Chinese ritual bronze vessel

mid 9th Century BC

Gallery 14, Chinese Art


Focus on the Object

The food vessel gui takes the form of a deep bowl with handles and was one of the principal ritual bronze vessel types of the Western Zhou period. Important examples were mounted on a square pedestal base and in the early Western Zhou, a small bell was typically suspended within the base. A suspension loop, though no bell, remains within the base of this vessel.

Early Western Zhou bronze casting typically displays flamboyant shapes and extravagant decoration. The restrained form and limited ornament on this piece imply a revival of the much plainer vessels produced at the very end of the preceding dynasty, the Shang (c.1700BC-c.1050BC). The decoration is confined to triangular blades and whorl circles below the rim, as well as five bowstring lines, and the four finely moulded cicadas on the corners of the pedestal base. The sober profile of the gui is reminiscent of the wine vessel type you, as are the rope-twist handles which do not, as far as is known, occur on any other example of a gui. The four cicadas are seen on one other pedestalled gui excavated at Fufeng in Shaanxi province. The gui therefore ranks as a rare piece in the history of early Zhou bronzes.

The Western Zhou used bronze vessels not only in rituals to honour ancestors but also, by means of inscriptions, to commemorate military or political success. The bronzes are therefore historical documents in their own right, and the history and ownership of individual vessels can be traced through reproductions of the inscription. Rubbings of bronze inscriptions were gathered and published from the 11th century AD onwards, often accompanied by line drawings or rubbings of the complete vessel.

A six-character inscription on the interior of this vessel associates it with the state of Yong, whose territory was given to a sibling of the Western Zhou king, and is now part of the Henan province in north China. The gui’s recent history is equally distinguished: it was previously in the collections of Pu Lun, one of the princes of the Manchu imperial family, and of the eminent Qing (1644-1911) dynasty official and antiquarian Duan Fang.