Ancient Chinese Gunnery

Ancient Chinese Gunnery  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.

Chinese legends say whoever held the bronze vessels in the culture also held the power.  Almost 4,000 years ago the Chinese discovered the alloy of tin and copper called bronze.

Even the simple axes and daggers the Chinese made were more elaborate than anything seen in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age.     

Ancient Chinese art tells its story through bronze artifacts.  Sacrificial vases, ceremonial bowls, beakers, incense burners, and spearheads have been unearthed in tombs showing that art and written language were remarkably advanced in China.

In the tombs of the Shang nobility (c.1523--c.1028 B.C.) over 400 bronze implements were excavated.  Some of the artifacts show extraordinary high style and technical mastery.  Vessels were often shaped in the form of birds and animals.  There was nothing quite like them in Western civilizations.

Even the simple axes and daggers the Chinese made were more elaborate than anything seen in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age.     

Each vessel had a particular function in Chinese rituals.  Some were for cooking and serving food.  Some held wine. Others held water.  Shape depended on function.  Surface design included conventional spirals but there were also scenes showing stylized huntsmen attacking various wild beasts with their swords, spears and arrows.

Delicacy and power epitomize Chinese art.  Bronze was used for ceremonial vessels as well as musical instruments, tools and as you might expect weapons.

A Chinese bronze cannon and caisson surfaced recently at auction.  The cannon dates to the 24th year of the reign of the Emperor Kangxi, 1695.

Emperor Kangxi was one of China’s greatest emperors.  He was educated, enlightened and also traded and learned what he could from Europeans while resisting their desires for expansion. Kangxi brought stability and affluence to China.  He ruled from 1661 to 1722, the longest reign in the country’s history, 61 years. 

Kangxi stopped the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, forced the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan to submit to his rule, blocked Tzarist Russia and expanded his empire northwest. When his reign finally ended his empire controlled all of China proper, Taiwan, Manchuria, part of the Russian Far East, and Mongolia.

He realized he couldn’t stop the rebellion of the Three Feudatories without strong artillery.  Cannons were the answer.  And they needed to be lightweight, effective and easy to transport.

Per his request 905 cannons were cast.  Three different types were made under the supervision of a Jesuit priest named Ferdinand Verbiest.  The priest took part in the casting of the light cannons.  The cannon offered in the auction are of the shengong variety.

Verbiest arrived in China in 1659.  At court he taught the rulers and high court officials.  He also put together a table of all solar and lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years that reworked the Chinese calendar.

The caisson accompanying the cannon was made up of Period wheels and metal straps and was restored based upon a contemporary model.  The bronze cannon and caisson dated to 1695 sold on March 19 for $362,500 at Doyle Galleries, New York.

Chinese Artifacts

Turquoise Glazed Porcelain Moon Flask; flattened circular shape with flared rim set on either side with shaped bracket handles; late-18th/early 19th century;  10 inches high;  $9,375.

Glazed Porcelain Vase; blue-and-white; Kangxi Period; painted with four cartouches of dragons leaping from waves below; 13 inches high;  $17,290.     

Celadon Glazed Porcelain Brushwasher; straight sided form with wide averted rim under a light blue glaze; includes wood stand; possible 18th century; 6 ½ inches diameter; $20,000.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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