Heralding a New Era: A Rare and Important Pair of Western Zhou Gui Vessels
Exceptionally rare, this pair of bronze lidded gui food-serving vessels is art-historically important for its reliance solely on vertical ribs as decoration, thereby introducing a new mode of embellishment; the ribbed décor, combined with the elevation of the vessel bowl on a tall, square base, signals the final break with the stylistic legacy of the previous Shang dynasty and the establishment of a distinctive Zhou-dynasty mode. As such, the pair joins a small group of other socled gui vessels with rib décor produced in the Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC), in the late tenth or early ninth century BC. That these majestic vessels not only have survived for nearly three thousand years but have remained together as a pair signals their extraordinary importance and elevates them to the status of revered treasures. Apart from their art-historical importance, these gui vessels also have a very distinguished provenance, having passed through the hands of esteemed art dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, and then through the acclaimed collection of Bella and P.P. Chiu (of Hong Kong and San Francisco).
In essence, large ceremonial vessels for serving cooked millet, sorghum, rice, or other grains, these virtually identical bronze gui vessels comprise a circular bowl set on a tall, square socle, or base. With its S-curved profile, the bowl, or container portion of the vessel, has a lightly flaring lip that thickens at its outer edge, a constricted vertical neck, and a deep compressed globular bowl set on a splayed, circular footring enhanced by a single, molded bowstring line. Integrally cast with the bowl, the hollow, square socle elevates and supports the bowl. Two opposed, squared, loop handles spring laterally from the bowl’s neck and then immediately curve upward to rise vertically, reaching nearly to the top of the cover. Each lightly domed cover has a wide, circular handle with thickened lip, the handle’s form sometimes characterized as a band-collar or clerical-collar; the handle’s well-articulated, horizontal lip echoes the undecorated horizontal bands that border the vessel’s decorative registers, separating one register from the next. An all-over pattern of vertical ribs enlivens the bowls, covers, and socles. The ribs on the bowls appear in two registers, with a taller register on the bulging belly and a shorter register on the constricted neck; a single, broad band of ribs encircles the cover, and a single, wide register embellishes each face of the square socles. The plain bands that border each area of ribs impose a well-defined order on the decorative scheme and, through visual and textural contrast, invigorate the design. A pair of vertically set, hollow, tubular appendages, each divided into three sections, enlivens the neck of each bowl, each opposed appendage appearing a quarter rotation from the handles. Eight small, square openings appear on each face of the socle; set within a rectangular panel at the center of the lower half of the wall, the openings are arranged in two horizontal rows of four openings each, one row atop the other. The rectangular panels intended to receive the perforations were left unembellished during casting and thus lack vertical ribs.
Bronze casting came fully into its own in China during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC) with the production of sacral vessels intended for use in funerary ceremonies. Those vessels include ones for food and wine as well as ones for water; those for food and wine, the types most frequently encountered, group themselves into storage and presentation vessels as well as heating, cooking, and serving vessels. A sacral vessel for serving offerings of cooked food, the gui first appeared during the Shang dynasty and continued well into the Zhou (c. 1046 BC–256 BC).
Although standard vessel shapes and established decorative motifs both persisted after the fall of Shang, the people of Western Zhou (c. 1046 BC–771 BC) quickly introduced changes, perhaps reflecting differing religious beliefs and ceremonial practices; as a result, some vessel types disappeared, while others evolved, often becoming more elaborate and more imposing. In fact, although both food and wine vessels had been important during the Shang, many wine-vessel types were discontinued after the Zhou overthrew the Shang, so that food vessels came to predominate during the Zhou dynasty, presumably indicating that wine no longer played a major role in ceremonies and rituals. Except for its square socle, this gui food-serving vessel is conservative in shape, exhibiting the basic Shang interpretation of the vessel form. Through its transformation by the addition of the socle, however, this vessel reflects the new, post-Shang age in which it was produced.
Typically resting on a circular footring, gui vessels of the Shang dynasty claim a compressed, globular bowl, frequently with a lightly flaring neck and two visually substantial, vertically oriented, loop handles. A variant vessel form with deep rounded bowl, generally lacking handles but occasionally with a pair of horizontally set, loop handles, is often categorized as a yu; functionally and stylistically related, both gui and yu vessels were used for serving cooked grains. Precise distinctions between yu and gui vessels are difficult to define, and, according to Jessica Rawson, “… even the evidence of vessels self-named in their inscriptions is partly contradictory”. Even so, the integrally cast inscription on the Shi Xie Gui in the Shanghai Museum (museum number 41550)—which is virtually identical to the present vessels except that it has an inscription and now lacks its original cover—indicates that it is a gui made for Yi Gong, the father of Shi Xie, who commissioned the vessel; thus, given their close similarity to the Shi Xie Gui, we can state with certitude that the present vessels are gui.
