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The Use and Significance of Ritual Bronzes in the Lingnan Region During the Eastern Zhou Period

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image of Journal of East Asian Archaeology

The paper examines bronze vessels and bells excavated from late Bronze Age élite tombs in Guangdong and Guangxi. Categorized stylistically, such objects represent diverse traditions of manufacture, including 1) that of the Zhou states in the Yellow and Yangzi river systems (especially of Chu), 2) those of the Zhou-related, but basically independent bronze manufacturing cultures along the Middle and Lower Yangzi (known to Chinese archaeology as the Wu and Yue cultures), 3) those of Southeast Asian Bronze Age cultures (proto-Dian, Dongso’n), and 4) that of emergent local Lingnan bronze-casting workshops. The frequency and distribution of objects pertaining to each of these traditions changed somewhat over time; the assemblages from the tombs at Yangjia, Gongcheng (Guangxi) and Songshan, Zhaoqing (Guangdong), representing, respectively, an earlier and a later stage of local development, are scrutinized in some detail.

It is noted that, both in import and in local manufacture, the choice of bronze vessel types emphasizes functional equivalence with the indigenous ceramic inventory while evincing little if any awareness of the conventions governing the composition of Zhou ritual assemblages. Bronzes and ceramics appear to have been used in conjunction at ritual celebrations. Rather than documenting a process of acculturation, objects imported from the Zhou states were adapted to uses specific to Lingnan cultural contexts. One of their main rôles probably consisted in serving as symbolic prestige items to be handled and displayed by their élite owners. The primary rôle of display is indicated also by the fact that locally-made bronze bells are musically useless, and that, differing from their northern prototypes, they are fashioned in such a way as to emphasize visually one side over the other. Adducing cross-cultural parallels, and dwelling upon some ideas stated by K.C. Chang in a 1975 article, the paper speculates about the probable rôle of the exchange of such artifacts and of their local emulation in the emergence of an indigenous élite. Such analysis may yield some insights into local historical developments during the centuries preceding the area’s incorporation into the Qin and Han empires.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Art History UCLA 100 Dodd Hall Los Angeles, CA 90095-1417, Email:


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