Miniature Liuding Vessel with Scale Décor and a Cover
Robert D. Mowry, Senior Consultant, Christie’s
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums
Its plump circular form, cabriole legs, and animalhead spout combining to suggest a small, rotund animal, this beguiling vessel belongs to a rare group of bronzes that has only recently commanded scholarly attention: miniature vessels known as nongqi. Made as early as the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1050 BC) and continuing through the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050 BC–256 BC), a few such miniature vessels bear inscriptions that include the character nong the origin of the name used today to designate such miniatures. Although it can mean “play” in modern Chinese, that character’s exact meaning in the context of those Bronze-Age inscriptions remains uncertain; thus, although we have an ancient name for such miniature vessels, the meaning of and reason for their small size remains uncertain. Even so, the placement of such miniatures in an area of the tomb separate from the conventional ritual vessels suggests a special meaning or function, as does their occasional placement within a separate container. As such vessels often contained exotic items—which suggests that they might have functioned as references to or mementoes of customs and objects belonging to peoples who lived beyond the range of the Chinese—a few scholars have speculated that these miniatures might have been made for women who came from outside the main Zhou states and married into the Zhou nobility.
As vessels of the present type are not self-named in inscriptions, several different names have been used in modern times to characterize them. Sometimes termed yi (an ovoid, legged, pouring vessel with a handle opposite the spout), occasionally labeled xiyi
(an animal-shaped yi), at times described as ding (a legged cooking vessel), and often termed yiding (a combined yi and ding), vessels of this shape now are usually characterized as lauding, or spoutedding vessels (the name sometimes modified as xiaoliuding, meaning a small spouted-ding). Although miniature vessels occur in a range of shapes and often mimic the form and decorative motifs of contemporaneous, full-size vessels, the majority of vessels occur as miniatures, like the present example, rather than as conventional vessels of standard size.
Bronze vessels with descending-scale decoration, called linwen in Chinese, had appeared at least as early as the Western Zhou period (c. 1050 BC–771BC), as evinced by a tall, attenuated hu jar in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. And circular ding vessels with a single register of horizontally oriented scales immediately below the lip, with cabriole legs, and with a pair of large handles that spring horizontally from just below frieze of scales and then turn to rise vertically were frequently produced by the late Western Zhou period, as witnessed by a vessel in the Shanghai Museum. As ding vessels with a band of horizontally oriented
scales below the lip and vertically set scales on the belly were commonplace by the late Western Zhou and early Spring and Autumn periods, the decoration on the present liuding is consistent with that on wellknown, contemporaneous vessels, indicating that this miniature liuding dates to the eighth to seventh century BC. The meaning of such decoration, if any, remains unknown; in fact, it likely is simply a repeating, abstract, geometric motif.
Currently in the collection of the Institute of Archaeology of Shanxi Province, in Taiyuan a virtually identical miniature liuding was excavated at Shangguocun, Wenxi county, in southwestern Shanxi province in 1989. That site is roughly fifty-six kilometers, or thirty five miles, from Houma where a famous bronze foundry was active in antiquity and where both the present vessel and the Shanxi Institute of Archaeology bronze likely were cast.
Although both old and contemporaneous with the vessel itself, the cover associated with the present liuding is a recent match—a substitute for the nowlost original cover. Both the present cover and that of the Shanxi Institute of Archaeology liuding feature a swirling pattern of two intertwined dragons, their opposed heads facing outward and biting the rim, along with two opposed human figures that kneel along the cover’s outer edge, that face each other across the cover, and that appear at a measured rotation from the dragon heads. The only difference between the covers is that a small animal—likely a feline and perhaps a handle—stands in the center of the present cover; it faces one of the kneeling figures while its curling tail points toward the other one. In fact, ceramic molds for casting bronze covers—or visually related bronze mirrors—that depict intertwined dragons have been excavated at Houma, as have molds for casting kneeling figures akin to those on these two covers.
Another closely related, covered liuding, also from Houma, is in the Shanxi Provincial Museum, Taiyuan its cover lacks the present cover’s two kneeling figures, but, like the present cover, it sports a standing animal at its center. The animal on the Shanxi Museum cover turns its head toward its proper left, while that on the present cover faces directly ahead. A third closely related liuding is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum; its cover includes a pair of intertwined dragons whose opposing heads appear to bite the cover’s outer edge, but it lacks both kneeling figures and a standing animal.
Hayashi Minao (1925–2006) illustrated two liuding vessels, which he termed yiding in his invaluable 1984 compendium of Shang and Zhou bronzes; although each of those vessels has a circular body, three cabriole legs, two upright handles, and decoration of scales, each has a trough-like spout—or channel-like spout—rather than an animal-head spout, and each lacks a cover, so they are less closely related to the present vessel than the three discussed above. In addition, a display of miniature vessels in the recently opened Shanxi Bronze Museum in Taiyuan features bronzes of several different shapes, including four liuding, of which two have trough-like spouts and two have animal-head spouts and thus are closely akin to the present vessel; the liuding vessels featured in the display all lack covers.
More distantly related to the present liuding, the eighth-century, covered, spouted vessel excavated from Rui-state tomb M26 at Liangdaicun, Hancheng, Shaanxi province rests on a conical base with triangular perforations, and it has large, vertically set handles that project laterally from the vessel’s belly. The spout is trough-shaped, but a flat element extends outward from the lid to cover the spout and then turns downward at a ninety-degree angle to conceal and protect the outer end of the spout. The spout cover boasts a low-relief animal mask, perhaps a feline face or perhaps that of a mythical beast descended from a taotie mask. This vessel-and-cover set suggests the possibility that other liuding vessels with trough-shaped spouts—but without covers today—originally might have had covers of this type.
The only example known outside of China and still in private hands, the present liuding represents a rare vessel type that was produced for only a short period time, from the late Western Zhou into the early Spring and Autumn period. Moreover, it belongs to a category of miniature vessels which, though few in number, have long been known but have only recently attracted scholarly interest. Although most miniature vessels relate to full-size, conventional ritual bronzes in shape, style, and decorative motifs, liuding vessels seem to occur only in miniature—and thus lack standard-size counterparts—lending them special intrigue regarding their meaning, function, and significance. Exceptionally well cast and in excellent condition, this liuding compares favorably with kindred examples excavated in Shanxi province and relates closely to vessels produced at Houma; in fact, it ranks among the most handsome and most elaborately decorated of such vessels.