The standard Shang form of the gui continued into the Western Zhou, though modifications in both form and decoration soon ensued. The most obvious alteration to the form involved elevating the vessel, often by presenting it on an integrally cast square socle, as in the present vessels, but occasionally by setting it on four legs, as witnessed by the Zuo Bao Yi Gui, which was offered at Christie’s, New York, on 13 September 2018, lot 888. In rare instances, an entire group of vessels might be raised by placing them on a bronze altar table, known in Chinese as a jin, such as the example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (24.72.1). In the Metropolitan Museum altar set, all of the vessels are wine vessels; the smaller of the altar-set’s two bail-handled you vessels stands on an independently cast square base that sits on the altar table. Aesthetically, the elevation of the gui on a socle makes the vessel more imposing and imparts monumentality, solemnity, and even majesty. Even so, the reasons for raising the vessels remain unknown but could involve changes in religious needs or ceremonial requirements, for example, or perhaps a simple desire for greater visual impact.
Favored throughout much of the Western Zhou period (c. 1046–771 BC), socled gui vessels declined in popularity during the last decades of the Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC). Even so, gui vessels continued to be important, but rather than resting on a square socle, they came to stand either on a circular footring or, more typically, on three short legs generally in the form of a stylized animal or bird, with a masklike face at the top and a clawed foot at the bottom, or occasionally, if rarely, in the form of a simple tab. Such gui vessels tended to be decorated with wide horizontal flutes rather than with vertical ribs.
Although the taotie mask was the decorative motif most frequently encountered on bronze ritual vessels from the Shang dynasty, other motifs were popular as well, including long- and short-tailed birds, kui dragons, and even snakes. Apart from those “representational” motifs, a variety of abstract, non-representational, geometric motifs also appear on Shang bronzes, from interlocking T-forms T to zig-zag, or chevron, patterns and diamond-and-boss patterns, to yet others. Long forgotten, the meaning of such decorative schemes, if any, has been lost to the mists of time for both representational and geometric types—including that of the vertical ribs on the present gui vessels—though speculation about their meanings abounds. Many such motifs continued into the Western Zhou, the “representational” motifs often showing a distinct evolution, the abstract motifs generally remaining more traditional and conservative, even if presented in slightly new combinations and contexts.
Decoration of vertical ribs—occasionally also termed, or “pleats”, in Chinese—appeared only at the very end of the Shang, gaining popularity during the Western Zhou. Arguably the earliest Early Western Zhou vessel with a mature presentation of ribbed décor is the Kang Hou Gui, formerly in the collection of Neill Malcolm (1869–1953), then of his son, Dugald Malcolm (1917–2000), and now in British Museum, London (1977.404.1). Appearing around the belly of the Kang Hou Gui, the vertical ribs constitute the principal decorative motif; even so, the ribs are not used alone, as in the present vessels, but, in typical Early Western Zhou fashion, appear in concert with such subsidiary motifs as the whirligig bosses that alternate with flower-like motifs in the bands encircling the neck and footring (as Robert W. Bagley has termed those design elements, though Chinese typically refer to those elements as “fire and four-petal eye motifs”, as noted by Chen Peifen, or occasionally as “fire and four-leaf motifs”). Although this arrangement follows the decorative pattern established at the end of the Shang, the Kang Hou Gui acquires stateliness and monumentality by altering the vessel’s proportions, substantially increasing the size of its handles, and greatly expanding the height, form, and definition of its footring. Of course, decoration with vertical ribs was not limited to gui vessels; in fact, Western Zhou vessels in functional types other than the gui occasionally also incorporated bands of vertical ribs into their decorative schemes, as evinced by the you wine vessel and associated, but independently cast, socle in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (24.72.2a–c) and by the Mu Xin Zun wine vessel—formerly in the collection of Julius Eberhardt (of Vienna, Austria) and, before that, in the collection of H.E. A.J. Argyropoulos (of Athens, Greece)—which features a narrow band of vertical ribs around its midsection. Following the lead of contemporaneous bronze vessels, even a few late Shang and Early Western Zhou ceramics incorporated vertical ribs into their decorative schemes, as witnessed by the gray earthenware zun wine vessel in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (50.61.5), underscoring the close relationship between ceramics and bronzes during China’s Great Bronze Age (c. 1700 BC–AD 220).
