Artisans who wish to excel at their craft must first sharpen their tools.” From tools for production and hunting to weapons of killing and attacking, from providing for basic needs to determining the outcome of wars, the sharpness of the blade has been the key of weapons as well as a timeless pursuit of human craftsmanship. Initially, humans used stone to make blades, progressively improving blade-making techniques from hastily smashing to meticulous grinding and polishing. Later, with the mastery of revolutionary alloy technology, human successfully smelted bronze and thus redefined blades. The superior malleability of bronze compared to stone and its ability for mass production in a short amount of time also profoundly transformed the form of weaponry. Following closely, in the flames of countless bronze castings, iron blades were forged into shape and have continued to exert an enduring impact to this day.
The emergence of bronze weapons marked a turning point in the aforementioned process, as it escalated the scale of warfare and its impact and outcomes, embodied the famous quote from Zuozhuan: “The great affairs of a state lie with sacrifice and warfare.” In ancient China, bronze weapons appeared around 1,800 BCE, which was the transition point between the end of the Neolithic period and the formation of early states. Their use thrived during the Shang and Zhou periods, spanning about sixteen hundred years. These weapons not only demonstrated their prowess on the battlefield but also became integrated into the aristocratic ritual system, serving as ceremonial objects symbolizing the owner’s social status and power. Although bronze weapons were later replaced by iron ones, their multifaceted roles in combat, in society and politics, and in ritual activities continue to be passed down to this day.
This exhibition centers around bronze weapons and consists of four sections. The first section, “Sharpening the Blade––Development of Edged Tools,” traces the origin of bronze weapons back to edged tools crafted from polished jade and stone dated to the late Neolithic period. The second section, “Revealing the Sharpness,” and the third section, “Tempering Excellent Bronze,” introduce bronze weapons from the periods of the Shang to the Western Zhou (ca. 1600-771 BCE), and the Spring and Autumn to the Warring States (770-221 BCE), respectively. The fourth section, “Endurance Through Ages,” showcases the iron weapons’ inheritance of bronze weapons and development during their gradual rise in the Qin and Han periods (221 BCE- 220 CE).