Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Bronze Tripods and Quadripods

The ancestors of today's Chinese had at very early times developed the technology of bronze making. As early as in the Xia and Shang Dynasties, bronze-making had already reached a relatively high level. Various kinds of weaponry were then made of bronze, so were drinking vessels and productive tools. There had even appeared bronze mirrors. Among all things made of bronze, the tripod was by far the most precious. Most of the tripods of those days had a round belly with three legs and two loop handles called ears.

After Great Yu had tamed the floods, he divided the county into nine administrative districts, each of which was called zhou. The people of all nine districts were so grateful to Yu thatg they decided to give the best of their products to him as presents. Great Yu had all the bronze presented to him made into nine tripods, on each of which were carved the pictures of rare and precious animals. Each being a beautiful and exquisite work of art, the nine together became the symbol of the rule of Great Yu over the nine administrative districts. Later an emperor of the Shang Dynasty decided to have all the nine tripods moved to his capital, to be handed down as national treasures from generation to generation. From then on, the tripod became a symbol of state and power.

The last emperor of the Shang Dynasty was a man who indulged himself in all kinds of comforts and was unconcerned about state affairs. One day, he suddenly got the whim that he ought to do something to commemorate his mother. So he ordered the slaves to make a big four-legged rectangular quadripod. Before the casting began, he slaughtered several hundred slaves whose blood he offered as sacrifice to the God of Heaven and his ancestors so as to have their blessing and protection.

After offering the sacrifice, the Shang emperor ordered the slaves to begin casting under the supervision of slave-owners. Under a blazing sun, several hundred slaves set to work. Divided into some seventy groups, they began smelting in as many crucibles. Working without a stitch on their backs, the slaves threw basket after basket of ore into the crucibles and then poured the melted metal into molds made of earth. First the body of the quadripod was made, then the legs and the loop handles. The parts were then put together into huge quadripod 110 centimeters long, 78 centimeters wide and 133 centimeters high. The whole thing weighed, in today's term, 875 kilograms.

On the inside wall of the quadripod were inscribed the three words "si mu wu." This was because the emperor's mother was named wu. Since the quadripod was specially made to offer sacrifices to the emperor's mother, it was named the "si mu wu" quadripod. Not only was it a huge magnificent quadripod but it was also an exquisite piece of artistic creation with decorative patterns shaped like dragon heads on the belly and with strange distinctive patterns on the legs.

Of all the tripods and quadripods unearthed in China so far, the si mu wu quadripod is the largest. It is probably also the largest among the world's ancient bronze objects. This testifies to the fact that even thousands of years ago the technology of bronze making had already attained a relatively high level. A large quadripod so magnificent and so exquisitely designed could only be the fruit of the sweat and blood of the laboring people in ancient times and a proof of their great intelligence. This quadripod is now on display in the Museum of History in Beijing.

Strange to say, archaeologists have also discovered that while in the Shang Dynasty the slaves were able to make many bronze objects which indicate a comparatively high level of technological development they still relied on stone implements or animal bones while working in the fields.  


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