The Elephant-motif Big Bronze ‘Nao’

The elephant-motif big bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty is gigantic and the making techniques are quite complicated. It was not discovered in an ancient tomb. A farmer came cross it when he was doing farm work.

The gigantic bronze Nao looks like a combination of two pieces of roof tiles. The overall shape is wider on top with an opening upwards. The cylinder at the bottom is the handle of the Nao. The bronze Nao looks heavy and bulky, but the making techniques are quite exquisite. There are decorative patterns of two small elephants on the front body. The Nao is therefore named elephant-motif big bronze Nao. Under the front body is the front central panel. The handle is decorated with cloud and thunder patterns, which are also carefully cast. In the Shang Dynasty of China more than three thousand years ago, the ancient people thought these impressive patterns had the function of connecting with the gods, which reveal their worship to their ancestors and the nature, as well as their tributes to the gods. The King of Nao's exquisite decorative patterns are a sharp contrast to its heavy and bulky body, which is quite impressive. According to experts, the elephant-motif big bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty represents the higher level of bronze casting in the Shang and Zhou period.

One day in 1983, a villager surnamed Ma in Ningxiang County of Hunan Province was planting sweet potatoes in the field when the hoe in his hand suddenly hit a hard object and made a metallic noise. It aroused the curiosity if the villager. He digging until the whole body of the bronze ware was gradually revealed. Ma did not know what it was. He hurriedly found other villagers working around. The villagers carefully observed the ware, but none of them knew what this thing was. Then an elderly said, About 40 years ago, in a place 200m from here, a famous bronze ware named square Zun with four sheep was found. This gigantic ware must also be a valuable cultural relic. Ma immediately contacted the cultural relic’s authorities of the county. The archeologists sent the bronze ware to the County Cultural Relic Administration. As identified by experts, the bronze ware found in farmland is a bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty of China. Later it was named elephant-motif big bronze Nao. The elephant-motif big bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty caused a stir in the archeology world. Some experts noticed that in Ningxiang County of Hunan Province, a large quantity of bronze Nao of the Shang Dyansty, of the Shang and Zhou period were found since the 1930s. The total is over 40 pieces.

Five big bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty were found at the same time in 1959 in Laoliangcang Town, Ningxiang County, Hunan Province. Among them, the elephant-motif big bronze Nao was the most exquisite one. This cloud pattern beast face bronze Nao was dug out in the courtyard of a farmer's house in Ningxiang County, 1973. The decorative patterns one the bronze Nao are very exquisite. The main body is decorated with cloud and thunder patterns as well ad beast face veins. The beast face veins are greatly simplified. Only the two diamond-shaped bulging eyes can be identified. Also in Laoliangcang Town of Ningxiang County, 1993, a beast-face-patterned Nao was found. The whole body is mainly decorated with cloud and thunder patterns. On the central panel is the combination of cloud and dragon grains. The two sides are decorated with nipple patterns. This exquisite bronze Nao was carefully made with complicated decorative patterns.

Some scholars have raised the question that why exquisite bronze Nao are found one after another in Ningxiang County of Hunan Province, a remote place with underdeveloped economy in the Shang Dynasty. It is speculated that in the late period of Shang Dynasty, some people from the Central Plains moved down to the south to settle down in Ningxiang County. They brought advanced bronze casting technology to their new home. Maybe these people from Central Plains made a lot of exquisite bronze Nao here. This assumption has to be verified by experts.

According to the experts in Changsha Municipal Museum, bronze Nao was mainly found in Xiangjiang River Basin, especially the areas surrounding Dongting Lake. People in the Shang Dynasty believed in spirits. they valued the worship to their ancestors and the nature. They performed complicated ceremonial rituals, for which large amount of live stock and ceremonial musical instruments were necessary. After the ceremonies, many bronze Nao were buried under the ground by the ancient people. When the bronze Nao were dug out, almost all of them had their opening, upwards and handles downwards, about 1m to the ground surface. Around them, other ware was seldom found.

The widespread use of bronze Nao started in the late period of the Shang Dynasty. As an important percussion instrument at that time, it is popular in the central Plains  and south of the Yangtze River among the upper classes. How to play the gigantic bronze Nao?

According to experts, bronze Nao is a musical instrument installed on a seat with its opening upwards and handle downwards. As the front panel is connected with the handle, a broad audio cavity is formed. To play the Nao in a performance, just hit on the Nao body with a wood mallet gently to make sonorous and long-lasting sound resonances. In early times, Nao is used in ceremonies or feast music plays to support other musical instruments as a tempo maker. According to experts, tests reveal that the copper content of the elephant-motif big bronze Nao is up to 98%. It is almost made from pure copper. As a result, it is tough enough and will not crack when being hit. Thus it is well suited to be a percussion instrument. This instrument looks quite simple, but two kinds of different musical sound can be made by hitting two different parts of it. Some scholars believe that "one Nao with dual sounder" is a creation in Ancient Chinese music history. It reveals the wisdom and advanced casting technology of ancient craftsmen. Bronze Nao has another function in the Shang Dynasty. It is used to transmit orders in the military. Bronze Nao played an important role in ancient wars. According to experts, the elephant-motif big bronze Nao of the Shang Dynasty was used as a stand-alone instrument. Along with the continuous development of bronze casting technology, groups of Nao sets emerged. In Ningxiang County of Hunan Province, a Nao set was unearthed in 1993. Nao sets are one of the earliest group percussion instruments in China.  According to the result of professional sound measurement, the unearthed Nao set has complete tones. It can be used to play various tunes. Since the medium period of the Western Zhou Dynasty, the bronze Nao gradually developed into Yongzhong bells, and in the Spring and Autumn and Warring Stats Period, Yongzhong bells developed into the well-known Bianzhong bell(Chinese chime bells).

The elephant-motif big bronze Nao, we have learned about the advanced bronze casting technology of the Shang Dynasty of China. And it is also a valuable material for the research in ancient Chinese music history.