Chinese monumental iron castings - Illustrations
Donald B. Wagner

Abstract: This article reviews the technical aspects of the production of very large iron castings in pre-modern China. Among the matters taken up are: the piece-moulding technique and the amelioration of the flash-lines which are unavoidable when this technique is used with white cast iron; the use of sulphur in producing better detail in the castings, and the effect of sulphur on the sound-quality of cast-iron bells; the use of wrought-iron reinforcement and stage-casting in the enormous Cangzhou Lion; the special problems involved in casting iron artillery; and the riddle of the lack of corrosion on many of the pre-modern monumental iron casting. The corrosion-resistance of the ancient iron castings may be related to their very low silicon content.

The article was published in Journal of East Asian archaeology, 2000, 2.3/4: 199-224. This page gives colour versions of the article's illustrations.

Click on any image to see it enlarged and with better colour.


Figures 1-2. Two photographs of the recently excavated 'iron oxen' and 'iron men' which served as anchor-weights for the Pujin Bridge , completed in A.D. 724. The bridge crossed the Yellow River outside the ancient city of Puzhou in modern Yongji County, Shanxi (Needham 1962: 40-41; 1971: 160-161; Paludan 1994; excavation report Fan Wanglin & Li Maolin 1991). One of the oxen is 3.3 m long and 1.5 m high, and the rest are similar; each weighs about 15 tons. Photographs by Tang Huancheng in the archives of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge.
Figure 3. The four cast-iron warriors guarding the 'Depository of Ancient Spirits' (Gu shen ku) of the Zhongyue Temple in Dengfeng , Henan, photographed by Édouard Chavannes (reproduced from Chavannes 1909-15). Heights range from 254 to 260 cm. An inscription cast into one indicates that they were cast in A.D. 1064 (Shi Yan 1988: 35); Chavannes appears to be mistaken when he gives the date 1213.
Figure 4. One of the warriors shown in Figure 3, photographed in 1987.
Figure 5. Detail of the casting shown in Figure 4.
Figure 6. The 'Iron Rhinoceros' in the village of Tieniu , 2 km northeast of Kaifeng , Henan, dated A.D. 1446 (Wang Xinmin 1982: 61-63).
Figure 7. Detail of the back of the 'Iron Rhinoceros' shown in Figure 6.
Figure 8. The 'Eastern Iron Pagoda' of the Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong, cast in A.D. 967. It is protected by a building recently built around it, and could only be photographed through a window. Compare Figure 9.
Figure 9. Remains of the 'Western Iron Pagoda' of the Guangxiao Temple. Compare Figure 8.
Figure 10. Detail of the 'Western Iron Pagoda' of Figure 9.
Figure 11. Detail of the 'Western Iron Pagoda' of Figures 9-10, showing an image of the Buddha Bhaisyaguru (Yaoshi Fo ).
Figure 12. Iron bell in the Great Bell Temple in Beijing, cast in the Yongle reign period (1403-1424).
Figure 13. A broken bell at the Shaolin Monastery in Dengfeng, Henan, cast in A.D. 1204.
Figure 14. Detail of the fracture of the bell shown in Figure 13.
Figure 15. Iron bell at the Great Bell Temple in Beijing, cast A.D. 1626.
Figure 16. Detail of the bell shown in Figure 15.
Figure 17. The Cangzhou Lion, photographed by Thomas T. Read at some time between 1907 and 1910. His caption reads, in part: 'It . . . was cast in 953 A.D. in sections, like a concrete building. It was broken, in falling over, into four separate pieces, one of which, the lower jaw, is lying on the ground, not visible in the picture, while the head and the 'lotus seat' have been awkwardly propped in place with slabs of stone, so something of the original appearance has been lost. . . .' (Read 1937: 383).
Figure 18. The Cangzhou Lion photographed in 1987. Note the modern repair and the missing lower jaw.
Figure 19. Inside the head of the Cangzhou Lion, showing more of the modern repairs. Part of the cast-in wrought iron reinforcement can also be seen extending from the centre of the photograph to the lower right corner.
Figure 20. The rump of the Cangzhou Lion.
Figure 21. Sketch showing how the Cangzhou Lion was cast, reproduced from Wu Kunyi et al. 1984: 83.
Figure 22. A Qing-period cast-iron gun, photographed at the Great Bell Temple in Beijing in 1984. In 1987 it was no longer there, and I do not know its present whereabouts.
Figure 23. A cast-iron gun, cast in 1841, photographed in front of the Guangzhou Museum in Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong, in 1984.
Figure 24. Two Chinese guns sketched in 1860 by George Banks at the Dagu Forts, in modern Tianjin Municipality. Banks believed that these were 'evidently very old', from the seventeenth century or before, and while this dating is quite plausible it is not clear what evidence he could have had for it. He does not mention any inscriptions. 'No. 1 had a piece broken from the muzzle, which enabled me to see how it was made. The inner part or bore was made of longitudinal bars, one inch wide and half an inch thick [2.5 cm, 1.3 cm], welded together, and forming a lip where they terminated at the muzzle. Round these, and binding them together, were rings, one inch thick and three inches wide [2.5 cm, 7.6 cm], also welded. Outside these, again, is a layer of cast iron, two inches and three-quarters [7 cm] thick at the muzzle, and of course much thicker at the breech, giving shape to the gun. The faint lines on the surface are caused by the crevices between the bricks of which the mould was built in which the casting took place. This piece is 9 feet 6 inches long, 23 inches diameter at the breech, and 15 inches diameter at the mouth [291 cm, 60 cm, 39 cm]. No. 2 is a similar gun, but with only rings welded together and encased in cast iron. It is very singular that both these guns should be broken in the same way. It is 9 feet 7 inches long, 2 feet 1 inch diameter at the breech, and 16 inches at the mouth [292 cm, 64 cm, 41 cm]' (Banks 1861).



Figures 25-28. The moulding and casting of a gun: line drawings and water-colours by unknown Chinese artists. Purchased by members of the Mission Lagrenée in Guangzhou (Canton), ca. 1842, and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. ('Métallurgie du fer', OE 114 4°, nos. 3-4; 'Métallurgie du fer', OE 118, nos. 3-4. Cf. Huard & Wong 1966: 199, 217-219.)



Figure 29. A large gun in the Capital Museum (Shoudu Bowuguan ), Beijing, cast in 1643. Cf. Figure 30.
Figure 30. The muzzle of the gun in Figure 29. Note that it is iron on the inside and bronze on the outside.
Figure 31. Longitudinal sections of two Chinese bronze-iron guns, captured by British forces in the Opium Wars and subjected to a technical investigation in 1867. Rotunda Museum, Woolwich, no. 2-244, photographed 1996. The iron parts have been painted black to prevent rust, and it is important to note that the boundary between bronze and iron parts cannot be accurately distinguished in this photograph or Figure 32. On the gun on the left part of a long inscription remains, but as far as I could see the remaining part does not include a date.
Figure 32. Detail of the gun on the left in Figure 31. The arrows indicate the boundary between two layers of iron.
Figure 33. An incense burner photographed in Hangzhou in 1984. The lower part (bottom bowl and legs) is dated to the Ming period, while the top (shoulders and rim) was cast in 1934.