Qin Cao, our Future Curators placement in the Numismatics section of the Museum has very kindly sent this contribution about Chinese objects in Ancient Worlds to the Blog:-
Two of the objects in the ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries are Chinese and were selected by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures, to be part of the exhibition.
Both objects are bronze vessels and probably date back to the 18th or early 19th century, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the last Imperial dynasty of China. They were collected by Manchester ship surgeon Thomas Bellot (1806-1857) whilst serving on HMS Wolf. He was in China at the end of the Opium Wars in 1843 and acquired a number of Chinese artefacts, including coins, books and manuscripts. His collection was bequeathed to Manchester on his death. The books and manuscripts became part of the Manchester City Library’s Special Collections and the artefacts and coins formed one of the earliest collections of the Manchester Museum.
The first bronze object is known as a Ding (above) and the second is a Jian (below). They were probably used as incense burners in temples before Mr Bellot acquired them. You can still see traces of grey ashes inside the vessel in the photo (Image 1). Though they may not be the most attractive objects in the world from a modern point of view, both objects’ ‘family histories’ can be traced back to more than 2500 years ago.
The shape of the bronze Ding originated from a ceramic pot for meat cooking and storage (like a cauldron), and is either round with three legs or square with four legs. The bronze Ding was part of a group of vessels to offer food to ancestors in ritual ceremonies during the Shang (c.16th-11th century BC) and Zhou (c. 11th century-221 BC) dynasties. Golden in colour when first made, the bronze vessels would make a striking visual impact.
It is said the legendary King Yu the Great, who founded the Xia dynasty, ordered nine Dings to be cast using the metal from the nine provinces to represent the whole country. According to the Ritual Book of the Western Zhou dynasty (c.11th century-771 BC), during ritual ceremonies, only a King used nine Dings, a Duke used seven, a Baron used five and a nobleman used 3. These same ranks would also be buried with the same respective number of Dings.
The Ding was therefore obviously highly regarded and considered to be a measure of governing power and a symbol of hierarchy. However the ritual meaning of bronze vessels was slowly lost during years of war and conflict. By the time of Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127), scholars started to collect and appreciate bronze vessels as fine art objects.
When Buddhism reached China in the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220), large numbers of temples were built and Buddhist ceremony adopted. It is very likely that the appreciation of ancient bronze vessels in the Northern Song dynasty inspired the design of incense burners, which are important ritual items in Buddhist ceremony. Henceforward, vessels in the shape of ancient bronze objects can be widely seen in both Buddhist and Taoist temples. Our Ding and Jian are just two of the many examples.
The heritage of Dings does not just continue in temple rituals. Nowadays many Chinese sayings and words are still related to the word ‘Ding’. ‘Yiyan jiuding’, a saying well known to Chinese speakers worldwide, literally means ‘someone’s words have the weight of nine Dings’, and implies this person’s words are very influential and taken into account seriously.