thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

bronze vessels: the nine tripods and materialized ideology

glenda chao (columbia university)

prologue: the myth of the nine tripods

While conducting research for a term paper some months ago, I came across a story that contained an interesting early Chinese mythological anecdote. The story recounts that in the year 605 B.C., roughly during the last century of the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1027 – 771 BC)[1], a lord from a southern state called Chu 楚[2] launched a military expedition into the central domain of the ruling Zhou lineage, a place referred to in historical texts as Zhouyuan 周園.[3] Upon arriving at the border of Zhouyuan he met Wangsun Man, a minister of the then politically weakened royal lineage, and audaciously inquired after the weight of “the Nine Tripods,”[4] thus provoking Wangsun Man to say:

“The Tripods do not matter; virtue does. In the past when the Xia ? dynasty was distinguished for its virtue, the distant regions put their things [wu 物] into pictures and the nine provinces sent in copper as tribute. The Tripods were cast to present those things. One hundred different things were presented, so that the people could distinguish divine from evil…Hereby a harmony was secured between the high and the low, and all enjoyed the blessing of Heaven.

When the virtue of Jie 桀 [the last king of the Xia] was all-obscured, the Tripods were transferred to the Shang 商dynasty, and for six hundred years the Shang enjoyed its ruling status. Finally King Zhou 紂of the Shang proved cruel and oppressive, and the Tripods were transferred to the Zhou 周dynasty.

When virtue is commendable and brilliant, those which are small will be heavy; when things come to be crafty and decrepit, those which are large will be light. Heaven blessed intelligent virtue, and on this its favor rests. King Cheng 成 [of Zhou] fixed the Tripods in the Zhou capital and divined that the Zhou dynasty should last for thirty reigns, over seven hundred years. This is the Zhou’s Mandate from Heaven 天明. Though now the Zhou has lost its past glory, the decree of Heaven is not yet changed. The weight of the tripods cannot yet be inquired about!”[5]

Fig. 1 – Image of the mythical sage-hero Yu with the Nine Tripods. Reproduced from Jan and Yvonne Walls eds., Classical Chinese Myths (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1984): 5.

After reading this particular story, I became curious about the implications that the Nine Tripods, mentioned by Wangsun Man, held for early Chinese bronze vessels as both physical objects and, as the speech indicates, as embodiments of the Mandate of Heaven.[6] Unfortunately, I was unable to locate an original copy of the myth; however, I was able to find some secondary references that summarize the original story to various degrees. One of the more interesting accounts I came across is from Anne Birrell’s introductory guide to Chinese mythology; in this slim volume, Birrell says:

“The myth of the origin of metal and metal-working is told also through the important figure of the semi-divine hero Yu 禹[7]…It tells how Reptilian-Pawprint [Yu] forged nine sacred bronze cauldrons which were engraved with the knowledge of the world. He showed humans how to distinguish between monsters and benign beings in their passage through life. These bronze cauldrons were endowed with the sacred power of judging moral worth and were handed down from dynasty to dynasty. If the ruler was virtuous and governed the people kindly, the cauldrons were heavy with moral power and remained with the ruler and his dynasty. If the ruler was evil and mistreated the people, the cauldrons became light and flew away. These sacred vessels served as a symbol of legitimate dynastic rule and as emblems of wealth, ritual and state control over the strategic production of metal weapons and goods” (Fig. 1).[8]

What is interesting about Birrell’s account is her explanation of the phenomena mentioned in Wangsun Man’s speech, specifically, the relationship between the weight of the vessels and the virtue of the ruler in whose possession they resided. According to Birrell, the importance of the Nine Tripods lay in their “endowed sacred power;” in the presence of an immaterial force within the material object.


introduction: the materialization of ideology

In an article published in the February 1996 issue of Current Anthropology, co-authors Elizabeth DeMarrais of the University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Luis Jaime Castillo, also of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Professor Timothy Earle of Northwestern University published an article in which they discuss how “the process of the materialization [of ideology and how it] makes it possible to control, manipulate, and extend an ideology beyond the local group and to communicate the power of a central authority to a broader population.”[9] The premise of this article, that ideology has both material and immaterial components, reminded me of the Nine Tripods, and led me to think about how these types of objects were a “materialized” form of early Chinese ideology. I began to wonder about the agency inherent not only in mythological objects like the Nine Tripods, but also in the bronze vessels that modern-day archaeologists find spread so ubiquitously throughout the archaeological record of early China[10]. Do “materialized ideologies”, such as the Nine Tripods, have an agency of their own? If so, how did bronze as a medium come to mediate the immateriality of the Chinese conception of Heaven 天 and the materiality of earth 地? What were the potentialities of vesting “royal authority” in a media such as bronze? In what ways would they have shaped the creation of the ideology of royal authority in early China? These are the questions that I seek to explore in the following examination.

