Old Wine & New Bottles

The stately liquor container known as a tall You was cast in the opening of the century of the Zhou Dynasty. In that tumultuous moment in ancient Chinese history, the memory of the rebellion of the Zhou people against their Shang Dynasty overlords was still fresh, kept alive by the political after-shocks that continued to threaten the security of the new regime. In that tense climate, every instrument of government, including the ritual vessels used in the state sponsored ancestral sacrifices, assumed a special political sensitivity.

Archaic Bronze You, (one of a pair)from Weisbrod Collection. Published in “Millenia Masterpieces, Spring 2000, Weisbrod Chinese Art, Ltd., New York

Archaic Bronze You, (one of a pair)from Weisbrod Collection. Published in “Millenia Masterpieces, Spring 2000, Weisbrod Chinese Art, Ltd., New York

Zhou propagandists, as part of their justification for the conquest of the older regime, promulgated the myth that the Shang rulers were morally unsound drunkards as witnessed by the prevalence of liquor vessels in Shang ritual paraphernalia. This was a dangerous  argument, for the Zhou people had similar practices employing vessels that did not look so very different from those of their conquered enemies. The new Zhou order needed to establish a unique identity, which prompted a revamping of their own ritual kit. The bronze masters, working within their memory of inherited forms, were to come up with something new in vessel design.

Early Shang Dynasty Jue, 16th Century BCE

 Late Shang Dynasty Jue

In that turbulent period, certain types of wine vessels that had been emblematic of the Shang dynasty, the Gu and the Jue in particular, were abandoned. Other types, like the tall You enjoyed a new found popularity. Its elongated clean-cut body was well suited to satisfy the contemporary taste for severe silhouettes complimented by the reservation of decoration to a few shape-enhancing accents on the shoulder, lid, and foot of the vessel. Every element of the design is laid out in perfect order, guided by a mathematically driven set of proportions; the height of the body is just twice the width of the vessel which, in turn, is the same as the height of the blank field between the hands of decoration. We need not be conscious of the geometric underpinning to appreciate the result, a crisp form that represents the emergence of a unique Western Zhou dynastic style.

Late Shang Dynasty Gu, 12-11th Century BCE

Innovative shapes demanded a renovation of the decoration. Powerful mask motifs (taotie) irrevocably associated with the Shang Dynasty would obviously have been out of place on a Zhou vessel in the body was simply left blank. The narrow accent bands on the shoulder, foot and lid of the tall You are ornamented with the more politically acceptable bird motifs that will triumph as the more popular motif of the Western Zhou style. The stylish long-tailed birds that decorate the shoulder of the He are the elegant descendants of more compact birds hidden under the azure patina on the neck, lid and foot of the tall You. And, like the birds seen on the earlier vessel , they are carefully arranged in a static solemn symmetry. 

Eastern Zhou Dynasty He

Eastern Zhou Dynasty He

Yet, in the treatment of the elongated spout of the He we may note a critical change, Arching up form the body of the vessel the serpentine spout culminates in an open-mounted creature poised as if ready to speak to disgorge wine. This witty animation of the spout charges the entire shape of the vessel and creates a dynamic animal conceit that shifts back and forth between sculpture and utensil, between image and practical use. This ambivalent play between structure and representation imparts a special charm to this remarkable example of Western Zhou art.

In later stages of the Zhou Dynasty He had assumed a shape with a flattened globular body, short curving spout and three splayed cabriole legs. At first glance, the shoulder of the pot and the triangular fields lower down are both distantly derived from intertwining animal motifs and cicada patterns like the ones seen on the earlier He. While the incised decoration on the body depresses any interest in animal motifs, the dragon-headed spout and the cat-like arch of the dragon handle emphasizes it. By these fixtures alone, the bronze master has transformed a teapot into an imaginary creature. The power of the conceit is so great that even the provocative rows of flanges along the handle and body seem to suggest some kind of crest or tail, the artist  calls on us to complete the image. This, the final stage in the evocative design of the He, was imitated to ceramic and perpetuated  in archaistic bronze interpretations made two thousand years later in the Qing Dynasty.

Whereas the two He offer a witty interplay between the shape of a vessel and the quasi representation of an animal conceit, the three images  of dee approach the status of independent sculptures. But this is not quite the case, for they served as decorative supports for another object, quite possibly a drum. That, however is a mere technicality, for each of these identical pieces is a convincing depiction of this gentle animal. Since dee travel in herds, it is easy to imagine the three of them as related members of a single group. Their recumbent pose, alert turn of head, perked ears and slightly flared nostrils suggest we have come upon in their bedding from which they might bolt at any moment.

The character of the deer is so well captured in these small sculptures that one does not really miss whatever object they supported. In fact, we may be glad for the lack of any distraction. Nonetheless, these sculptured did serve a practical purposed; the square fixture rising from the left haunch of each animal served as a socket for a drum stand, while the weight of the three bronze sculptures insured a steady base for the heavily beaten drum. That the supporting sockets were painted with a later day version of the fabulous animal mask (taotie) is a sign of their ritual function, for these animals, and the drum they supported , were part of a complex ritual assembly involving the age-old and nearly universal pairing of the shaman's trademark tools; the antler and the drum. As further sign of their special nature, the horns of the deer were painted with sacred geometric figures that are quite different from the motifs used to describe the marking on their bodies. What we see, then, is a mixture of acute observation of a real animal enhances with the appropriate symbols that dedicate it as a ritual object.

The conjunction of animal symbols and ritual purpose runs like a leitmotif through the previous pages. Whether is the heraldic arrangement of sedate birds as on the tail of a You or the similarity posed birds with elegant tails as on the earlier of the two Hewe may expect to see animal ornament of one kind or another on ancient Chinese ritual vessels. In the case of the handles of all three vessels, they amount to miniature sculptures that seem almost ready to break free from the constraints of the vessel design. With the three images of deer, that liberty has come to pass. Ritual context or not, these figures are first and foremost sculptures of a closely observed animal captured in a tender, expressive movement filled with life and movement.

Tokens of Intrigue

Curiously enough, very little attention was given to the depiction of our own species during the millennium of the Zhou Dynastic rule when the vessels were cast; figures of humans are rare and most of those were made in the later centuries of the period. Thus, it may not come as a total surprise that animal symbols prevailed in the secular world of government. In one instance, an official tally used to insure the security of governmental communications took the form of a tiger. No attempt was made to portray the ferocious nature of the fierce carnivore details of its coat, or anything of that sort. For though it is a sculpture in a literal sense, the interlocking halves of its body would only be seen together when it was necessary to identify a messenger as an agent of the government agency whose name is inlaid in gold script along its spine. This small easily concealed secret token was a sculpture not meant to be seen.


Originally written by Dr. Robert Poor, professor of the Department of Art History of the University of Minnesota for Weisbrod Chinese Art Ltd. (Adapted).