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.
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