Fitting for a Chariot Canopy

  • China, Western Han period
  • Year 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.
  • Materials Bronze with gold and silver foil inlays
  • Dimensions H-26.5 D-4

This exquisitely inlaid cylinder formed one of a multisectioned fitting to reinforced joints in the central wooden pole of a chariot’s canopy. One such fitting with two sections of the wooden pole preserved inside was recovered from the late-second-century B.C. tomb of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.1 Judging from remains of similar pole fittings recovered from archaeological excavations, canopied carriages or chariots were in use in ancient China by at least the late sixth or early fifth century B.C.2 They became increasingly common toward the Qin-Han periods, appearing mostly in the tombs of noble princes, rulers, and high-ranking officials.3

Even from their earliest appearances, canopied chariots seem to be distinguished from open chariots, occurring in smaller numbers, mostly in richly furnished tombs and with the fittings often enhanced by lavish decoration. The discovery of a gilded model of a canopied chariot, together with a gilded model of an enclosed carriage, in a pit west of the First Emperor of Qin’s mausoleum, most likely representing the First Emperor’s private vehicles, would seem to confirm the special status of such covered chariots (fig. 1).4 The lavish appearance of both vehicles suggest that they were not everyday conveyances. The two types of vehicles, each drawn by four horses, indicate that they were meant for different occasions. The enclosed carriage may signify the First Emperor’s private or civil aspect, the canopied chariot, his public or military aspect. Weapons, including a crossbow and bolts, shield, and sword, found neatly arranged inside the canopied chariot confirm its military significance, although in actual battle, the canopy would hinder the wielding of weapons, especially long-shafted halberds and spears.

That such canopied chariots belonged to individuals of exalted rank and served a ceremonial function are further supported by the lavish decoration on their accessories. Many other fittings, but gilded or decorated differently, are also known from tombs of rulers and princes.5 The present fitting stands out as one of three known examples with similar designs, all inlaid with fine gold and silver. One of these, with closely parallel designs is in the collection of the Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku;6 the other, with additional inlays of turquoise cabochons, has been recovered from an early first-century B.C. tomb of a royal Han prince in Ding Xian, Hebei province.7

Almost identical scenes of animals among undulating scalloped scrolls arranged in horizontal registers, bordered at top and bottom by two narrow rows of sawtooth and lozenge motifs, inlaid in gold and silver respectively, decorate all three fittings. On the Shumei example, the top register shows a lumbering elephant and prancing tiger; the second is dominated by a rider on horseback, turning back and aiming his bow and arrow at a leaping tiger in hot pursuit; the third features a large Bactrian camel amidst spotted leopards, bears, monkeys, and birds; and a large bird with an elaborate fan of peacock-like tail feathers occupies the fourth register. Aside from the main protagonists on each register, smaller birds and animals–monkeys, deer, boar, hare–fabulous winged beasts, and other creatures fill the space with a flurry of activity. In their fine linear inlays of gold and silver, the creatures stand out against the plain bronze ground and the wider strips of silver, inlaid to form undulating scalloped scrolls that suggest mountain ranges. Such quasi-landscape representations featuring a myriad of real and imaginary animals and creatures have been interpreted as images of auspicious omens (xiangrui) that were considered supernatural manifestations of a ruler’s benevolence and mandate.8 The depiction of such images were believed to enhance the chances of them appearing in real life, so that similar scenes came to proliferate among Han bronzes, jades, and ceramics.

  1. Guangzhoushi et al. 1991, pl. 51.1; p. 96, fig. 64.6.
  2. Kaogu xuebao 1972.1, pp. 67, fig. 8; also examples cited in Lawton 1982, no. 20.
  3. See Dabaotai 1989, pp. 74-81; Hebei sheng 1980, pls. 130.3, 224.3; Sun 1993, p. 57, fig. 4-6.1, 4-6.2.
  4. Sun 1993, pp. 17-24, fig. 2:1; for other examples see Sun 1991, pp. 90-101.
  5. See Guangzhoushi et al. 1991, pl. 51.2; Rawson and Bunker 1990, no. 94; also n.3 above.
  6. Osaka 1976, pl. 49.
  7. Watson 1973, no. 173; this and the Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku example are discussed in detail in Wu 1984.
  8. Wu 1984.