The form and decoration of this Longquan hu vase were inspired by ritual bronzes from the late Shang dynasty, circa 13th-11th century BC. On bronze hu vessels, flanges often appear in the center of decorative registers, bisecting the taotie masks, and the lug handles are decorated with animal masks. (Fig. 1) However, the surface of the present Longquan vase is left undecorated except for the horizontal grooves suggesting the divisions between registers and the vertical flanges. The Longquan potters’ subtle approach to archaism captured the most important visual icons of archaic bronzes, while still retaining the quintessential quality of Song ceramics. This would appeal to both the minimalist aesthetic and antiquarianism of the Song ruling elites.
Beginning in the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and continuing through the Southern Song (1127–1279), collecting bronzes became a quintessential part of the literati life. This antiquarianism reached a pinnacle during the reign of Emperor Huizong (1082-1135), who not only collected bronzes but also had replicas of ancient bronzes made to facilitate various state ceremonies. When the court fled south under the Jurchen invasion in 1127, these bronze ritual implements had been abandoned and replacement ritual vessels were made in more economic mediums such as ceramic. The revered Southern Song Guan ware (official ware) was first set up in Xiuneisi (Palace Maintenance Office) soon after the court was settled in Hangzhou. And the Xiuneisi was supervised by the Liqiju (Bureau of Ritual Vessels), which was responsible for making replacement ritual vessels, see Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song Antiquities, Taipei, 2010, pp. 13-14. A majestic Guan ware vase made in imitation of an archaic bronze hu, in the National Palace Museum, is illustrated ibid, pp. 50-51, no. I-2. These replacement ritual vessels were made in accordance with major antiquarian compilations of the Northern Song dynasty such as the Xuanhe bogu tu (Illustrated Catalogue of Antique Objects in the Emperor Huizong's Collection), rather than actual archaic bronzes. (Fig. 2)
Located not too far from the capital Hangzhou, the Longquan kilns also produced high-quality wares for the court when needed (see Rose Kerr, Song Dynasty Ceramics, London, 2004, p. 89). It is therefore natural to surmise that Longquan wares made in imitation of archaic bronzes, such as the present example, were also made as ritual vessels for the Southern Song court. Moreover, the glaze of the present vase bears fine ‘ice crackles’ in flake-like layers, which is reminiscent of some of the finest Guan glazes (see Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song Antiquities, Taipei, 2010, nos. II-1, and II-3-5). A Longquan hu vase of very similar form and size, but covered in the more commonly seen pale-green glaze, in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is illustrated by He Li, Chinese Ceramics: A New Comprehensive Survey from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, New York, 1996, p. 159, no. 277. Another similar Longquan hu vase with bluish-green glaze is illustrated in Chinese Ceramics, Song Yuan Dynasty, Taipei, 1988, p. 423. Another ancient bronze form employed at the Longquan kilns is the gui vessel, an example of which is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation, and is illustrated by R. Scott, Imperial Taste – Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 45, no. 20. A further example was discovered in 1991 in Suining, Sichuan province, amongst a cache of ceramics dating from the late Southern Song period, and is illustrated by Zhu Boqian (ed.), Celadons from Longquan Kilns, Taipei, 1998, p. 155, no. 124.