Art, Ritual and Religion: The Bridge Between the Living and the Dead

Art, Ritual and Religion: The Bridge Between the Living and the Dead

A Professional Development Program for K-12 Educators

Educators and CI Members: $10 / Session
General Public: $15 / Session
Free for NYS public school teachers and China Institute educational partners upon application
New York University Project Developing Chinese Language Teachers (DCLT)
NYS Statewide Language Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (RBE-RN) at NYU
Contact: Yongqiang Lin, [email protected]

Designed specifically for K-12 educator participants, this 6-session series will deepen our understanding of how art, bronze vessels, and Buddhist imagery express meaning and lend structure to ritual and to religious practices. At the same time, these programs will address the shared human commonalities of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. A discussion section at the end of each session will draw attention to new vocabularies and enduring questions to be learnt and explored in K-12 classrooms, as well as resources to enrich the teaching and learning of teachers and students and to open their minds and develop curiosity.

In partnership with New York University Project Developing Chinese Language Teachers (DCLT) and NYS Statewide Language Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (RBE-RN) at NYU, 12 hours of CTLE credits are offered for New York State teachers attending this program.

Limited scholarship is available for NYS public school teachers to attend the entire series.

All sessions are open to general public.


I.   Art, Ritual and Religion: An Introduction

How do we, as humans, deal with life and death?

Throughout the history of the world, humans have searched for and have developed ways to address the challenges of living, define one’s place in the universe, and find meaning through rituals, ceremonies, beliefs structures and religious practices. Today, our understanding of ancient beliefs and practices comes largely through the archaeological record left behind.

The small window a few archeological objects, in general considered to be art today, opens to a vast world that leads us to further ponder this question. The Chinese civilization, as early as Shang Dynasty from almost 5,000 years ago, provides us a unique perspective and evidence to look into these questions. In the end, our shared human history is a history evolving around responses to these questions situated in different cultural, historical and natural contexts. By examining the early history of Chinese civilization, we hope we open the possibility for our participants not only to learn some fascinating facts of ancient Chinese civilization, but to reflect and relate to what we are encountering today. After all, all humans have to deal with life and death.

While this introductory session provides an overview, the following five programs will explore the objects, motifs, architecture, and tomb décor that expressed such beliefs from the Bronze Age of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties through to the establishment of Confucianism and Daoism and emergence of Buddhism during the empire of the Han Dynasty.

The 6-session series will deepen our understanding of how art, bronze vessels, and Buddhist imagery express meaning and lend structure to ritual and to religious practices. At the same time, these programs will address the shared human commonalities of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.


II.   Taoties, Dragons, and Ancestors

Following the first session of this series, “Art, Ritual and Religion: An Introduction”, this session focuses on the Shang Dynasty, when the Bronze Age culture and its hierarchical society became ever more complex. Ritual bronze vessels, jade, bone, and ceramic vessels were made specifically for rituals that honor the ancestral spirits. These ritual vessels, designed to hold food and wine, reflected an advanced technology of bronze making that is distinctive to China.

The ruling aristocracy who performed these ritual offerings to their ancestors were aided by a priest or shaman who could communicate with the spirits and deities by practicing divination on sheep shoulder blades or tortoise shells. Both bronze making and divination required the use of fire. All of these objects were embellished with a consistent visual vocabulary of motifs incorporating mostly mythological creatures dominated by the taotie and dragon-like creatures. During the Shang and Zhou dynasty, these mythological creatures served as a link between the world of man and the world of the ancestral spirits and gods.


III.   Birds, Nomads, Continuity and Change

From taoties and dragons to birds, what does the changing design of motifs on the bronzes tell us about the cross-cultural pollination in ancient China? How did the change of symbols reflect the evolving concept between human society and the supernatural world?

The Western Zhou peoples and their armies, located in the Wei Valley near present day Xi’an, were initially believed to be vassals of the Shang kings. Before the Zhou conquered the Shang in 1060 BCE, they absorbed many aspects of existing Shang culture, including ancestor worship, the writing system, and bronze technology. In fact, it can be difficult to tell the difference between late Shang ritual bronzes and those made in the early Western Zhou period. Gradually, however, significant differences began to appear in the imagery, such as the replacement of the dominant taotie with confronted birds. The visual vocabulary began to both expand and change. The short inscriptions of ancestor names on Shang ritual vessels gave way to longer narratives documenting historical events. Ancestor worship remained strong but the Shang Di was replaced by the undefined concept of a supernatural force, called Tien or heaven, marking the worship of heaven with a circular altar and the square altar of earth. But by about 900 to 770 BCE, the second half of the Western Zhou, ritual vessel décor and vessel shapes visibly and significantly shifted, moving into a new direction which reflected the influence and pressure of nomadic tribes from the north and the west. Taoties disappeared, replaced by undulating bands.


IV.   Innovation, Chaos, and Luxury

Today, as humankind celebrates advancements in technology and science, we look back and ask what was the most advanced technology in the Bronze Age? How did it impact life back then? And why should we try to understand ancient technologies? China’s history from more than 2500 years ago offers a story linking chaos, innovation, and extravagance.

