The manufacture of metal vases of gold, copper, iron and bronze dates back in China to a very remote period, which is fixed both by the style of the characters used and by the names inscribed. Thus we find still existing in China vases of the periods of the Shang, Chow and Han dynasties dating back to 1784 B. C. These vases were produced for the Emperor’s use in religious or public ceremonies, or to be given as rewards for meritorious actions. Such vases, the marks of imperial favor, became heirlooms, and were transmitted from generation to generation as religious relics to be worshipped.
The artistic merit of these vessels lies principally in the outline and chaste method of relief decoration, consisting mostly of scrolls and intricate curves, each of which had its significance to the designer, relating specially to the action the vessel was to commemorate, or admonishing the recipient to guard against evils in his path. Of these evils gluttony appears to have been considered the most dangerous, for its symbol is encountered on three-fourths of the vessels of these periods. A not unusual decoration upon mirrors and such vessels is the cycle of Fuh-he, the founder of the Chinese Empire (about 3300 B. C.) He is still worshipped as the author of all inventions. He claimed to have discovered both the active and passive principles in nature. The active he termed Yang or male, and the passive, Yin or female. His cycle is symbolical of all the possible changes in nature. It consists of the eight possible combinations under his division of the sacred number three. Plate C, fig. 19.
Fuh-he also discovered the dragon Lung, the God of Rain, arising from a river in the provinoe of Ho-nan, and who is represented ascending and descending in the clouds. He has four legs, with five claws on each foot, and his figure has been adopted as the imperial insignia. Occasionally the dragon is suggested upon vessels of this period. A figure more frequently introduced is that of the bird Hwang, which only appears in seasons of abundant harvests and great prosperity.