Da Ke Ding

Da Ke Ding, c. 1046 – 771 B.C.E. (late Western Zhou dynasty, China), bronze, 93.1 cm high (Shanghai Museum)
Speakers: Dr. Kristen Chiem and Dr. Beth Harris

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re here in the bronze galleries at the Shanghai Museum. We’re looking at an enormous tripod ritual object that’s 3,000 years old.

Dr. Kristen Chiem: [0:15] It’s called a ding. That’s the word in Chinese.

Dr. Harris: [0:17] It would have sat on a fire so [that] whatever was inside could be cooked. We’re not talking about cooking for ordinary purposes. We’re talking about a vessel that was very expensive, difficult to produce, and one that was made for ritual purposes.

Dr. Chiem: [0:32] You know that this is a ritual vessel even just looking at the motifs on it alone. We’ve got the taotie — animal mask motif — which is common in these early bronzes.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] You see that motif for hundreds of years in Chinese art history. It evolves and changes. We even see it earlier than this, as early as the Shang dynasty.

Dr. Chiem: [0:51] Interestingly, here this one has a stylized wave pattern.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] In between that, we see other patterning. It feels as though the artist did not want to leave any surface undecorated.

Dr. Chiem: [1:03] Looking very deeply, you see incised motifs that some have thought maybe are references to thunder. We see wisps of clouds, or dragon tails, this idea of the connection to the divine.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] That was the purpose of this object. To connect the earthly to the heavenly, and more specifically, the emperor.

Dr. Chiem: [1:21] In the Zhou dynasty, we’ve got this notion of a Mandate of Heaven, a divine right to rule. The person who could possess something like this could do those ancestral sacrifices to heaven, to this Tian Di, or this heavenly deity.

Dr. Harris: [1:34] By making those sacrifices [he] could ensure the safety, the well-being of his people. If things didn’t go well…

Dr. Chiem: [1:42] Droughts, famines, floods, successful rebellions against the ruling elite.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] …that mandate could be revoked by the divine forces. A new emperor could take his place.

Dr. Chiem: [1:53] In fact, he was the only one that would have had the power to marshal the resources necessary to make a bronze like this.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] Bronze is an alloy, primarily of copper but also sometimes tin or other metals. We’re talking about needing to mine the ore, melt it, refine it, then to cast it. It’s such a complex technology. It’s such a development in human history that we call this shift the Bronze Age.

Dr. Chiem: [2:18] The Zhou being one period within a larger Bronze Age in China. There are a couple of different types of metallurgical techniques. One of these is the piece mold. That’s what we’re looking at here.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] Often, in the West, in the Renaissance and in ancient Greece and Rome, we think about the lost wax method, where the design is made ultimately in wax. The wax is melted away and bronze is poured in. This is an entirely different method that allows for greater control of the design.

Dr. Chiem: [2:48] We had lost wax also occurring around this time. However, you can see here that it’s piece mold because there are seams. As you walk around the object, you can see where the pieces were fit together, each of them cast in a mold that could be reused.

Dr. Harris: [3:04] You have the vessel being made in clay first, and then a mold being made in clay, and then the bronze being poured between those clay layers.

Dr. Chiem: [3:16] Each piece soldered together. You can always see that tell-tale line where the pieces have been fit and adjusted.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] One of the really exceptional things about this ding is that not only do we have these designs, we also have calligraphy.

Dr. Chiem: [3:28] We have writing on this vessel. In fact, we have 290 characters inscribed from right to left.

Dr. Harris: [3:35] And from top to bottom.

Dr. Chiem: [3:36] Top to bottom.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] Many of these characters are recognizable from the Chinese language today.

Dr. Chiem: [3:41] That’s really important to think about as a major development in the Bronze Age. It’s not just bronze. It’s centralized power that comes from communication and writing.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] Only a centralized power would have been able to marshal the resources that it would have taken to create this vessel. This weighs hundreds of pounds.

Dr. Chiem: [3:58] About 400 pounds.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] It would have been carried, probably by putting a pole through the handles that we see.

Dr. Chiem: [4:04] It would only be moved if power was lost; or, in this case, gifted to somebody who had done some noble deed.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] That [is what] we’ve learned from the characters that are inscribed on the inside.

Dr. Chiem: [4:16] We know that this was a gift from the king to this elite official with the surname of Ke.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] This particular ding was found in a temple, but many of the bronzes from this period were found in tombs. We know that they were very important objects that people wanted to bring with them into the afterlife.

Dr. Chiem: [4:35] This one we found in the 19th century, but even today, we are still unearthing objects that are contributing to our knowledge of these early periods.

Dr. Harris: [4:43] I want to just end by taking a closer look at the taotie, because it’s such a recurring form.

Dr. Chiem: [4:48] You can see that it appears to have two eyes and some sort of horns, swirling motifs, that seem to wrap all the way around the legs.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Even below that, I see circular forms that almost feel like part of a mouth, or fangs. This is obviously highly abstracted.

Dr. Chiem: [5:05] That’s what scholars are still working on, figuring out what exactly this deity might have been.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] You walk into the gallery and you’re immediately drawn to this because one sees it on the outside of the museum.

Dr. Chiem: [5:16] We just walked into a building that looks exactly like the shape of this ding. We can see that today, it’s still a cultural symbol for Shanghai and one of its most significant objects.

[5:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris, "Da Ke Ding," in Smarthistory, September 23, 2016, accessed June 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/ding/.