The earliest Western Zhou socled gui vessels to incorporate vertical ribs into their decorative schemes tend to feature those ribs in a horizontally set, rectangular panel on each face of the square base, rather than in a decorative register on the bowl itself, as seen in the Shanghai Museum’s Jia Gui, whose bowl sports a diamond-and-boss pattern, or in the large, four-handled gui in the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum in Kobe, Japan, whose bowl also sports a diamond-and-boss pattern. In fact, with socled gui vessels, many new, Zhou-dynasty design elements made their first appearance on the socle and then gradually came to be featured in the decorative scheme on the bowl.
When first introduced as decoration around the bowl’s belly on socled gui vessels, ribbed decoration typically was accompanied by subsidiary bands around the neck and footring of stylized dragons or such abstract designs as whirligig bosses and stylized-flower motifs; in such vessels, a single horizontal panel of vertical ribs surrounded by other design elements typically appeared at the center of each face of the square socle, as witnessed by an Early Western Zhou socled gui in the collection of the Shanghai Museum and another in the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo, Japan.
By the Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC) vertical ribs had assumed greater prominence and often served as the vessel’s principal decorative motif, especially as the subsidiary bands of dragons and abstract motifs around the neck and footring were cast in lower relief and thus became less assertive and as the vessel handles became more subdued and thus less imposing. In that light, with its docile handles, its band of alternating dragons and whirligig bosses around the neck—and matching band around the cover’s lip—and its band of whirligig bosses and stylized flower motifs around the footring, the Shanghai Museum’s ribbed Peng Sheng Gui—also called Ge Bo Gui—might be seen as intermediate between the early Middle Western Zhou style and the late Middle Western Zhou style (c. 900–c. 875 BC), as exemplified by the present pair of gui vessels. (Note that there are three virtually identical Peng Sheng Gui, each with an inscription; apart from the Shanghai Museum vessel, the Palace Museum, Beijing, has one, as does the Chinese History Museum, Beijing. Only the Shanghai Museum gui retains its cover, the Palace Museum and History Museum vessels having lost theirs.)
Two socled gui vessels with ribbed décor are virtually identical to the present vessels: a socled gui of unknown whereabouts but illustrated in Hayashi Minao’s invaluable 1984 compendium of Shang and Zhou bronzes, and the previously mentioned Shi Xie Gui in the Shanghai Museum. Except for its inscription and missing cover, the Shi Xie Gui, which eminent bronze scholar Chen Peifen has dated to c. 900 to c. 885 BC, is otherwise identical to the present vessels. Once in the Qing Imperial Collection, the Shi Xie Gui is published in the Xiqing Gujian, the forty-volume catalogue of the ancient bronzes in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795); the woodblock-printed illustration in that catalogue (vol. 27, p. 23) reveals that the cover was still associated with the Shanghai Museum gui when the Xiqing Gujian catalogue was published in 1749.
Several other socled gui vessel with rib décor are closely related to the present vessels but are not identical; differences include the number of perforations in the socle walls—or even absence of such openings; the inclusion of subsidiary bands of decoration around the neck and footring; and the type and shape of the handles. Such closely related examples include the pair of covered gui vessels from the collection of Henry Brown that sold in London in 1947; the covered gui in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden; the several so-called Ying Gui that were recovered as part of the hoard of bronzes excavated in 1976 in Zhuangbaicun, Fufeng County, Baoji, Shaanxi province; the Yu Gui in the collection of the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an; and a socled gui with ribbed décor—which lacks a cover but likely originally had one—from Qijia, Fufeng, Baoji, Shaanxi province, which is similar except for its lack of perforations and for its large, dramatic, reticulated handles in the form of composite animals.
During the late Middle Western Zhou period, other interpretations of the gui form—i.e., gui vessels without a square socle—occasionally also featured vertical ribs as their main decorative motif, including ones set on circular footrings and ones standing on three short legs that are attached to and descend from the circular footring. With its rib décor, vertical loop handles, and vertically set appendages in the band of decoration around the neck, a covered gui from Mawangcun, Xi’an, Shaanxi province is otherwise identical to the vessels in the present pair, except that it rests on a circular footring rather than on a square socle. The decoration of the Shanghai Museum’s Da Shi Cuo Gui, which sits on a circular footring, is virtually identical to that of the present vessels, except for its small handles in the form of dragon heads. Two other covered gui vessels have similar rib décor but differ from the present vessels in standing on three short legs and in having subsidiary bands of decoration around the neck; of those two vessels, the one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, has vertical loop handles, while the one from Zhangjiapo, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, has small handles from which are suspended free-turning rings. Another such related vessel is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (49.135.6a, b).
