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Episode 23 - Chinese Zhou ritual vessel

Chinese Zhou ritual vessel (made around 1050 BC). Bronze gui, found in western China

How often do you dine with the dead? It may seem a strange question, but if you're Chinese it may not be quite so surprising, because many Chinese, even today, believe that deceased family members watch over them from the other side of death, and can help or hinder their fortunes. When somebody dies, they're equipped for burial with all kinds of practical bits and pieces: a toothbrush for instance - money, food, water - possibly a credit card and a computer. The Chinese afterlife often sounds depressingly (or perhaps I mean reassuringly?) like our own. But there is one great difference: the dead are paid huge respect. A well equipped send-off is just the beginning: ritual feasting - holding banquets with and for the ancestors - has been for centuries a part of Chinese life.

"The primary and most ancient religion in China consists of preparing ceremonial meals for the dead." (Jessica Rawson)

"In Chinese way it's ritual, particularly of banquets, offering your ancestor food." (Wang Tao)

Today's programme is about a spectacular bronze bowl, which around three thousand years ago was used for feasting in the company of both the ancestors and the gods. Families offered food and drink to their watchful dead, while governments offered to the mighty gods. This is a vessel that addresses the next world, but emphatically asserts authority in this one, and around 1000 BC, at a troubled transitional moment for China, the link between heavenly and earthly authority was all.

From the Mediterranean to the Pacific, around three thousand years ago, existing societies collapsed and were replaced by new powers. In China the Shang Dynasty, which had been in power for over 500 years, was toppled by a new dynasty, the Zhou. The Zhou came from the west - from the steppes of central Asia. Like the Kushites of Sudan who conquered Egypt at roughly the same time, the Zhou were a people from the edge, who challenged and overthrew the old-established, prosperous centre. The Zhou ultimately took over the entire Shang kingdom and, again like the Kushites, followed it up by appropriating not just the state they'd conquered but its history, imagery and rituals. Central to the ritual of Chinese political authority was the practice of elaborate feasting with the dead, and this involved magnificent bronze vessels, which are both instruments of power and major historical documents.

I'm in the Asia gallery of the British Museum, and I'm with a handsome bronze vessel called a gui. It is about the shape and size of a large punch bowl, about a foot (30 cm) across, with two large curved handles. What you first notice I think, looking at the outside, is the elaborate, flower-like decoration that run on bands on the top and the bottom; but undoubtedly it's the handles that really are the most striking element, because each handle is a large beast, with tusks and horns and huge square ears, and it's caught in the act of swallowing a bird whose beak is just emerging from its jaws. Bronze vessels like this one are among the most iconic objects made in ancient China. They often carry inscriptions which are now a key source for Chinese history, and this bronze, made about 1000 BC, is just such a document. It's part of the story about the end of one Chinese dynasty - the Shang - and the beginning of another one - the Zhou.

The Shang Dynasty had seen the growth of China's first large cities. Their last capital, at Anyang on the Yellow River in north China, covered an area of 30 square kilometres and had a population of 120,000 - at the time it must have been one of the largest cities in the world. Life in Shang cities was highly regulated, with 12-month calendars, decimal measurement, conscription and centralised taxes. As centres of wealth, the cities were also places of outstanding artistic production in ceramics and jade and, above all, in bronze, and all these skills continued to flourish after the Shang had been replaced by the victorious Zhou.

Now making a bronze vessel like our gui bowl is an extraordinarily complicated business. First you need to mine and smelt the ores that contain both copper and tin, in order to make the bronze itself. Then comes the casting, and here Chinese technology led the world. Our gui was not made as a single object, but as separate pieces cast in different moulds which were then joined together to make one complex and intricate work of art. The result is a vessel that at that date could have been made nowhere else in the world.

The sheer skill, the effort and expense involved in making bronze vessels like these make them immediately objects of the highest value and status, fit therefore for the most solemn ceremonies. Here's Dame Jessica Rawson, renowned expert on Chinese bronze:

"The first dynasties of China, the Shang and the Zhou, made large numbers of fine bronze containers for food, for alcohol, for water, and used these in a big ceremony, sometimes once a week, maybe once every ten days. The belief is that if food, wine or alcohol is properly prepared, it will be received by the dead and nourish them, and those dead, the ancestors, will look after their descendants in return for this nourishment. The bronze vessels which we see today were prized possessions for use in life. They were not made primarily for burial, but when a major figure of the elite died, it was believed that he would carry on offering ceremonies of food and wine to his ancestors in the afterlife, indeed, entertain them at banquets."

