Bronze buckle ornaments from the Dian Kingdom
Bronze buckle ornaments from the Dian Kingdom
By Yang Wenyue Edited by Yu Xuebin Photographed by Yang Wenyue and Meng Zhigang
In the 1950s, Chinese archeologists unearthed some b uckle ornaments of high artistic value from the tombs of the Dian Kingdom located at Shizhaishan, Jinning County, Kunming. Mostly unearthed from large and medium tombs, the buckle ornaments were considered as premium accessories owned by the aristocrats of the Dian Kingdom.
Bronze buckle ornament had a rectangular hook in its back in order to be attached to clothes or utensils as an accessory, and was very popular in the Kingdom. The Dian people wore loose clothes without buttons, and might use a buckle ornament to bundle clothes. According to research findings, more than 500 bronze buckle ornaments were unearthed widely across Yunnan Province. Bronze buckle ornaments with tiger face pattern can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period(770BC—476BC), and were firstly found in Batatai Ancient Tombs. Those from the Warring States Period(475BC—221BC) to the Western Han Dynasty(206 BC—8AD) were unearthed nowadays in areas including Lijiashan in Jiangchuan County, Shizhaishan in Jinning County, and Yangfutou Village in Guandu District, Kunming. These ornaments were the essence of Yunnan bronze culture for their unique shape and exquisite workmanship.
History and inheritance
The earliest records about the Dian Kingdom and the Dian King were in Records of the Grand Historian –Biography of the Ethnic Minority Groups in Southwest China written by the Western Han historian Sima Qian. Going back to the Warring States Period to the Western Han Dynasty, the Dian Kingdom covered Dianchi Lake region, and the Kunming Kingdom covered Erhai Lake region. In both regions lived major tribes of the ancient Yunnan people.
Our knowledge about the economy and socio-cultural conditions of the Dian Kingdom is mainly based on a large number of bronze utensils from archaeological excavations as the Dian people did not create a systematic written language. Due to special historical events and unique geographical position, Yunnan has long been inhabited by multi-ethnic groups with differing cultures since the ancient time. For example: animal pattern buckle ornaments and whole sets of horse decoration show their connection with northern prairie culture. Weapons like copper dagger-axes, spears, and battle-axes were believed to be imitations of those of the central region. Cooper buckets unearthed from the Dian Kingdom site, boot-shaped cooper axes and the like were probably influenced by Southeast Asia bronze culture. Cooper armor, winged tiger shaped hooks apparently were connected to central Asia culture and west Asia culture. Colorful glass beads and etched carnelian beads may have come from south Asia region. The advanced development of Dian culture may be attributed to its inclusiveness and extensiveness.
Uses and techniques
From Dian bronze carving images, we can see figures wearing buckle ornaments, and in their hair topknots were similar round accessories. So we may guess some small buckle ornaments were used to bound hair up. Buckle ornaments in golden belts unearthed from the site at Lijiashan, Jiangchuan County, had the function of belt buckles. In addition, some buckle ornaments were used as wizard items for sacrifice and praying.
Different types of bronze buckle ornaments functioned differently and were roughly categorized into regular form and irregular form from their looks. Regular form buckle ornaments were mostly casted through die-casting into round or rectangle shapes, and some were inlaid in the front face with agate, jade, or malachite.
The most exquisite round buckle ornaments were made in the Western Han Dynasty. Most buckle ornaments have understated “sun pattern”. Instead, craftsman inlaid agate or other precious stone as the center for better stereoscopic effect. Compared with line patterns, in the center of an even more complex stereoscopic pattern would be an agate circled by thin turquoise and painted by black paint, gold, or tin. Division for different decorating zones was considered during casting: Round recess in buckle ornaments was reserved space for papillary white or ruby agate; one or several concentric circled ridge divided other space into different decorating zones. So that craftsmen had more options to decorate round buckle ornaments into even more complex patterns: turquoises, jade circles, and agate buttons may also be used then. Finally, with complex and well-ordered pattern, the well-crafted buckle ornament would surely bring surprises to people.
The other form, irregular form buckle ornament, was made through lost-wax casting. In this complex process, craftsmen firstly made a wax model, then covered the model with mud, waited it to dry, heated the model till the wax melt, then poured out the wax, blocked off the hole, and injected metal liquid. After cooling, the mud was removed, and a buckle ornament exactly in the same shape as the model was obtained. The articles casted through lost-wax casting were exquisite with smooth surface, novel gesture and hollowed-out effect. In the Western Han Dynasty, irregular buckle ornaments craftsmanship became mature and multi-themed. Animal-shaped patterns aside, the Dian people have extended subjects to animals’ movements and people’s daily life. With matured craftsmanship and improved bronze casting skill, craftsmen were able to present scenes of animal fight and major events of human life through buckle ornaments. Hung as decorations, most of them illustrated historical events with images of human and animal figures. To add verisimilitude, subjects were drawn from real life and vividly showed ancient Dian people’s life. The Dian Kingdom had long disappeared in history. However, with these artistic pieces, we can still delve into and understand different aspects of their social life. The realism style brings us both artistic and historic values.
Ancient chamber orchestra
Some buckle ornaments highlight the milieu with different forms. Tracing back to the Western Han Dynasty, the Gilding Eight Dancers and Players is 9.5cm high and 13cm wide. It was unearthed in 1956 from No. 13 ancient Dian tomb, Shizhaishan, Jinning County, and is now in the collection of the Yunnan Provincial Museum. Before being unearthed, the ornament was on the coffin of the tomb owner, showing the owner’s fondness for it when he was alive. And the gilded surface indicated the tomb owner’s noble status. The buckle ornament is in rectangle shape, and on its back is a rectangular hook. In the front, human figures were lined in up and down rows. In the upper row were four dancers. In high spirits, three of them raised hands up high for dancing, with mouth open for singing. All figures wore big round ear buckle ornaments and corona-shaped hats with long streamers on the back, with hair tied up through the hat. Two in the middle wore round bracelets in both hands and the three on the left all raised up their hands. The last one on the right raised up his right hand to his chest and left hand down, seemingly beating the rhythm of the music. Figures in the bottom row wore basically the same clothes of the upper row: first one on the left wore a corona shaped hat with long streamer and played a hulusheng (a free-reed wind instrument similar to the sheng, consisting of multiple bamboo pipes of various lengths inserted into a wind chest made from a dried gourd) holding in his hands; with a long streamer in his hair, the second one played a short-piped instrument; with no hat on his head, the third one wore a long streamer and was playing a drum with one hand holding it. Without any accessories in ears or wrists, the fourth one wore the same as the third one, and played lusheng (a wind instrument made of reed, similar to the hulusheng) with palms put together.
This ornament shows the earliest chamber orchestra in China. To heighten the heated joyful atmosphere, craftsmen set a few interesting scenes: playing drum, sing up, and even showed items for liquor. The interesting thing is, all the eight wizards wore round buckle ornaments. According to research findings, ancient Dian people would ask wizards to perform during the harvest season. Wearing special outfits, wizards played drum and sheng, drinking liquor while singing, for their gratitude to god’s blessing. Wizards in the Gilding Eight Dancers and Players all wore round buckle ornaments in their belts, suggesting that buckle ornaments in round shape were mainly used as clothing accessories.