Unknown artist (China, probably Sichuan province), Kneeling Figure, 1500 BCE–1000 BCE. The Art Institute of Chicago.

by Douglas Penick

I encountered this small (about 7 inches tall) chlorite carving when my wife and I were visiting the Chicago Institute of Fine Arts. It was kept in a plexiglass box near the entrance to the Asian collection and I found it so shocking that I really don’t remember any other piece from our visit to that splendid museum. The sense of complete subjection, resignation and waiting for a terrible fate has haunted me since first I saw it. There is no specific element that accounts for the power of the image of this captive slave. It is the ensemble of his haunted huge eye sockets, his thin compressed lips, his arms tied behind and his back curved forward, waiting. His legs are beneath him and he is not about to move. The indented curve at the top of the head implies that this statue may have been a support for some larger assemblage of objects. This piece was made more than 3500 years ago in Shang Dynasty China.

This sculpture speaks of how captivity and slavery have always shaped human life. There is no culture known in our history where the many were not ruled by the few. There has been no time in which the word freedom had any true meaning for women, men or children, if it existed at all. Through all written history, rulers have ceaselessly coerced huge armies of their subjects to fight and die, thus to expand and preserve their dominion through war. Human culture is the product of subjection, violence and war.

The Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BCE) is the second dynasty in China’s prehistory and amongst the achievements for which it is most celebrated are firstly the extraordinary profusion of intricately decorated cast bronze ceremonial objects. These have all been recovered from the graves of rulers and nobles which also contained pottery vessels and the bodies of consorts and attendants offered as sacrifices. They have been prized in China since the Song Dynasty and elsewhere since they were first seen. These extraordinary castings could only have been produced in a stratified society, where armies of miners excavated and transported ore; thousands of men cut wood, fired charcoal or dug coal; where metallurgists oversaw a vast number of specialised labourers who smelted and made alloys of the required metals. Above all, there were the artisans who designed and executed the moulds for casting; while directing and coordinating the entire endeavour were rulers and nobles who commissioned the marvellous vessels and ordered the manufacture of thousands of weapons. All these labourers were sustained by farmers who provided these workers with food and porters who brought it to them, weavers who made their clothes, carpenters who built their houses, soldiers who guarded their cities, etc.

All the artefacts, the products of this immense – almost total – social organisation were made as weapons and as shrine objects to be used in ceremonies, ritual offerings and sacrifices. So, just as the powerful Shang military was meant to secure its place among other armed tribes and rival kingdoms, Shang liturgies and rituals were aimed at bringing order to the inhospitable chaos of nature and fate. The overwhelming preponderance of the Shang state’s resources in wealth and human beings for more than half a millennium were committed to cultural survival by war and by maintaining its relationship and influence with the vast powers of the cosmos. And has any society been so different? Even now, is not a huge percentage of our resources devoted to weapons, soldiers and securing predictions based on statistical probability (which we call science) to give us power over chaos and nature?

This brings us to the second most famous set of Shang artefacts, discovered only in the 20th century. These are the products of its method of divination: scoring and burning the shoulder bones of cattle or, more famously, the flat bottom shell (plastron) of turtle shells. The resulting cracks and the way they were subsequently marked in order to interpret them were (it is widely believed) the basis of Chinese writing and of the great Classic of Changes (I Ching). It was only relatively recently that the significance of these bones was understood and since then more than 100,000 have been recovered and catalogued. The questions addressed in these divinations concerned the best time for ritual actions such as sacrifices, funerals, etc.; the best way to obtain good weather; which actions would best secure the king and his dynasty’s good fortune; the best location for buildings and fortifications; the meaning of astronomical formations; the best times for exploratory ventures, crop planting and suchlike; the optimal times and places for hunting and military expeditions; the most fortunate dynastic marriages; the nature of foreign military ambitions; the meanings of natural disasters, dreams, sicknesses and death. The Shang rulers questioned and received answers from the forces of the cosmos and found only in this interchange the kinds of predictable certainties needed to direct a huge and complex social order. It may seem haphazard to us, but it worked well enough to keep them in power for 600 years.

But sculpture is very rare among the many things left from the Shang. This object, this little prisoner/slave is, no doubt, part of the grave furnishings for someone of consequence. As to the slave himself, when we look at him, we see a generic being, one of millions and millions and millions such men before and since. And now he speaks for all those men, women and children who were born, lived and died in servitude and silence. He and his like are the support of the edifice, not just of the Shang, but of every state, society and civilisation since then. This invisible horde is the foundation for every culture’s continuing. And it is almost never acknowledged. Our official history shows humanity ever triumphant over obstacles; we tell ourselves the story of an ever-rising sun, an always waxing moon, a journey always moving forward into expanding light.

This small stone man, frozen, terrified, waiting shows the fathomless silent darkness in our past and, for that matter, our present. He is the wordless night. He shows us a great reality and a question completely unresolved even now in our collective existence.

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.


The Art Institute of Chicago offers the image under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) designation.

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