A Magnificent and Extremely Rare Pair of Chariot Fittings
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art
This pair of chariot fittings are a testament to the remarkable artistry and technical mastery of Eastern Zhou metal workers. The fittings are exquisitely decorated with a combination of reticulation and inlay. The inlay, which is wrought with exceptional skill, uses both gold and silver to achieve dazzling and complex designs depicting dragons and phoenixes. These inlays would have been created by casting shallow indentations on the original bronze object and then inlaying the gold and silver, which was worked cold. The head and elongated neck of the phoenix provides the projecting element, while the dragon, with open-work body writhes over the main part of the fitting, provides a hook element, and appears to chase the phoenix. It is significant that the two bronze chariots excavated from the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor (221–210 BC) – a liche and an anche – were both decorated with dragons. The emperor specifically associated himself with the dragon, while comparing his empress to the legendary phoenix, and from this time to the end of the dynastic period the dragon and phoenix were symbols of imperial power. It is possible, therefore, that these fittings were made for an emperor, which might explain their unusually large size combined with their lavish decoration.
Chariots were not a Chinese invention, and those used in China were developed from the chariots of non-Chinese tribes in the north. Although it has been suggested that chariots may have been used in China as much as four centuries earlier, the tomb of King Wuding (r. c. 1200-1118 BCE) of the Shang dynasty at Anyang is the earliest of the horse and chariot burials discovered to date, The regular discovery of weapons in association with Shang dynasty chariots suggests that they were used for military purposes. However, the use of chariots in battle was limited by their inability to cope with rocky terrain, and it seems that they were more often used as mobile command posts or for ceremonial use. In Sunzi’s Art of War (c. 5th century BCE) there is a description which would suggest the former:
‘One chariot carries three mailed officers, seventytwo foot troops accompany it. Additionally, there are ten cooks and servants, five men to take care of uniforms, five grooms in charge of fodder, and five men to collect firewood and draw water. Seventy-five men to one light chariot, twenty-five to one baggage wagon, so that taking the two together one hundred men compose a company.’ (See Jenny So and Emma C. Bunker, Traders and Raiders on China’s Northern Frontier, Seattle and Washington, 1995, p. 26.)
The Zhou dynasty Shijing (Book of Odes) also describes elaborately decorated chariots which were decked with multicoloured banners, tassels, and bells. Chariots are even mentioned in the Zhao Hun (Summoning of the Soul), which is often attributed to Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BCE), but which may have been written by Song Yu (fl. 298–263 BCE). One section of Zhao Hun describes the joys of riding in a royal park in a magnificent chariot:
‘You shall explore, O Soul, the parks in spring;
Your jewelled axels gleaming in the sun
And yoke inlaid with gold;’
Ending with: ‘O Soul come back and live for these
delights’ (Translated by Arthur Waley, Translations
from the Chinese, New York, 1941, p. 14.)
The kind of chariots for which the current chariot fittings were made first appeared during the Zhou dynasty for the use of kings, their consorts, and other members of the aristocracy. The size of the chariot and the number of horses used to pull it depended on the rank and sex of the occupant. It is interesting to note that a chariot with fittings somewhat similar to the current pair was excavated in 1980 from a late 3rd century tomb to the west of Qin Shihuang’s mausoleum (see Cheng Xuehua, ‘Qin Shihuang ling yi hao tongchema’, Kaogu yu Wenwu, 1990, no. 5, frontispiece and pp. 1-2; Sun Ji, ‘Luelun Shihuang lingyi hao tongche’, Wenwu, 1991, no. 1, pp. 14-19). Such fittings were attached to the front of the chariot to support a cross-bow. The cross-bow would have been suspended so that it rested on the curved neck of the phoenix, while the stock of the cross-bow rested against the upper part of the chariot. In this position the trigger mechanism of the cross-bow would have been within reach of the charioteer, and the string of the bow could have been drawn using the gaping mouth of the dragon on the fitting.
Very few chariot-fittings of this type have survived, but fittings of similar type, albeit of simpler design were excavated at Jincun in the 1920s (see Sueji Umehara, ‘Rakuyo Kinson Kobo Shuei’ (Report of the Findings of the Old Tombs at Jincun, Luoyang), Kyoto, 1937, pls. 53-56). The Jincun find included four pairs of fittings with dragon heads and bodies cast in relief (although without open-work). Another pair of chariot fittings, now in the Idemitsu Collection have similar phoenix heads to those on the current fittings (illustrated Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Ancient Chinese Arts in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1989, no. 219).