Symbolizing royal power, fangding vessels had great significance for Shang ruling elites. The largest extant Shang bronze ritual vessel is the Si Mu Wu fangding, measuring 133 cm. high and weighing 875 kilograms, found in Wuguan village, Anyang city, in 1939, and now in the National Museum of China (See Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji: Shang 2 [Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes: Shang], vol. 2, Beijing, 1997, p. 48, no. 47). While the massive fangding vessels were made exclusively for the kings and queens, fangding of regular size were reserved for high-ranking aristocrats only. The present Ya Yi fangding is a superbly cast tour de force. There appears to be a few published examples that may be cited as parallels. A late Shang fangding (27 cm. high) of similar form and decoration, but with an additional small taotie mask between the confronted kui dragons on each of the broad sides, was formerly in the Cull Collection, and is illustrated by W. Yetts in The Cull Chinese Bronzes, London, 1939, no. I. Another similar late Shang fangding (27.6 cm. high) is in the Meiyintang Collection, and is illustrated by C. Deydier in Chinese Bronzes from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 1, Annexe, Hong Kong, 2013, no. 46. Compare, also, an early Western Zhou fangding (25.5 cm. high) with a twenty one-character inscription sold at Sotheby’s London, 13 May 2015, lot 103.
The patron of this magnificent bronze vessel did indeed belong to a very powerful and significant clan, the Ya Yi clan. The clan mark Ya Yi comprises a ya cruciform shape and the name Yi. In the Shang dynasty, clans with the ya added to their clan mark are believed to be those that were conferred with the title of Marquis. Epigraphist Wang Xiantang (1896-1960) pointed out that there is a royal diviner by the name of Yi during the Shang Kings Zugeng's and Zujia’s reigns, who probably earned the title of ya and therefore established the Ya Yi clan (Cao Shuqin and Yin Weizhang, Ya Yi tongqi jiqi xiangguan wenti, Beijing, 1986, p. 6). The Ya Yi clan flourished during the late Shang and early Western Zhou dynasties as demonstrated by more than two hundred extant ritual bronzes bearing the Ya Yi clan mark. Archaeologists Cao Shuqin and Yin Weizhang divided Ya Yi bronzes into three groups. The earliest group can be dated to the late second phase of the Yinxu period, circa 1200 BC, contemporaneous with the tomb of Fuhao. This group was discovered in the early 20th century, reputedly from a massive tomb in Houjiazhuang village, Anyang city, and the most remarkable pieces in this group include a massive covered pou in the Nezu Museum, Tokyo (62.5 cm. high), illustrated in Catalogue of Selected Masterpieces from the Nezu Collections: Decorative Art, Tokyo, 2001, no. 1; a pair of massive jia vessels, one in the Nezu Museum, Tokyo (74.6 cm. high) illustrated ibid, no. 2, the other in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (75.3 cm. high), illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji [The Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes], Beijing, 1997, vol. 3, no. 46; a massive zun in the Nezu Museum, Tokyo (53.9 cm. high), illustrated in Nezu Collections: Decorative Art, op. cit., no. 7; and a unique egg-shaped tripod vessel in the Fujii Yurinkan Museum, Kyoto, illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji [The Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes], Beijing, 1997, vol. 2, no. 64. (Fig. 1) Between 1934 and 1935, archaeologists from Academia Sinica systematically surveyed and excavated the Houjiazhuang and Wuguan villages and confirmed that this area was the Shang royal cemetery. The fact that Ya Yi bronzes were found in the Shang royal cemetery demonstrates the close relationship between the Ya Yi clan and the Shang royal family. The second Ya Yi group is comprised of bronzes that were handed down since the 18th century including the present fangding; a gui in the Idemitsu Collection, illustrated in Ancient Chinese Arts in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1989, no. 15, rubbing no. 13; and a fanglei formerly in the Qing imperial collection, now missing its cover, in the Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Culture, Ashiya, illustrated in Sueji Umehara, Nihon shucho shina kodo seika (Selected Relics of Ancient Chinese Bronzes from Collections in Japan), vol. 1, Osaka, Yamanaka & Co., 1959, no. 20. Besides the Ya Yi clan sign, the Kurokawa fanglei also bears an inscription, xuanniao fu. Fu is the title of female members of the Shang royal family and xuanniao may be translated as 'black bird'. The origin myth of the Shang recorded in the Shi jin (Book of Songs) and states: “heaven commissioned the xuanniao to descend and give birth to the Shang” (see Shi jin [Book of Songs], Shang song [Eulogies of Shang], xuanniao). Therefore, Xuanniao Fu must have been an important member of the Shang royal family. The coexistence between this royal inscription and the Ya Yi clan mark again confirms the high status of the Ya Yi clan and its close relation with Shang kings. In the late Yinxu to early Western Zhou period, the Ya Yi clan was still very prominent, as demonstrated by the third Ya Yi bronze group that includes the Xiaochen Yi Jia, dated by its inscription to the 6th year of the reign of the last Shang king, now in the Saint Louis Art Museum, illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji, vol. 3, op. cit., no. 53; and an early Western Zhou zun vessel bearing a Ya Qi Yi clan mark sold at Sotheby’s New York, 17 September 2013, lot 5. It is important to note that Qi or Qi hou (Marquis of Qi) is probably a new title conferred on the Ya Yi clan during this period.
In the 22nd year of Daoguang (1842), the inscription of the Ya Yi fangding was first published by Wu Rongguang (1773-1843) in his Yunqingguan jinwen, where he stated that the owner of this fangding was Han Kejun. (Fig. 2) Han Kejun (1766-1840), whose courtesy name is Yunfang, was a native of Fenyang, Shanxi province. He served as provincial governor of Guizhou, Yunnan, and Fujian consecutively during the Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Daoguang (1821-1850) eras. He is renowned for peacefully resolving disputes between a local tribe and the Burmese in Yunnan and constructing a walled city in Danshui, Taiwan. The Ya Yi fangding consequently entered the collection of Wu Shifen (1796-1856). (Fig. 3) Wu Shifen was an epigraphist, calligrapher and Secretary of the Cabinet at the court of the Daoguang Emperor (1821-1850) and was one of the great collectors of his generation. A descendant of a renowned Shandong family, Wu was also related through marriage to another prominent Shandong collector, Chen Jieqi (1813-1884).