A Window to Ancient Times

The Hallwyl collection of small Chinese and Korean bronzes

Fragment of a Box (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

The Bronze Age of China

The Chinese bronzes in the Hallwyl collection represent mainly the later Chinese Bronze Age, but also later dynasties. China entered the Bronze Age during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). The introduction of bronze was revolutionary. The material is known for durability and it can be cast into various shapes, allowing fine details. It was used for making weapons, musical instruments and ceremonial vessels among other things.

Horse bits from the Han dynasty. (Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Horses and Chariots

The horse was first domesticated on the Eurasian Steppe.  Domestic horses then spread over the world and had a great impact on civilization. The horse facilitated migration and trade and changed warfare. Communication became faster and easier. Interaction between cultures increased. Spoked wheels, chariots and copper-bronze metallurgy appears to have arrived in China along with the domestic horse.  Chariots were first used in China in 1200 BCE, probably around the time the domesticated horse was introduced. 

Bronze Bell from Gushi, Henan, Unknown Creator, Qin – Western Han dynasty (221 BCE – 9 CE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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The period to which this bell dates marks the end of chariot use in China. However, it is still possible that this small bell was used on such a vehicle. Otherwise, it would have been appropriate for use on a horse, or perhaps even a dog.

Set of Four Ferrules (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Each of these hollow ferrules gently curves outwards into an animal head. The top of the sleeve starts with a register of a twisted rope-like pattern, followed by S-shaped spirals and triangular peaks and a final register of the twisted rope-like pattern. These types of ferrules are a known type of shape, but their exact function is unknown. They may have been part of the canopy of chariots.

Spearhead-Shaped Finial, Unknown Creator, Western Zhou dynasty (1045-771 BCE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This finial would originally have been a pair that attached to either end of a horizontal drawbar of a chariot. The horse harnesses would have been attached to this drawbar. The openwork decoration weakens the object, making it impractical for active warfare, but it would have looked intimidating to the opponent.

Draught Pole Finial and Horse Trappings, Unknown Creator, Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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The bigger object is a draught pole finial. The decoration is composed of small, coiled dragons. The function of this finial is mainly decorative. It may have also added an element of intimidation and prestige.

The two horse trappings are similar to each other. They were probably used to help organize the reins on a horse or chariot. Both are decorated with intertwining serpents.

Swords and Daggers (-0770/0220) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum


Bronze revolutionized warfare in Bronze Age cultures throughout the world.  Bronze blades were more durable than stone, and blades could be sharpened repeatedly.  Bronze could also be resmelted into new objects when worn out. As warfare increased during the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE), mainly due to its crumbling governing structure, there was a proliferation in weaponry. A lot of Chinese Bronze Age technology is related to manufacturing swords. 

Arrow whistle (unknown date of creation), Unknown Creator, From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This non-lethal arrowhead made a high pitch whistling sound when flying through the air. It was produced by wind passing through the holes on the sides. These arrow tips were used by commanders for communicating with troops on the battlefield. Arrow whistles have been used in China since at least the Han dynasty, and probably much earlier, and their design has changed very little.

Crossbow Trigger Mechanism, Unknown Creator, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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The crossbow was invented in China during the Warring States period (475 BCE –221 BCE).Crossbows were used by infantry and cavalry. They came in various sizes. Some could probably have been used by one hand, while others were stationary and had a pull of over 159 kg (350lbs) to cock them. This weapon could pierce armour, and was particularly effective against cavalry attacks.

Arrow Tip for a Crossbow Bolt, Unknown Creator, Probably Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This arrow tip would have been slotted into a wood or bamboo shaft and used with a crossbow. The first recorded use of the crossbow was at the battle of Ma Ling in 342 BCE. 10,000 foot soldiers with crossbows were successfully deployed by Sun Pin of Qi State in aid of Han State. The opponents were driven away and their general commited suicide.

Guarded Lance and Lance Guard, Unknown Creator, Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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With a narrow blade slotted through a slight “w”-shaped guard, this type of weapon would have been attached to a long pole. The blade and guard were cast separately. Its blade was effective for both puncturing with the tip and cutting with the edge. The bigger guard is missing its blade.

Sword with Decorated Guard (Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Sword with a close-up of its pommel.
This sword is one of the most decorated within the Hallwyl collection. The blade is plain. The guard has raised spiral motifs that would have been inlaid with semi-precious stones, such as turquoise and crystals. The ridges on the handle would have been bound with textile for better grip. The handle ends in a round pommel. It's decorated with finely cast, linear geometric designs.

Knives with Ring Handles (-0300/-0100) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum


Bronze is a sturdy material that can withstand shock better than stone, bone or wood.  Cutting edges can be repeatedly sharpened until the material itself wears away. It's a very good material for tools.  Bronze tools are probably under-represented in the archaeological record, as the material was usually melted down and recycled, when the tools were broken beyond repair. 