Our bowl would have been one of a set of vessels of different sizes, rather like a set of saucepans in a smart modern kitchen - although we don't know how many companions it might once have had. Each vessel had a clearly defined role in the preparing and serving of food at the regular banquets that were organised for the dead.

If you look inside our basin, there is a surprise. At the bottom, where it would have normally been hidden by food when in use, there is an inscription written in Chinese characters, that are not so unlike the ones still used today. And this inscription tells us that this particular bowl was made for a Zhou warrior, one of the invaders who overthrew the Shang Dynasty.

At this date, any formal writing is prestigious, but writing in bronze carries a very particular authority. The inscription at the bottom of the gui tells us of a significant battle in the Zhou's ultimate triumph over the Shang:

"The King, having subdued the Shang country, charged the Marquis Kang to convert it into a border territory to be the Wei state. Since Mei Situ Yi had been associated in effecting this change, he made in honour of his late father this sacral vessel."

So the man who commissioned the gui, Mei Situ Yi, did so in order to honour his dead father, and at the same time, as a loyal Zhou, he chose to commemorate the quashing of a Shang rebellion in about 1050 BC by the Zhou king's brother, the Marquis K'ang. It's through inscriptions in bronze like this one that we can reconstruct the continued tussling between the Shang and the Zhou throughout this period. As writing on bamboo or wood has perished, these bronze inscriptions are now our principal historical source.

It's not at all clear why the smaller and much less technically sophisticated Zhou were able to defeat the powerful and well organised Shang state. They seem to have had a striking ability to absorb and to shape allies into a coherent attacking force; but above all, they were buoyed up by their faith in themselves as a chosen people. In first capturing, and then ruling, the Shang kingdom, they saw themselves - as so many conquering forces do - as enacting the will of the gods. So they fought with the confidence born of knowing that they were to be the rightful inheritors of the land. But - and this was new - they articulated this belief in the form of one controlling concept, which was to become a central idea in Chinese political history.

The Zhou are the first to formalise the idea of the Mandate of Heaven: the Chinese notion that heaven blesses and sustains the authority of a just ruler. An impious and incompetent ruler would displease the gods, who would withdraw their mandate from him. So on this view, it followed that the defeated Shang must have lost the Mandate of Heaven, which had passed to the virtuous, victorious Zhou. From this time on, the Mandate of Heaven became a permanent feature of Chinese political life, underpinning the authority of rulers or justifying their removal, as Wang Tao, archaeologist at the University of London tells us:

"That transformed the Zhou, because that allowed them to rule other people. If you kill the king or senior member of the family, it's the biggest crime you could make. So to turn the crime against authority or against a ruler into some justifiable action, you had to have an excuse, and that excuse is the Mandate of Heaven.

"Here in the west, we have the concept of democracy, and in China it's the Mandate of Heaven. For example, you can see if you offend the heaven, or offend the people, then you will see the omens from heaven - thunder, rain, earthquake. That's why every single time that China has an earthquake, the political rulers were scared, because they were reading that as some kind of Mandate of Heaven."

So the Zhou's ritual feasting with vessels like our gui was in part a public assertion that the gods endorsed the new regime. Gui such as ours have been found over a wide swathe of China, because the Zhou conquest continued to expand until it covered nearly twice the area of the old Shang kingdom. It was a cumbersome state, with fluctuating levels of territorial control. But nonetheless, the Zhou Dynasty lasted for as long as the Roman Empire, and indeed longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history.

And as well as the Mandate of Heaven, they bequeathed one other enduring concept to China. It was the Zhou, who three thousand years ago gave to their lands the name of Zhongguo: the ´┐ŻMiddle Kingdom'. And the Chinese have thought of themselves as the Middle Kingdom, placed in the very centre of the world, ever since.

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