Interestingly, the story of the Nine Tripods also articulates a tension between bronze vessels as physical reality and bronze vessels as non-physical, ideological mythology. The tension inherent in the apparent absence of the Nine Tripods’ presence is a topic that I shall return to at the end of this investigation.


on bronze: agency and the embodiment of “heaven’s mandate”

According to archaeologists specializing in ancient Chinese bronze metallurgy, the process of creating a single bronze vessel (Fig. 2) was both lengthy and labor-intensive. The standard routine involved first and foremost, conceiving of a finished product to be made, then mining the copper and tin ores required to make the bronze alloy, smelting to mix both ores in the alloying process, creating a mold of the type of vessel desired, and finally, using the mold to cast the piece (Fig. 3).[11] The high labor-input required to produce the immense amount of vessels routinely uncovered at Chinese archaeological sites thus (as shown in Fig. 1) leads to speculation on the importance of bronze as a material within the social network that invested so much time and effort into its careful production.

Fig. 2 - Bronze vessels both in (above) and out (below) of context, illustrating the amount of bronzes that archaeologists uncover at early Chinese archaeological sites. Reproduced from, Kwang-Zhih Chang, Pingfang Xu, et. al., The Formation of Chinese Civilization : An Archaeological Perspective, ed. Sarah Allan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 196.


Returning to Wangsun Man’s famous speech, we can begin to see a connection between the reality of bronze vessels as material objects of high earthly value, and the textual, or rather, mythological, emphases on the Nine Tripods as material embodiments of the ruler’s authority that is ultimately bestowed by the immaterial forces of Heaven. Wangsun Man’s reference to the heaviness or lightness of the Tripods, which Birrell interprets as meaning “if the ruler was virtuous and governed the people kindly, the cauldrons were heavy with moral power and remained with the ruler and his dynasty. If the ruler was evil and mistreated the people, the cauldrons became light and flew away,” alludes to the idea that the Tripods, according to early Chinese thinkers, were not bestowed with a static, inert authority, but with a divine power that had an agency of its own; namely, an agency that allowed the Tripods to remain with or abandon their possessor. In addition, Wangsun Man’s speech alludes to the idea that once the Tripods changed hands, so too did the Mandate shift to whom so ever possessed the strength to seize these emblems of Heaven’s charge. Thus, the Nine Tripods were acted upon by Heaven through their embodiment of the Mandate while simultaneously acting upon the human world by identifying, through possession of them, the designated ruler of the realm.

What implications does this analysis hold for the multitudes of bronzes found in China’s archaeological record? We have already begun to establish the potential value of bronze as a material to the early Chinese; thus, if we carry this idea further, we might consider the agency possessed by bronze vessels in shaping certain types of authority in early Chinese culture. In a Gell-ian sense, bronze vessels index the heavy labor input required to create them. If we think back to DeMarrais et. al.’s article on materializing ideology, than we begin to see that the vessels, and their labor investment, can also index the amount of social organization required to manage that level of production. In this case, the ability to manage large amounts of labor in the process of bronze vessel production can be considered, effectively, a materialization of early Chinese central royal authority. Thus, in a way similar to the Nine Tripods being embodiments of Heaven’s Mandate, bronze vessels can be considered embodiments of this authority.

Fig. 3 – Schematic of piece-mold casting, illustrating the last step of the process of creating a single bronze vessel. Reproduced from Kwang-Zhih Chang, Pingfang Xu, et. al., The Formation of Chinese Civilization : An Archaeological Perspective, ed. Sarah Allan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 145.


cloaking royal authority in bronze garb

But what about the idea of bronze vessels possessing agency? We have already shown that the Nine Tripods acted as agents in determining the identity of the king; did bronze vessels accomplish something similar? To answer this question, we need to address the potentialities of vesting royal authority in a media such as bronze.