Knife (possibly ceremonial) (Possibly Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 – 256 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

This knife appears to be unique.

The tip of this knife was sharpened on both sides. The bottom cutting edge continues to the tang, where the handle was. The handle may have originally been wrapped with textile or perhaps had a handle made from wood or bone to reinforce the grip.

The top edge expands into a cup-shaped opening on one side and a slightly convex surface to accommodate the opening on the other side of the blade. The top edge, from the “cup” to the tang is blunt.

It is possible that this knife served ceremonial purposes. The function of the cup within the blade is unknown. It appears that the blade was meant to pierce and then cut due to the point and two sharpened edges at the tip and a cutting edge at the bottom of the blade.

Chisel Head, Unknown Creator, Shang dynasty (16th century – 1046 BCE) or later, From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This chisel probably had a straight wooden handle that slotted into the socket at the back. Like a modern chisel, it was probably used either by pushing from or hammering the handle to cut away pieces of wood at the cutting edge. Rather than used for shaping the general form of a piece of wood, like with an adze, the chisel was used for more decorative or detailed work.

Fish Hooks (Possibly Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) or earlier) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

These two fishhooks are nearly identical in design to modern fishhooks. The main difference is that instead of an eye at the end of the shank, these hooks have a notch at the end for securing the line. Due to the purely functional design, without any decoration, the dating is difficult to pinpoint. Similar ancient, but modern-appearing fishhooks have been discovered in other parts of the world.

Tang Mirror (Front and Back) (Tang dynasty (618 – 907)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Chinese Mirrors

Mirrors arrived in China during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age from the Northwestern regions.  They probably served a spiritual function and, based on early sun ray-like decorations, were probably used in ceremonies relating to the sun.  During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), immortality cults became common for the elite.  Immortals and their lands were depicted on many mirrors.  We do not know exactly how these mirrors would have been used in religious rituals. By the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), it appears that mirrors meant for mundane use became popular amongst the elite.  This may be due, in part, to the wealth of the Tang dynasty.   

Mirror with Dragon Motifs, Unknown Creator, Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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The earliest Chinese mirrors were made in the late Neolithic period, but this is still considered an early mirror for Central China. Later mirrors have a thick ridge around the edge to give it structural support. In the central field of this mirror are dragon motifs on a dotted background.

Mirror with Mythical Creatures and Immortals, Unknown Creator, Probably 3rd or 4th Century B.C., From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This extremely well-cast mirror shows images of people, perhaps celestial beings, interacting with various types of fantastic creatures. On the register outside of this main scene is an inscription with four characters that translate as “Heaven, king, sun, moon.” The abstract cloud patterns on the edge give the mirror a mythical, heavenly context.

Mirror with Cosmological Design (Tang dynasty (618-907)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

This mirror can be seen as a cosmological map of both time and space.

The centre of this mirror contains a knob in the form of a turtle with trigrams on its shell. At each corner within the square, there are symbols signifying water, metal, fire and wood.

Beyond the square is an inscription that can be translated as: “The mirror reflects the things and renders their souls clear, its substance is pure and true.”

The twelve animals of the zodiac are located in the next field.

The final field is split into four sections, each contains what is probably an immortal in different settings. The top section also contains the sun with a crow in it. The bottom includes moon with a cinnamon tree.

Mirror Depicting Laozi (Song dynasty (960-1279)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

A man with a water buffalo is facing a kneeling man. They are in a rocky and watery landscape with a willow tree in the background. The man with the buffalo probably depicts Laozi, the mythical founder of philosophical Daoism.

According to tradition, Laozi lived in the 6th century BCE and worked as an archivist for the Zhou royal court. Toward the end of his life, he became disillusioned with the Zhou leadership and decided to travel west on a water buffalo. He met a guard named Yinxi, who begged him to write down his teachings before leaving. The result is the text Daodejing, the primary text for the Daoist religion.

Korean Mirror (Goryeo period (918-1392)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Korean mirrors

The Korean mirrors in the Hallwyl collection all date to the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392). A diverse range of mirrors were made in Korea during this time, usually with decoration based on Chinese designs.  It is  possible that some of the Goryeo mirrors were meant for export to China. There exist some mirrors that have the Chinese characters for “Made in Goryeo” cast into the decoration. Large-scale trade was conducted between China, Korea and Japan during this time.

Eight-Lobed Mirror with Dragon Carp (Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

This eight-lobed mirror is decorated with a carp transforming into a winged dragon amid waves and clouds. According to Chinese mythology, which was also adopted in Korea, the first carp of the year to leap past the Dragon Gate becomes a dragon. This is used as a metaphor for a scholar passing the imperial service examinations to become an official within the imperial bureaucracy. This can also represent the ability to overcome adversity.

