Published Apr 3 2013, by

Chunyu (bell)


The metalworking technologies that were developed during the Shang (c. 1600–1050 b.c.) and Zhou (c. 1050–221 b.c.) dynasties revolutionized the art of bronze casting. A host of new techniques soon enabled the corpus of vessels and implements to expand and include a range of new designs. While the designs of many of these archaic vessels lent themselves to emulation in clay over subsequent centuries, certain implements, often those originating in more isolated regions, could, because of their function, be fashioned only from bronze.

The chunyu—an oblong percussion instrument—is one such specialized work. This distinctive bell was first developed during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 b.c.) as a means of sending warning signals during military campaigns. Later it was used, along with other instruments, during ritual gatherings. Beginning in the Warring States period, the chunyu was widely used until the early Han dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220).

The tall form of the hollow body flares outward from the base and is topped by a flat plate with a flanged rim and is surmounted by a small knob. The knob is used to hang the instrument from a horizontal bar as the drum must be suspended to attain its maximum resonance, a feature that is amplified by the smooth, entirely undecorated sides. The principal decorative element on this chunyu is the stylized knob, which has been cast as a crouching tiger with large eyes, square jaw, and extended tail. This figure is decorated with linear scrollwork and surrounded by four pictograms. The muted green patina on the smooth exterior surface of the chunyu would originally have shone a bril­liant, deep metallic yellow. The sum of these characteristics, and especially the tiger knob, suggests that this work could have been made by the Ba people in Sichuan province. This remote tribal group in southwestern China had both mastered the requisite metalsmithing technologies and celebrated the belief that they were the descendants of a mythical white tiger.