In his article entitled “Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things,” Webb Keane introduces the notion that relations between signs can be one of resemblance (iconicity), actual connection (indexicality), or rule (symbolism).[12] I have already touched upon the concept of indexicality in discussing the level of social organization required for the production of bronze vessels. I turn now to examine Keane’s idea of the “openness of iconicity” in relation to the Nine Tripods, and to bronze vessels.

So far in this examination, I have not attempted to divorce the mythological Tripods from the reality of ancient Chinese bronze vessels; this is because, as Keane notes, “any analysis of signs in society needs to provide an account of how entities that are materially different in their qualities…count as the same thing…[thus,] there is still some governing principle that makes of possible instances realizations of the same thing, and thus the possibilities – and recognizability – of future actions.”[13] To illustrate this, I return to the idea of bronze vessels as embodiments of central authority.

Scholars generally agree that the most prominent role that bronze vessels played during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties was of ritual objects. During the middle of the Western Zhou, however, a unique function arose out of the need for the Zhou ruling lineage to maintain control over their realm, namely, the use “investiture” bronzes. [14] These types of bronze vessels belonged more to the realm of politics than that of ritual. Although they retained the shape of traditional ritual implements, such as tripods, basins, and goblets, they were very different because of the inscriptions cast into them. In general, the inscriptions concerned the appointment of an individual to an official government post by the king. The bronzes and their accompanying inscriptions were material records of the appointment. The “investiture” bronze, as the materialization of an official appointment, thus indexed the bestowal of authority upon the bearer of the vessel by the king. From this example, we can understand how “investiture” bronzes, as embodiments of the authority of the king, resembles the embodiment of the Mandate of Heaven in the Nine Tripods. In this way, objects like the “investiture” bronzes transformed the possibility of the usage of royal authority. Thus, since “an icon can resemble an object that doesn’t exist – a map, say, of a fantastic land, or a cloud that looks like a unicorn,”[15] the resemblance of bronze vessels as objects in which the ruler invests his authority and the subject invests his loyalty, to the Nine Tripods in which Heaven invests its Mandate, entails the iconicity of the bronze vessels as an example of an object suggesting “possible future uses or interpretations.”[16] Returning to the issue of agency then, we can see that in a way, the potentiality of vesting royal authority in bronze vessels, in the sense of Keane’s “openness of iconicity,” alludes to the agency of the vessels inherent in their materiality.

This brings us to the final question of how bronze vessels shaped the creation of royal authority in early China. In his article, Keane begs a similar question when he asks, “what do material things make possible? What is their futurity?”[17] He uses the example of clothing to illustrate the ways that material things make possible certain new practices, habits, and intentions.[18] I believe that bronze vessels act in very much the same way; they have the same possibilities. It is thus evident that in the myth of the Nine Tripods, the Tripods made possible the security of harmony between the high and the low; interestingly, they also made possible the identification (note: not “identity of”) of the ruler. Bronze vessels then, as products of intensive labor, first made possible social organization and management by a centralized royal authority; later on, they made possible the distribution this centralized royal authority though their usage as “investiture” objects. Thus, if we reconsider the question posed at the beginning of this section: “what are the potentialities of vesting royal authority in a media such as bronze?” I think that the answer can safely be stated as: it gives them (the vessels) the potential to become “socially realized conventions, that is, symbols understood as icons…”[19] in this case, of royal authority itself.


Fig. 4 – Image of a stone engraving depicting the Qin dynasty emperor attempting to retrieve one of the Nine Tripods from a river. Reproduced from Anne Birrell. Chinese Myths (London: British Museum Press, 2000), 23.



Semiotic Ideologies: Yes, or No?

I would like to address, here, Keane’s notion of semiotic ideology, which he describes as the “background assumptions of what signs are and how they function.”[20] Throughout the process of conducting this study, I found myself repeatedly returning to this notion and, every time, being unable to determine how it might fit into my analysis. Eventually, I realized that the reason I could not appropriate this concept into my study was because I had not yet confronted the fact that my analysis was, essentially, based upon my own semiotic ideology; my own idea of what is specified as a sign. In the same way, DeMarrais et. al., in their examinations of the materialized ideology of Neolithic and Bronze Age societies in Denmark, northern Peru, and the Andes, seem to understand the material objects of these respective cultures through the lens of western semiotic ideology; specifically, that materials attainable only by a small percentage of the population signify the particularities of and “elite” class. Upon further examination of this issue, I realized that the semiotic ideology that dictates my own interpretations is based on both western conceptions of how material objects mediate the relations between selves and others, and the notions of signification exhibited by early Chinese scholars through early Chinese texts. Thus, “the mode of proto-objectification”[21] that I utilize in my analyses of early Chinese material culture is necessarily based, in part, upon the texts I read, which in turn, arise out of the social conditions in existence at the time of their creation.

