The earliest records of the ancient bronzes of Hunan Province, China, come from the Song dynasty (960–1279) scholar Hong Mai (1123–1202). In his book Notes of Rong Studio (Rongzhai Suibi [ca. 1196]), he recorded that in 1187, a Western Zhou dynasty (11th century–771 BCE) tomb was looted and bronze objects were found within. Centuries later in the 1920s, several exotic-shaped vessels came to market and garnered worldwide attention. One of these was an elephant shaped zun (wine vessel) exhibited in the Musée Guimet in Paris. However, the serious study of the Hunan bronze began in 1981 when archaeologist Gao Zhixi raised the question in an essay as to “whether the Shang bronze culture has crossed Yangzi River or not.” At the time of his inquiry, excavations since the 1950s had turned up a number of Shang (16th–11th century BCE) and Zhou dynasty bronze vessels, including the famous human-faced rectangular ding (cooking vessel), which was excavated by a peasant in his village in Huangcai, Ningxiang, in 1958. In subsequent decades, more extraordinary bronze vessels were unearthed in the Ningxiang area, Hunan Province.

Still, it was unclear as to why these exquisite bronzes were found in the open fields of Ningxiang, with no apparent relationship to activities in the region. Then, in 2004, an archaeological excavation revealed a lost ancient civilization at the center of the mid-Yangzi River valley in the Xiang Jiang River basin—the Ningxiang Tanheli city site. This discovery, by a team from the Cultural Relics and Archeological Research Institute of Hunan Province led by Xiang Taochu, provided clues as to how the found artifacts could weave into a cultural context of the Bronze Age.



This elephant-shaped zun stands on four stout legs and is hollow inside, enabling the beast to serve as a vessel. Its long and tapering raised trunk acts as a spout. The vessel would have originally had a lid, but it had already been lost at the time the elephant was accidently unearthed in 1975 by peasants digging and planting trees on the Shixingshan hill.

The vessel is celebrated for its lifelike shape and elaborate surface decoration of various animal designs, including beast masks, tigers, dragons, snakes, and birds; all the zoomorphic designs are in high relief against the finely cast leiwen ground. The elephant’s surface decoration clearly bespeaks the style of Shang art in north central China, but its lifelike animal shape points to a characteristic not encountered in that region though popular in southern China’s Yangzi river valley.

The elephant form of this vessel is among the few known examples, two of which are in museums (The Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C.; and Musée Guimet, Paris).





Dating from the Shang dynasty, this is the only known example of a bronze-age vessel depicting a human face. Technically sophisticated and set against a leiwen background of rectilinear spirals and interlocking lines, the face, repeated on each of the four sides, is thought to be the image of a tribal leader who conducted religious ceremonies. Additional imagery includes C-shaped ears, and S-shaped horns in relief; heavily notched flanges running down each corner; intaglio, confronting dragons on the outer face of each handle; and beast masks (taotie), at the top of each leg.

This rectangular ding is said to have been unearthed in 1958 by a farmer in Huangcai, Ningxiang County, who did not recognize its value and sold it to be melted down with other scrap metal. Fortunately, in 1959, a staff member from the Hunan Provincial Museum discovered this rare vessel at a scrap metal depot in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, and purchased it for the museum.

On the interior bottom, the vessel is cast with two graphs transcribed as da 大, “big,” and he 禾, “grain” (perhaps an emblem or clan sign).







Its shape and decoration rarely seen in Shang dynasty weaponry, this yue is not an ordinary weapon but rather a ritual object and instrument of punishment. A yue was the symbol of kingship and the dignity of the state’s laws, which is the reason why later potentates carried yue even on tours. According to the archaeological record, all large-scale bronze yue of the Shang dynasty were unearthed from the tombs of the upper-class, a reflection of the power of the military command and the harshness of their penalties.

This bronze yue exhibits a flaring blade and an elliptical qiong (axe eye for insertion of the handle). The nei, or tang, is decorated with an openwork dragon design, and a relief figure of a tiger stands above the qiong near the blade, its mouth open, tail raised, and paws emerging from the body of the axe. The dragon is a spirit creature while the tiger conveys awe-inspiring dignity; thus, the yue, by integrating these two images into a whole, is imbued with solemnity and mystery.






