The three-character inscription beneath the handle ran fu gui may be read 'dedicated to Father Gui of the Ran clan'.
Compare the current piece to a jue with a similar format of inscription beneath the handle reading shi fu gui, which may be read as a dedication to 'Father Gui', preceded by the character shi for 'scribe', sold at Christie's London, 10 November 2015, lot 18.
The prominent spout, whorl capped posts, flared tail and long tripod legs make the jue one of the more striking vessels of the Shang dynasty ritual bronze assembly. The current jue showcases the highest mastery of ancient bronze casting technology, in a unique amalgamation of aesthetic ornamentation and ritualistic function. Used by Shang Kings in wine ceremonies linking them with the ancestral spirits, the unique silhouette of the jue wholly befits this original ritual use, and consequently became a marker of status when interred as a burial good in the graves of nobility.
As one of the oldest vessel forms, jue were used and continually adapted over several centuries, enjoying a relatively long period of popularity. In the earliest forms of Chinese writing, the character for jue in oracle bone inscriptions depict the long legs, spout and upright posts of the two present jue, suggesting a distinct vessel form and function from very early on (as discussed by E. Childs-Johnson in The Jue and its Ceremonial Use in the Ancestor Cult of China, Artibus Asiae, vol. 48, No. 3/4, 1987).
Smaller flat-bottomed pottery jue preceded the development of bronze forms, emerging during the Late Neolithic at sites such as Beiyinyangying, Jiangsu. (Zhongguo Kexueyuan Kaogu yanjiusuo, Xin Zhongguo Kaogu de Shouhuo, Beijing, 1962). The earliest primitive bronze jue date from the pre-Shang Erlitou period, with thin short legs, a dainty narrow spout and bulbous ‘waist’ to the body, with these design features continuing into early Shang (see the Panlongcheng Shang Dynasty Erligang period Bronzes in Hubei Provincial Museum, Panlongcheng Shangdai Erligang qingtongqi, Wenwu 1976.2; pp.26-43, picture no. 5). Over time, certain features became more pronounced, with longer legs and taller rim posts, perhaps to better fulfil its role during libation rituals. The exact way in which jue were used, leading to such a distinctive silhouette has been a point of continued scholarly discussion.
A corpus of over twenty different types of wine vessel in use during the Shang period attests to the importance of these libation ceremonies conducted by the rulers. Ritual preparation and drinking of wine would link the kings to the spirits of their ancestors, and symbolise both their power and legitimacy to rule with the mandate of Heaven.
The traditional ascription of the jue as a libation cup is somewhat problematic, with scholars early on recognising the curious rim posts and long spout would do more to impede drinking than to aid it. The eminent Li Ji, one of the ‘fore-fathers’ of Chinese archaeology, based his research on excavated jue from the Shang ruins at Yinxu, concluding the jue was designed for pouring wine, perhaps from a large storage jar in to a smaller vessel for drinking, and was used in tandem with flared vessels, gu (Li Ji, Studies of the Bronze Jue Cup, Nangang, Taiwan, Archaeologia Sinica, 1966, n.s 2). However, the long legs and peculiar capped posts at the rim hint at a yet more specific use. Current scholarly opinion suggests that the splayed legs of the jue allow for stable positioning over hot coals in order to heat the wine during libation rituals. The two upright posts at the rim may have been used in tandem with the long tail when tipping the hot vessel for pouring wine using “their overhanging caps, which could be caught and pulled up by leather thongs”, (Childs-Johnson, ibid, p.174).
The present jue represents typical late-Shang form, with a deep U-shaped spout, long tail and round-bottomed body. With the progression of time, the vertical posts became taller, placed further back from the spout along the rim.