Tigers a regional feature of ancient bronzes

Updated: Oct 13, 2021 Print
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Today we seldom see tigers in the wild in China. These big cats are primarily bred artificially in zoos and conservation centers. But stretching back some 3,000 years, during China's Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 16th century- 256 BC), tigers inhabited and roamed widely in the Yangtze River basin, a fact to which we can find proof on excavated bronzes from sites in this region, as shown at an ongoing exhibition at the Panlongcheng Site Museum in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei province.

These bronzes either bear tiger-shaped decorative motifs or are designed in the shape of a tiger. Whatever forms taken, they all lead to the conclusion that in ancient times, these big and ferocious predators were extensively distributed along the Yangtze River, and were an emblem of power and potency worshiped by various communities and ethnic groups.

The exhibition, which lasts until Nov 21, features bronze masterworks unearthed from the upper, middle, and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Visitors will find that the tiger is a dominant element of the bronze art that flourished in this particular region.

The exhibition features masterpieces not only from the Panlongcheng Site Museum, but also those known for housing treasures found at significant sites in the Yangtze River drain area, including the Sanxingdui Museum, Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, Hunan Provincial Museum, Anhui Provincial Archaeological Research Institute, and Jiangxi Museum.

Here are three bronzes on display at the exhibition at the Panlongcheng Site Museum:

Bronze dagger-axe blade

Bronze dagger-axe ( ge) blade, dating to the Warring States Period (475-221BC) , from the permanent collection of the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum. [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Panlongcheng Site Museum]

The dagger-axe blade is decorated with an engraved motif of a running tiger on its tang. Tigers are popular decoration motifs on weaponry discovered in Southwest China's Sichuan province and Chongqing, where the upper reaches of the Yangtze River flow and the ancient Ba-Shu culture was nurtured. The culture was characterized by its tiger-worshiping practices. According to the 5th-century History of the Eastern Han (Houhan shu), one of the ancestors of the Ba people transformed into a white tiger after death.

Pair of tiger-shaped accessories

Pair of tiger-shaped accessories, Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC), from the permanent collection of the Suizhou Museum. [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Panlongcheng Site Museum]

The bronze pair of tiger-shaped accessories was unearthed from tombs of the State of Zeng in Yejiashan, Suizhou, Hubei province. The tigers are designed in profile, their mouths wide open with teeth exposed as if they are snarling.

Square ding vessel with tiger designs on handles

Square ding vessel with tiger designs on handles, Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century - 11th century BC), from the permanent collection of the Jiangxi Museum. [Photo/Official WeChat account of the Panlongcheng Site Museum]

The bronze ding vessel is 39.8 centimeters high. Each of its two handles is decorated with a bronze sculpture of a crouching tiger. The tigers look down with their mouths open, their beards rendered in spirals. The vessel was among a group of bronzes excavated from the Shang Dynasty tombs in Dayangzhou of Jiangxi province in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The group included several items featuring tiger motifs or designs, showing strong regional styles.

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