Keane says, “a semiotic analysis of the social power of things would thus demand an account of the semiotic ideologies and their discursive regimentation that enter into or are excluded from the processes by which things become objects, for these are the same processes that configure the borders and the possibilities of subjects.”[22] This spurs me to wonder which semiotic ideologies should “enter into” or be “excluded from” our interactions of the material world. Can there even be a semiotic analysis of archaeological material? If so, should the specification of, say, early Chinese bronze vessels as “signs of royal authority” be based upon our current understandings of iconicity, indexicality, and symbolism? Or should they be based on the ideas of materiality as expressed in historical texts? I wanted to mention, briefly, the issue of semiotic analyses because I feel that it is something that archaeologists interested in the field of object theory need to confront and reconcile with.


the dualism of the media

In a final act of cycling, I would like to re-address the tension between the Nine Tripods myth and the reality of bronze vessels that I mentioned earlier.

Throughout this examination, I have focused on the role of the Nine Tripods as a myth; however, I have not addressed the myth itself. The excerpts presented in the prologue are stories of how the Nine Tripods were created and how they functioned, but whatever happened to the Tripods? Did they ever really exist? Where are they now? According to some textual references, when the last king of the Western Zhou dynasty was defeated by outside invaders[23] in the spring of 771 BC, the Tripods mysteriously vanished from the king’s possession. Supposedly, they “became light and flew away,” as Anne Birrell described above, thus effectively bringing an end to the Zhou ruling lineage’s possession of Heaven’s Mandate. For centuries afterwards, ruler after ruler, especially during the early imperial period (Qin 秦 dynasty ca. 221 – 206 BC), sought to recover the Tripods and thereby legitimize their power (Fig. 4). Unfortunately, the Nine Tripods were never again to be found, and over the succeeding dynasties, their existence became the stuff of myth.

Therein, we encounter a new problem, namely, how to reconcile the issue of mythology when studying the ancient past. Scholars of Chinese mythology have lamented the inability to truly find the origins of myths because even the earliest textual evidence (in this case, Zhou dynasty bronze inscriptions) can be considered ambiguous. In this case, we do not know if the Nine Tripods truly existed and were actually lost by some legitimate means, and we have only to find them buried in some bronze cache somewhere, or whether they were purely a later fabrication in order to explain the political turmoil following the Western Zhou dynasty’s fall. In her book, The Shape of the Turtle, Sarah Allan says, “Myth is freely conceived. It includes events which not only did not happen, but which could not have happened, which are fantastic, breaching the confines of both reality and possibility, for its events are sacred in their nature and are not meant to be of this world…people ‘think in myths’. Such thought may make use of real past events as well as present realities, but it is neither concerned with what actually happened nor fettered by real possibility.”[24] If we agree with Allan’s assertion on the nature of myths, than we can proceed to consider how our particular story of the Nine Tripods, potentially can be representative of both the immateriality of early Chinese conceptions of world and cosmos, and the materiality of the bronze vessels created to embody royal authority. The question then remains whether the tension between myth and reality, immaterial and material, can thus be reconciled.



I began this study by discussing Elizabeth DeMarrais et. al.’s article on the materialization of ideology; I proceeded to examine this concept in terms of the ideology of royal authority in early China as it was materialized in the form of bronze vessels. Using Webb Keane’s discussion of the “garb of meaning,” I examined the ways in which the iconicity and indexicality of bronze vessels “cloak royal authority in bronze garb,” and in that way possess an agency of their own, due to their ability to “make possible” the types of authority that scholars find throughout the history of early Chinese dynastic rule. Thus, in a “bundled”[25] sense, the royal authority present within bronze vessels is inextricably bound to their other qualities, such as the “metal-ness” of the copper-tin alloy used in their construction, the weight and monumentality of their design, the animism of their surface decoration, their tendency to preserve well in the archaeological record, and the amount of labor and social organization necessary for their production.

