The shape and inlaid decoration of this charming vessel are based on ancient prototypes from the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Vessels similar in form to the present lot were often decorated with delicate inlay of precious metals and at times with stones such as turquoise or malachite. The identity of this particular animal has been much discussed and is variously described as a 'mythological animal', a 'rhinoceros' and a 'tapir'. The latter seems the most likely candidate since the form has significant features in common with surviving species of tapir, and archaeology has shown that tapirs were indigenous to China in earlier times, indeed, remains of tapirs were found in Guizhou that date to 200,000 BC. These animals have long been extinct in China, but the Asian tapir has survived in small numbers in areas of Southeast Asia. It is interesting to note that even the bronze tapirs of the Warring States period are shown with collars, which suggests that at one time there was a degree of domestication.
Archaistic vessels of this type are the result of tremendous interest in ancient bronzes during the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song period (AD 960-1127), who was a very keen antiquarian and who instigated the publication of illustrated catalogs of the items in his collection. One of these - the Xuanhe Bogu tulu (Xuanhe Illustrated Catalogue of Antiques) - included an illustration of such an early bronze vessel. While the original edition would not have been readily available to later craftsman, it was reprinted on a number of occasions, and the illustration of this zoomorphic vessel appears, for example, in the AD 1528 edition, known as the Bogu tulu. The popularity of these inlaid zoomorphic bronze vessels continued into the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (13th-18th centuries). A Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368) example with gold and silver inlay from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Through the Prism of the Past, Taipei, 2003, p. 186, no. III-55. Another example, in the Royal Ontario Museum, dated Yuan-Ming dynasty, is illustrated in Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth, Toronto, 1992, p. 102, no. 53.