Many bronze vessels from the Shang and Western Zhou periods bear integrally cast inscriptions. Typically dedicatory, inscriptions on Shang vessels are short, featuring just a few characters. Such dedicatory inscriptions appear on sacral vessels that were used in ceremonies honoring ancestral spirits; they generally include the name of the person whose spirit is being honored, sometimes a clan sign, and occasionally a designation of the vessel type. Inscriptions on Western Zhou vessels may be short and dedicatory or they may be long and commemorative, recording a victory in battle, for example, or a royal grant of land, bolts of silk, or other valuables; long inscriptions often comprise numerous characters, sometimes more than one hundred.
The short, dedicatory inscription reading [ ] Fu Gui on the interior wall indicates that this ding cauldron was made for one Father Gui. The meaning of the first symbol is uncertain; some scholars assume it is a clan sign designating the lineage to which Father Gui belonged, but others read it as li and believe it to be an early, pictographic form of the character for a tripod cooking vessel, a type of cauldron distinct from but related to this ding vessel. If the latter group is correct, the inscription would read Li Fu Gui and presumably would mean that this is a cauldron for Father Gui.
Shang-dynasty vessels typically were decorated all over, often boasting a taotie mask in the principal register and long-tailed birds, silkworms, kui-dragons, and other motifs in subsidiary registers, the principal and secondary motifs alike generally set against a ground of leiwen, or small, squared spirals. Though such decorative schemes persisted into the early Western Zhou, new schemes also emerged, some of which favored simplification and the substitution of birds for the taotie mask. Although this ding sports a short, dedicatory inscription, which links it to the Shang tradition, its mostly unornamented surfaces and its concentration of the taotie mask into a single register immediately below the vessel lip herald the coming of the new Western Zhou style, pointing to its transitional nature.
A stylistically related, if slightly later, ding in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums (1943.52.99) is illustrated by Chen Mengjia, A Corpus of Chinese Bronzes in American Collections, Tokyo, 1977, A 084. The Harvard ding, however, lacks the flanges and features confronting, long-tailed birds rather than taotie masks.