Abstract

For decades scholars have been discussing the meaning, purpose, and function of the various styles of decoration found in jade and bronze objects produced in the period spanning the Neolithic to the Han dynasty. Max Loehr made a significant contribution to this discussion in 1953 when he made the first attempt to understand the nature and sequence of styles of bronze décor from the Anyang period (1300–1038 b.c .), which corresponds to the late Shang dynasty. Since then scholars have been divided by two different points of view. Taking one side are those who concentrate on the iconographical meaning of the figures represented on the surface of jades and bronzes, suggesting that ornaments are correlated with, and an expression of, a preexistent system of beliefs. On the other side are those who consider the nature and evolution of the sequence of designs and styles as an artistic sophistication that must be considered independently of any exterior motivation, such as a system of religious beliefs. This article aims to explore the purpose and meaning of jade and bronze decorations, particularly those representations of real and mythical animals as forms of spiritual and political empowerment. Through the examination of the nature and sequence of iconographic motifs interpreted as archetypal forms, this article demonstrates the existence of distinct moments for the meaning and purpose of jade and bronze ornaments. During the moments when spirituality and the sacred rituals are dominant and overlap political power, the use of jade and bronze objects decorated with power-animals are manifestations of a system of beliefs. On the other hand, during the moments when political power enlists spirituality and sacred rituals as instruments of sovereignty, the designs tend to be more inventive and sophisticated, corresponding to technological improvements. Consequently, iconographic motifs lose their spiritual meaning and purpose to an immanent sense of design within an artistic phenomenon.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-8283
Print ISSN
0066-8435
Pages
pp. 195-225
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-21
Open Access
No
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