Mirror with a Lunar Landscape (Goryeo dynasty (918–1392)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Front and back of the same mirror. A mansion enveloped by clouds is depicted in the background. The clouds imply that the mansion is in an otherworldly context. In the middle ground, a group of three people are seated on the left, also on clouds.

The person in the middle is Chang E, the goddess of the moon flanked by two attendants. In the center, a rabbit pounds medicine that will grant immortality with a mortar and pestle.

A toad, which has been associated with the moon since at least the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), is to the right of the rabbit. An attendant is crossing a bridge, near the rabbit and toad, followed by his master.

On the right of the mirror is a large tree. This is the mythical cinnamon tree that grows on the moon, according to mythology. A dragon leaps through waves in the foreground. Dragons are associated with rain and the emperor.

The scene on this mirror probably depicts a tale about the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) emperor Xuanzong (reign 712 – 756). According to this story, the emperor had a dream in which he journeyed to the moon. During this excursion, he met the goddess Chang E.

Garment Hooks (Daigou) (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Personal Adornments

During the early Bronze Age, Jade would have been the preferred material to make personal adornments.  During the Eastern Zhou dynasty, the old feudal system started to break down, and regional rulers gained more power.  Bronze adornments meant to show status proliferated.   Garment hooks start to appear during the late Bronze Age of China.  As China adapted to warfare on horseback, they needed more suitable types of clothing for riding horses. 

Garment Hook (daigou), front and back, Unknown Creator, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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The body of this garment hook is in the form of a bear-like anthropomorphic beast. It holds a sword in its right hand and a shield in its left hand. The lower limbs also appear to be holding weapons, but it is too corroded to see clearly. The hook is in the shape of a down-turned animal head. At the back of the beast’s chest is a button for attaching it to a belt.

Elephant Head and Camel Shaped Garment Hooks (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period, 4th – 3rd century BCE) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Garment hooks, in the shapes of an elephant's head and a camel. The elephant has a button at the back, for attaching it to a belt. The hook may have been used for hanging a sword scabbard. During the Bronze Age, there were elephants in Central China that were sometimes used in warfare.
Camels would have been valued as hardy pack animals, carrying supplies or other goods on long-distance journeys.

Hair Pin, Unknown Creator, Possibly Song Dynasty (960–1279), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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Of an elongated U-shape, the simple design of this undecorated hairpin makes it difficult to date. However, this style was more popular during the Song dynasty.

Spout in the Form of An Animal Head (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

Other Small Treasures

During the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 – 256 BCE), royal authority collapsed and left room for new competition.  This allowed for new types of bronze objects to be made, such as coins.  There also starts to appear more luxury objects made from bronze.  This animal-headed spout appears to be such a prestige objects. 

Two “Ant Nose” (yibi) Coins (Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE)) by Unknown CreatorHallwyl Museum

These simple drop-shaped coins represent some of the earliest bronze coins in China. They were minted by the state of Chu during the Warring States period. They were inspired by cowrie shells, which was an older form of currency. The term “ant nose” was due to the inscriptions sometimes looking like faces (right). They are also known as “ghost face coins” (guilian qian) for the same reason. The holes allowed them to be strung together.

Small Wheel-like Object with Chevron Pattern, Unknown Creator, From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This small wheel-like object has repeating chevron patterns along the surface. It is perforated by a hole. It may have been used as a tool to stamp patterns into wet clay, either for ceramics or making moulds from which bronze objects were cast.

Fragment of a Box, Unknown Creator, Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE), From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This piece is one of three fragments belonging to the same box. The other two are in the collections of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The object is decorated with abstract, coiled dragons. Their claws can be seen in various places.

Acupuncture Needle, Unknown Creator, Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period (475– 221 BCE) or later, From the collection of: Hallwyl Museum
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This object is possibly an acupuncture needle. It was previously catalogued as a hairpin. However, there are several similar objects in the collection that are much shorter and would not have been practical to use as hairpins. Similar needles to this one have been discovered in the Han Dynasty tomb of Liu Sheng (died 113 BCE).

Mirrors (-0206/-0009) by unknownHallwyl Museum

The bronze objects in the Hallwyl Museum are a window to the late Chinese Bronze Age and onwards to the 12th Century. There are spectacular mirrors in the collection, but more importantly it was shaped as a study collection, among the first of its kind to reach Europe. The museum catalogue comprises 362 inventory numbers, 350 of which are Chinese, and 12 Korean. Find out more about the Hallwyl bronzes on www.hallwylskamuseet.se/en/bronzes.

Credits: Story

Content: Michel Lee (Curator, China and Korea, The National Museums of World Culture) and Annika Williams (Curator, The Hallwyl Collection, National Historical Museums)
Photo: Ola Myrin (National Historical Museums)
Producer: Sara Dixon (National Historical Museums)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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