I have attempted, also, to examine both the issue of semiotic ideologies when we, as scholars attempt to interpret archaeologically derived material as well as the tension between the materiality of these bronze vessels and the immateriality of the Nine Tripods. Unfortunately, it seems clear that an adequate theory to explain the difficulties in reconciling these issues remains elusive. I hope that this introductory article into the materiality and agency of archaeological objects such as bronze vessels may serve to incite future inquiry into the use current anthropological theory, specifically, object theory in interpreting the archaeological record.


works cited

Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. xi, 230.

Demarrais, Elizabeth, Luis Jaime Castillo, Timothy Earle. ‘Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies,” in Current Anthropology 37, no. 1 (February 1996): 15 – 31.

Birrell, Anne. Chinese Myths (London: British Museum Press, 2000), pp. 80.

Hung, Wu. Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. xvii, 376.

Keane, Webb. “Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things,” in Materiality, ed. Daniel Miller (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005): 182 - 205

Li, Feng. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045 – 771 BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. xviii, 405.

Li, Xiandeng. “On the Origin of Bronze in Ancient China,” in The Beginnings of Metallurgy in China, eds. Katheryn M. Linduff, Han Rubin, and Sun Shuyun (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000): 87 - 98.


[1] The Western Zhou dynasty is one of the three formative dynasties of early Chinese history; the other two are the Xia dynasty (ca. 2100 – 1600 BC) and the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 – 1027 BC). 

[2] The kingdom of Chu roughly corresponds to areas of modern day Hunan 湖南province, Hubei 湖北 province, Henan 河南 province, and Jiangsu 江蘇 province. 

[3] Modern day Wei river valley in Western Shaanxi 陝西province.

[4] Also known as the Nine Cauldrons, the Yu Ding 禹鼎, The Nine Vessels, or the Jiu Ding 九鼎.

[5] Hung Wu, Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 5.

[6] The Mandate of Heaven is a familiar term in Chinese history. It refers to the idea that the king’s power was bestowed upon his person by the powers of Heaven, specifically, the by powers of the king’s ancestors and by the power of the god Shangdi 上帝. It is said that the Mandate was transferable depending on righteousness of the ruling lineage; if the royal household became corrupt, the powers of Heaven would remove its Mandate from the current ruler and bestow it upon a more worthy successor. This concept was the basis of justification of dynastic decline and overthrow throughout much of early China, and even into later dynasties such as the Tang dynasty 唐朝.

[7] According to early Chinese history, Yu (commonly referred to as Yu the Great) was a mythological sage hero and founder of the Xia dynasty. Asides from casting the Nine Tripods, he is known for allegedly saving the Xia kingdom from massive floods by dredging water channels. For more information on the history of Yu’s life, see: Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Sima Qian 司馬遷), The Grand Scribe’s Records: the Basic Annals of Pre-Han China, ed. William H. Neinhauser et. al. (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 304.

[8] Anne Birrell, Chinese Myths (London: The British Museum Press, 2000), 23.

[9] Elizabeth DeMarrais et. al., “Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies,” Current Anthropology 37, no. 1 (February 1996): 16.

[10] Early China here refers, specifically, to the period of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (ca. 2100 - 771 BC).

[11] The casting portion of bronze vessel creation in ancient China is actually a multi-step process, which is called “piece-mold casting.” For more information, see: Xiandeng Li,  “On the Origin of Bronze in Ancient China,” The Beginnings of Metallurgy in China, eds. Katheryn M. Linduff, Han Rubin, and Sun Shuyun (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), 87 - 98.

[12] Webb Keane, “Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things,” Materiality, ed. Daniel Miller (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 186-187.

[13] Ibid., 188.

[14] For more information on the use of investiture bronzes, see, for instance, Feng Li, Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall fo the Western Zhou 1045 – 771 BC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 91 – 140.

[15] Keane, “Signs Are Not the Garb of Meaning,” 189.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 191.

[18] Ibid., 193.

[19] Ibid., 195.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 201.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Scholars have attributed the fall of the last western Zhou king (King You 幽王 781-771 BC) to a devastating invasion by a group of people called the Xianyun 獫狁, who supposedly occupied the region to the west of the Wei river valley. For more on this invasion, see, for instance, Feng Li, Landscape and Power, 141-192.

[24] Sarah Allan, The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 14.

[25] Ibid., 189.