Large bronze bells with decorative animal-face patterns, usually discovered near mountaintops, are thought to have been used in the worship of a mountain god. While a bronze bo unearthed at Shaodong has four flanges, this percussion instrument only has two, both in the form of a crested phoenix. Both faces of the bell (the zheng section) are decorated with deformed beast masks. The beast-mask design is very simple, consisting of round eyes and a cloud-and-thunder pattern (circular and squared scrolls). 

The earliest bronze bo to date, unearthed at Dayangzhou, Xin’gan, also has only two flanges. Perhaps the number of flanges had to do with the instrument’s period of manufacture and its players. Judging from excavated material—similar bo have been also been found in Zhuzhou and Hengyang—suggesting the Xiang River basin was an important area of production for this type of bronze bo.





During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, horses were used for pulling vehicles in transportation and warfare and were therefore highly regarded. However, the role of horses was somewhat limited in the hilly regions of southern China, with their undulating mountains and criss-crossing network of waterways. Nonetheless, that the people in southern China also held horses in high regard can be seen in the eight horses decorating this vessel. This elaborate and sophisticated gui (food container) is one of the rare relics of the Western Zhou period incorporating the horse, and the manner of display on both the body and the base is not seen in other regions. This gui was a ritual device used in sacrifices.

A noteworthy aspect of the casting is the design, which protrudes from the vessel surface with corresponding concavities on the inner surface, resulting in a vessel wall of uniform thickness. In addition to the horses, dragon motifs with spiraling double-bodies, two beast-mask motifs, and four phoenixes are depicted. The horse heads had been lost at the time of excavation, and the frontal view that we see now is a reconstruction based on the shape of the body and neck area.





This wine or water vessel is also known as a huhu (gourd pot). Shaped like a calabash, it has a small mouth and a large belly. Unearthed together with this ewer were late Shang dynasty and Western Zhou bronze ding vessels as well as jade rings, from which it can be determined the ewer was made in the Western Zhou period. This, therefore, is a relatively early gourd-shaped ewer. 

From an analysis of the circumstances around this ewer’s excavation and the special feature of a single handle, or pan on one side of a back-turned-dragon, it is inferred that the hu was made in the Spring and Autumn period. A kui-dragon and a triangular meander pattern decorate the body of the dragon. The neck is decorated with kui-dragon motifs in the upper tier and an encircling cloud-and-thunder-pattern (circular and square scrolls) band. On the belly are beast-mask and banana-leaf motifs and on the ring foot, cloud-and-thunder and zigzag patterns. One cannot see what is in a gourd-shaped ewer because of the small opening, hence the old Chinese saying that “no one can tell what medicine is in the gourd.”




he Tanheli city site occupies an area of over 20,000 square meters, and within its city walls are remnants of moats, ruins of dwellings, and tombs. The site is of great significance to the study of Hunan’s regional history, bronze culture, and the formation of early state and society. It also provides important material objects for researching the bronze civilization in the region. Of the 400 bronze relics of Shang and Zhou dynasties from Hunan Province, more than 300 pieces—close to 80%—are from the Tanheli site. These bronze vessels, used mainly for ritual ceremonies, strongly suggest that during the late Shang dynasty to the Western Zhou dynasty, this ancient city was one of the important centers of southern Chinese civilization, and is an important locus for the study of Chinese Bronze Age culture.

The first-ever comprehensive exhibition to focus on ancient bronzes from this region in Hunan is on display at the China Institute Gallery at the China Institute in America in Manhattan from January 27 to June 12, 2011. Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan, includes more than seventy objects culled from the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, and other local museums and institutions. The exhibit explores a local culture through its vital creative output, unearthed from pits, tombs, and sites in Ningxiang and Xiangxiang, and contributes to a fuller understanding of early Chinese culture and civilization. Organized by Willow Hai Chang, Director of China Institute Gallery, the exhibition, is co-curated by Chen Jianming, Director of the Hunan Provincial Museum; Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; and Fu Juliang, Curator of Bronze Collections, Hunan Provincial Museum. A bilingual catalogue is available. For information, visit or call 212.744.8181.