The inscriptions cast inside the vessel and cover are partially legible and may be read, Mu (Nu)   Fu, which may be translated, 'Mother (daughter)   Wife.' Jessica Rawson in The Bella and P.P. Chiu Collection of Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1988, p. 46, states that the inscription is the name of a woman, but that the "two parts of the name cannot be transcribed."
Fangyi appear to have been one of the most prized of ritual vessels, as they have been found in fewer and more sumptuous tombs than jue and gu. In Ancient Chinese and Ordos Bronzes, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, 1990, p. 92, J. Rawson and E. Bunker, in their discussion of a related late Shang fangyi from the Sze Yuan Tang Collection, later sold at Christie's New York, 16 September 2010, lot 822, noted that during the Shang dynasty rare vessels of this type were used in pairs, as seen in the tomb of Fu Hao. (Fig. 1) See Yinxu Fu Hao mu, Beijing, 1980, pls. XVIII (2) and XIX (1 and 2). They are thought to have been used to store wine, and the heavy malachite encrustation in the base of the interior of the Sze Yuan Tang fangyi is most likely the remains of some kind of wine made from grain.
R. Bagley discusses the evolution of the fangyi form in Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, The Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1987, pp. 428-44. The earliest fangyi, as represented by those in figs. 77.7-77.9, p. 433, have a distinctly defined foot with larger arched openings, the body does not have flanged corners, and the covers, seen in figs. 77.7 and 77.9, have a straight cant. What may be considered a slightly later group is represented by no. 78, pp. 436-39, which does not have a distinct demarcation between the foot and the body, but instead a straight tapering profile, there are flanges at the corners as well as dividing the sides, and the covers have a slightly convex profile. The last group, represented by no. 79, pp. 440-44, the Sze Yuan Tang fangyi, and the current example, have a more robust, more sharply tapering shape, and still have flanges, but seem to have reverted to the more distinctly defined foot and the straight canted cover of the earliest type.
The decoration on all fangyi is arranged in registers, with a large taotie mask on the body, typically small dragons or birds on the foot and above the mask, and either a large taotie repeated on the cover or, in at least one instance, a bird (see R.L. d'Argencé, The Hans Popper Collection of Oriental Art, Japan, 1973, no. 2, for the latter). Most often, as seen on the Sackler and Sze Yuan Tang fangyi, the raised designs are cast with intaglio motifs and are reserved on a leiwen ground. Other comparable fangyi featuring leiwen grounds include one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Shang and Chou Dynasty Bronze Wine Vessels, Taipei, 1989, pl. 24; the example illustrated by J. Pope et al., The Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. 1, Washington, 1967, pl. 37; and the fangyi illustrated by Ming S. Wilson in "Archaic Chinese Bronzes in the Victoria & Albert Museum," Chinese Bronzes, Selected Articles from Orientations 1983-2000, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 189, fig. 2. The present fangyi is of a more rare type, where the various relief features are set against an undecorated ground. This can also be seen on a fangyi in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 27 - Bronze Ritual Vessels and Musical Instruments, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 142, no. 91. (Fig. 2) However, unlike the Beijing Palace vessel, which features a dark greyish-black patina mottled with patches of blue-green encrustation that obscures some of the decoration, the surface of the present vessel features a silvery grey patina that is relatively free of encrustation, which helps to emphasize the superb casting and clarity of the design. What also sets apart the present fangyi is its unusually broad proportions, whereas the Beijing Palace example, and the other aforementioned vessels, are generally taller and are more narrow in silhouette.
A further unusual feature of the present fangyi is the inclusion of what appear to be elephants in the register encircling the foot. The bodies of these figures are essentially the same as those of the dragons that fill the register below the rim and the birds cast on the cover below the knob, but the features of the head are distinctly elephantine, with leaf-shaped ears, trunk with split end, and tusks. More naturalistically rendered elephants can be found in the lowest register on a slightly earlier Shang fangyi illustrated by B. Karlgren in A Catalogue of the Chinese Bronzes in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection, The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, 1952, p. 111, pl. 56.