chinese Bronze on Modern Silver



Curated by Dr Florian Knothe

Edited by Dr Florian Knothe and Wei Qing Jasmin Lin

Website designed by Wei Qing Jasmin Lin






Cast and Chased forms part of the University Museum’s UMAG_STArts series on science and technology in the arts, which presents the materials and techniques used to create artwork throughout Chinese cultural history. By juxtaposing early Chinese bronzes from the UMAG collection with silverware made by Wai Kee Jewellers Ltd. (est. 1885) for twentieth-century Hong Kong connoisseur Kwan Sai Tak, this exhibition considers the enduring characteristics of fine Chinese metalwork.

Chinese bronzes of the Shang dynasty (c.1600–1046 BCE) and the Zhou dynasty (c.1046–256 BCE) are among the most celebrated domestic and ritual objects in Asian material culture. The quality of the metal alloys and the technical expertise required for casting and chasing are testament to the highly developed manufacturing techniques. Made from tin-copper alloys with varying concentrations of lead, these objects were created in smelting sites located along the Yellow River in Central China. Many of the utilitarian vessels were decorated with cloud designs, taotie, animal masks and other auspicious symbols.

Celebrated today for their enduring beauty, early Chinese bronzes also include practical objects, such as cooking and storage vessels, which offer insight into both the cultures from which they developed, as well as more contemporary objects. Their ornate splendour and utilitarian features have noticeably influenced the fanciful modern sterling silver pieces, while the craftsmanship emphasises the long-practiced technique of casting and chasing. This level of refined detail exemplifies the quality of Chinese metalworking throughout the millennia.



《錘鍊鏤鑄》為香港大學美術博物館「藝創啟動」(UMAG_STArts)企劃展覽之一。此企劃旨在從科學與技術角度探討藝術創作,剖析物料和技法如何締造中國文化史上各種藝術瑰寶。展覽透過並置館藏中國早期青銅珍品及一批由惠記珠寶有限公司(創立於1885 年)為二十世紀香港鑑賞家關世德先生定製的銀器,揭示中國文化長河裡恆久不衰的精湛金屬工藝。





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I. Casting Bronzes




Ancient Chinese bronze vessels like the li were based on traditional ceramic objects, and in some cases served the same domestic and ritual functions. Though the bronze variants were more difficult and expensive to produce, Chinese craftsmen relied on the same set of skills and experience, as the bronzes required similar clay working techniques for creating the ceramic molds. The liquid tin-copper alloy was carefully poured into the piece-molds, from which the cast object was taken after the metal cooled and solidified. This sophisticated process could be replicated to produce several of the same type object from a single mold. The inner surface of the mold in direct contact with the metal determined the shape and surface decoration of the bronze. Where the individual parts of the mold met, the impression would transfer onto the object. This impression was cleaned off when the bronze was chased to emphasise and refine the cast shapes and ornamental designs.




Shandong Province, China

Neolithic period, Longshan culture (2400–1900 BCE)

13.3 (H) x 15.3 (W) cm





13.3 (高) x 15.3 (闊) 厘米


This tripod vessel is known as a li. It first appeared in the Longshan culture during the Neolithic period (2400–1900 BCE), and was used for cooking or occasionally in burial ceremonies. It was a prototype for similarly shaped bronze vessels in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. 

Ceramic li vessels often were decorated with patterns formed by rope impressions, which increased the heating efficiency of cooking vessels by maximising the available surface area.




Li with cloud design

Cast and chased bronze 

China, Shang dynasty (c.1600–c.1046 BCE)

16.4 (H) x 13.5 (W) x 13.7 (D) cm






16.4 (高) x 13.5 (闊) x 13.7 (深) 厘米


Li–shaped vessel

Cast, repoussé-shaped, chased and polished sterling silver

Hong Kong, Wai Kee Jewellers Ltd., 1980s 

Stamped with Wai Kee trademark and collector’s mark

20.7 (H) x 20 (W) cm; 15.8 (diameter of rim) cm

Loan from the Estate of Kwan Sai Tak





20.7 (高) x 20 (闊) 厘米;15.8 (口沿直徑) 厘米 


This li is a cooking vessel mounted with two loop handles. It is decorated with a cloud and thunder pattern (yun or yunwen (雲紋) and lei or leiwen (雷紋)) that symbolises life-bringing rain and the abundance it brought to farming communities. This design has occurred in Chinese art since the Neolithic period and was routinely used to decorate Shang dynasty ancestral sacrificial rituals.


This jardinière or flower pot is shaped in the form of an ancient li, a ritual vessel of the Shang dynasty.

Its bowl is decorated with a chased ornament and supported by mask-headed tapering legs. Positioned atop the three legs are finely sculpted bird heads, an ornamental feature that does not exist on bronze li.

此花盆以古代鬲── 一種商代禮器為原型。器身佈滿鏨刻花紋,袋形腹上飾獸面紋,足部向下收攏。相異於傳統青銅鬲,此器足部正上方均設精緻浮雕鳥首。

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II. Chasing Bronzes




Cast bronze objects with detailed surface decorations were often chased. Chasing is a metalworking process in which fine detail is achieved by hammering, sometimes with a chisel, to sink the metal and to define a design by refining its outlines. This ancient technique employs simple tools to achieve a high level of definition without removing any material. Cast animal masks and finely outlined frieze decorations were typically perfected through chasing.

Later thinner bronze vessels, as well as objects made from softer metals, including silver, can also be shaped by repoussage (the French term for ‘pushback’ or, in metalworking practice, ‘push out’). The form of the object is sculpted by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. Contours achieved in the repoussé technique are subsequently often chased on the front side to add detail and definition. Chasing is sometimes paired with engraving, where the engraving process cuts into the surface of the object and removes metal.