Just as the socled gui fell from favor during the late Western Zhou period (c. 875–771 BC), so did vertical ribs virtually disappear from the repertory of decorative motifs. The new style of gui vessel, popular through the late Western Zhou period and beyond, had the bowl resting either on a circular footring or on three short legs and sporting decoration of horizontal flutes around both bowl and cover, as exemplified by the Shi Song Gui in the collection of the Shanghai Museum (45688) and two such gui in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1975.66.1a, b and 1988.20.3a, b).
The function or meaning, if any, of the square perforations in the walls of the square socle remains unknown. Several Western Zhou socled gui vessels have a large, wide, arched opening in each of the socle’s side walls, but those openings differ in nature from the perforations on the present vessels, as they were integrally cast with the vessel, and, in interrupting socle’s bottom edge, they cause the socle to resemble a table, or altar, with four sturdy legs, at least to our eyes. In fact, small square perforations seem to occur only in the bases of socled gui vessels with ribbed decoration from the late Middle Western Zhou period.
Many sacral vessels, particularly wine vessels, were supplied with covers during the Shang dynasty. Many food vessels were outfitted with covers during the Zhou dynasty, including both gui and ding vessels, the covers presumably serving to keep the food hot and flavorful and to protect the vessel’s contents from possible contaminants. Thus, the presence of original covers in association with these gui vessels is entirely in keeping with the taste and practice of the Middle Western Zhou period (c. 975–c. 875 BC); what is remarkable is that both covers not only have survived but are still together with their vessels.
Bronze vessels sometimes were made in pairs, and often in sets, during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, the vessels linked by inscription, style, benefactor (i.e., the one who commissioned the vessel or set), or beneficiary (i.e., the person in whose ceremonies the vessel was to be used). Even so, because many vessels have been lost and because many sets have been dispersed, entire sets of vessels—or even just pairs—seldom appear together today. Formerly exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, a pair of Middle Western Zhou covered gui vessels—known as the Lu Hou Gui—sold at Sotheby’s, New York, on 18–19 March 2014 (lot 108); each standing on four slender legs rather than on a square socle, the two vessels in the Lu Hou Gui pair are roughly contemporaneous with the present vessels. A pair of Middle Western Zhou gui vessels with ribbed decoration, related to the present pair, sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 25 March 1947 (lot 83). Arguably the most famous pair of covered gui vessels in the United States, however, is that from the distinguished collection of Frederick M. Mayer (1899–1974), of New York, which was sold at Christie’s, London, on 24–25 June 1974 (lot 219); dating to the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC), likely to the sixth century BC, those imposing vessels have dramatic, dragon-form handles and covers whose large, openwork handles suggest blossoms. One gui from the Mayer pair was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art (1974.73); the other gui, which was acquired by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, is now in the collection of The Asia Society, New York (1979.103). Though we refer to them as a pair, it is possible that the present gui once were part of a larger group of vessels, a group that perhaps even included the previously mentioned the Shi Xie Gui in the Shanghai Museum, which is the same size as the present vessels and, except for its inscription and missing cover, is otherwise identical to them—though, this, of course, is merely conjecture, as there is no evidence to suggest that the Shi Xie Gui was originally directly associated with the present vessels.
Virtually identical to the Shanghai Museum’s Shi Xie Gui, which once was in the Qing Imperial Collection and is published in the 1749 Xiqing Gujian catalogue, the present gui vessels keep the finest company and travel in the most rarefied circles. And they claim an enviable provenance, having been handled by Eskenazi Limited, London, and having passed through the celebrated collection of Bella and P.P. Chiu of Hong Kong and San Francisco.
Visually compelling and strikingly beautiful bronzes with bold decoration, exquisite patina, and distinguished provenance, these gui vessels are art-historically important for their reinterpretation of the traditional gui form through the elevation of the bowl on a square socle and through the perfection of abstract, ribbed décor. This new interpretation signals the final break with the stylistic legacy of the previous Shang dynasty and the establishment of a distinctive Zhou-dynasty mode. In fact, these gui vessels are major monuments in the history of Western Zhou bronzes.
Robert D. Mowry ??
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s