Wine Vessel (Zun) in the Form of a Buffalo

  • China Yangzi River region
  • Southern regional Bronze Age culture
  • about 1200 - 1000 B.C.
  • Bronze
  • H-16.3 W-8.6
Catalogue Entry

Early northern bronze-casters exhibited scant interest in the natural world. In the south, however, modern archaeologists have discovered enough ancient vessels that take the shape of identifiable animals to suggest that early southern bronze-casters were particularly interested in representational forms like the buffalo that defines this container.1 The engaging creature stands alert on four stiff, straight legs, its face represented as an extension of the front of the lid. Unlike some southern animal vessels, covered with motifs more reminiscent of natural patterning, this one features a host of surface motifs that descend from the ornament of northern bronzes.

The back-to-back arrangement of different bird- or animal-like patterns on the flanks of the quadruped repeats a formula found on much less sculptural northern gong, a type of spouted pitcher that typically stands on a ring foot.2 As on those vessels, the motif at the rear of the Shumei vessel appears to spread from lid to foot: The mask at the back of the lid--with raised, openwork horns--seems to belong to the relief that spirals body and leg on the vessel below. Although greatly transformed, this configuration echoes the treatment of relief birds, especially owls, on northern gong complete with the coiled vestiges of a wing, here transformed into a semi-independent dragon.

The specific handling of these surface motifs suggests both a date and provenance for this remarkable object. A similar vessel, found in a grave in Yang Xian, Shaanxi province, must be an import from the south, probably taken to the northwest by the early Western Zhou period (about 1050-950 B.C.)3 That vessel, a second, elephant-inspired example in the Arthur M. Sackler collections,4 and the Shumei piece all possess patterns that are less coherent than those found on a related cluster of animal-shaped containers unearthed in the south that are believed to date from the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.5 The Shumei piece and its mates may thus be safely attributed to the twelfth or eleventh centuries, possibly created in a foundry provincial by southern standards.

1. Bagley 1987, pp. 34-36.
2. See, for example, the pair of early Anyang gong found in Tomb 5, Anyang: Yinxu Fu Hao Mu 1980, pp. 59-63, pl. 26.1,2.
3. See Li 1985, no. 94.
4. No. V-195 see Bagley 1987, pp. 416-20.
5. Ibid.