By 771 BCE, the pressure of the nomadic tribes culminated in the sacking of the capital of the Western Zhou ruling house at Hao near Xi’an, forcing the founding of a new capital to the east at Luoyang-initiating the Eastern Zhou period.

This shift sapped the temporal power of the Zhou ruling house, now relegated to a ceremonial role. The fiefs originally ruled by loyal aristocracy emerged as feudal states that consolidated greater power by gobbling up weaker rivals. This competition led to constant warfare, a breakdown of society, eventually creating chaos. Remarkably, these conditions spawned enormous innovation. New production methods allowed bronze vessels to be mass produced by using stamped clay molds and the “lost wax” casting techniques. The visual vocabulary on the bronze vessels included taoties but also overlapped and interlaced bands and more interplay between fantastic creatures and realistic animals. Bronze vessels became less important to rituals, more secularized and inlaid with gold and silver, becoming symbols of prestige and luxury objects filling lavish tombs. By the 5th century BCE, bronze vessels, inlaid with gold and silver; quite suddenly offered representation of humans engaged in human activities which appear on these bronzes as well. Finally, society’s chaotic conditions inspired the flowering of philosophical thought with the goal of re-establishing harmony. Although this phenomenon is often referred to as the “One Hundred Schools of Philosophy,” only the teachings of Confucius and Laozi’s Daoism survived to form two of the pillars of ancient Chinese culture and into the modern world.


V.   Age of Empire and the Afterlife

Amid power consolidation, an empire was emerging, as well as philosophical thoughts and religious belief that built the foundation for the concept of this world and for afterlife in Chinese culture. How profound was this process and its lasting influence in the history of China and the world?

The State of Qin, one of the fiefdoms created during the Eastern Zhou, was situated in the strategic Wei Valley in the Northwest region. Rulers of Qin systematically consolidated power by expanding into surrounding territories which were then divided into prefectures and commanderies ruled by officials appointed by the central government. Eventually, the boy king, Ying Zheng, conquered the rest of China establishing an empire and became Qin Shihuangdi “First Sovereign Ruler of Qin.” The scale and concept of the extraordinary burial complex constructed by the Emperor Shihuangdi, underscores the pivotal role of the richly furnished tombs with attendant rituals as bridges between life and death. After Shihuangdi’s death, the harshness of Qin laws ignited a rebellion which brought down this short powerful dynasty. Building on the centralized power of the Qin emperor and the court, the following Han Dynasty, lasting almost 400 years, and consolidated a large empire, combining some of the accomplishments of the Qin and the foundations of the past traditions. Although Han Emperors had advisors representing Confucian and Daoist values, Confucianism’s emphasis on hierarchy and social order emerged dominant. The many large Han underground, multi-chambered tombs built from stone slabs, clay, bricks or plastered walls for emperors and the aristocracy created microcosms of the afterlife of the dead, modeled after the life of the living.


VI.   Opening of the Lotus

How was Buddhism introduced to China and successfully adapted to Chinese culture to form the three-pillar belief system, together with Confucianism and Daoism? How do we trace this process by examining objects from the ancient time that reveal a complex cross-cultural journey?

Part of the expansion of the Han Empire involved excursions into Xinjiang, which essentially established the Silk Road, the iconic trade route that connected China with the West. In addition to goods, the Silk Road also carried ideas, notably the Buddhist religion. Originated in India, the Buddha’s teachings were spread to China by proselytizing monks following the dying directive of the Buddha: “Go, monks, spread the noble Doctrine…let not two of you go in the same direction.” Knowledge of the Buddha began seeping into China about the first century CE. One of the earliest images of Buddha appears carved in relief on a lintel of a stone tomb in Sichuan province. Appliques of small seated Buddhas also decorated the shoulders of glazed “hunping” jars found buried in tombs in the Nanjing area dating third century. Apparently, the Buddha and his teachings were considered as part of Daoist beliefs, even as a manifestation of Laozi. Not until the prosperity of the Han Dynasty eroded, did Buddhism make significant inroads, offering solace during the following centuries characterized by chaos, civil unrest, and nomadic invasions. Undoubtedly, monks and other believers traveled the Silk Road, carried small images and illustrated texts (sutras) of the Buddhas teachings. Confucian and Daoist scholars at court resisted the spread of Buddhist teachings since this religion was foreign and undermined their power. However, Buddhism was a highly adaptable and eventually gained great stature, becoming the third pillar of Chinese society, flourishing and transforming the landscape with pagodas (stupas) and temples.



Professor Annette Juliano began her academic career at Vassar College, followed by Brooklyn College of the City of New York, then Rutgers University-Newark Campus, and finally at ISAW the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. Her interests have been focused on early Chinese art from the Neolithic through the Tang Dynasty (ca. 5,000 BCE through 906 CE); Her particular focus has been on Art from the Silk Road and Buddhist and Tomb sculpture and painting from the years known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, 4-7th centuries. At the Clarke Art Museum, Williamstown, MA, she organized and curated Unearthed. Perhaps her best-known exhibition remains Monks and Merchants, at Asia Society, NYC.

This series is made possible through the support of the Chinese International Education Foundation, and generous supporters of China Institute.