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Liyu [Li-yü]locked

  • Robert W. Bagley

Site in Hunyuan County, northern Shanxi Province, China. A tomb or hoard of Eastern Zhou (771–256 bc) bronzes was discovered at the site in 1923. The bronzes (mainly Shanghai, Shanghai Mus.; Paris, Mus. Guimet; Washington, DC, Freer; New York, Met.) include one vessel decorated in red inlay with a turbulent hunting scene and another textured with a repetitive pattern of tiny interlocked dragons in rectangular units. The majority, however, are decorated in low or high relief with horizontal bands of large-scale dragon interlace and are often further embellished with intaglio sketches or modelled figures of such creatures as fish, ducks, and water buffalo. In Western writings about Chinese bronzes the name of the site has been attached to designs of this last type. A large bronze pan (Beijing, Pal. Mus.), though not from the Liyu group, is a dazzling example of the so-called Liyu style. The style probably spanned the late 6th century bc and the 5th; a pair of hu vessels (London, BM), the only Liyu-style bronzes that can be dated by their inscriptions, were cast in or shortly after 482 bc. Since 1923 Liyu-style bronzes have been unearthed at many places in northern China, notably at Hui Xian in Henan Province and at Taiyuan, Changzhi, and Houma in Shanxi Province. The style was firmly connected with the early Eastern Zhou state of Jin by the discovery of clay mould fragments bearing its characteristic designs at a foundry site excavated in the 1960s at Houma, where the Jin capital was located between 585 and 453 bc. In the light of these discoveries the geographic emphasis of the term ‘Liyu style’ has come to seem misplaced: the designs flourished in the heart of the Jin state and had no special connection with the remote border area where the first examples were found. Moreover, what was once thought to be a sharply defined style, easily distinguished from its contemporaries, seems increasingly to belong to a broad continuum of Eastern Zhou dragon designs whose regional and temporal variations have yet to be clarified. Even a restricted definition such as ‘dragon interlace designs represented in the Houma foundry debris’ might not represent a helpful category for historical study, and it might be best either to regard the term as only an imprecise convenience or to avoid it altogether.


  • Shang Chengzuo: Hunyuan yiqi tu [Bronzes from Hunyuan] (Nanjing, 1936)
  • S. Umehara: Sengoku-shiki dōki no kenkyū/Etude des bronzes des royaumes combattants (Kyoto, 1936) [Fr. summary]
  • G. W. Weber: The Ornaments of Late Chou Bronzes (New Brunswick, 1973)
  • The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China (exh. cat., ed. Wen Fong; New York, Met.; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.; 1980–81), entries 68–70
  • R. W. Bagley: ‘Debris from the Houma Foundry’, Chinese Bronzes: Selected Articles from Orientations (Hong Kong, 2001), pp. 246–54