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Wine Vase (Zun) – Shang Dynasty

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 2210 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Wine Vase (Zun) – Shang Dynasty


 Standing 15 and ¾ in. tall, with its distinctive intricate details, this Zun vessel was one of the first things to catch my eye as I walked through the Asian art galleries at the Met. With a widely flaring round neck, and a bulging midsection, the Zun at its base measures 8 7/8 in. and rises 13 7/8 in. to its top. I observed that the Zun was similar in shape to the Gu, however its proportions differed greatly. I also observed that this Zun vessel along with other vessels from this time are truly unique compared to art from other centuries and countries, and with bronze ritual vessels, “the more you look, the more you see.”

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 In comparison to other bronzes of the pre-Anyang phase of the Shang Dynasty, this wine vessel is much more refined, with dense, curvilinear designs that cover almost the entire surface of the vessel. The only sections without details is the thick band along the base and the two blank margins separating the middle from the areas above and below it. One of the most distinctive and unique characteristics of this Zun is its use of the taotie. The Taotie, or monster mask motif, was one distinctive design trait used throughout the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1406 BC). The first taoties that I noticed were protruding from the vessel’s shoulder at the top of every other evenly spaced flange running down the middle of the vessel. Aside from these three, the most obvious of the taoties that are flush with the vessels surface can be described as being frontal, and symmetrical with a pair of enlarged eyes, a curved upwards snout and ram-like horns. Beside those are abstract dragon-like masks with one enormous eye, long body, three legs and a long tail. At first glance, the center of the middle section appeared to be the side profile of two-different abstract dragon-like taoties, but the longer I continued to move around and observe the vase, I realized that two of these together could indeed form a symmetrical frontal face, separated by a flange down the center. With the middle section being the focal point of the vessel, it has a prominent pair of eyes, protruding in high relief, larger and more intense than any of the other taotie. Between the eyes is a nose with nostrils at its base. It also embodies tall curved ears or horn-like features on the top of its head and long curled flares off the direct sides and bottom of the face. Lastly, the second large taotie portrayed on the Zun vessel is located on the lower section and to me, appeared to suggest two different abstract figures. The first was a dragon somewhat similar to the last, again with protruding eyes, nostrils, and large curved flares outwards of the face. However, when looking the second time I noticed that there are many features that suggest a bird-like mask. Similarly, it is a bilaterally symmetrical, frontal image, except it displays the body versus just the face alone. It starts with the head which has very simple swirl eyes, and then a diamond shape which almost suggests a beak. Below, are vertical lines which suggest a long body. What I previously thought were nostrils now imply a curved claw or foot, and the long flares/ears now appear as long wings, extended and stretched out across the side of the vessel.

 In relation to Max Loehr’s “5 Styles”, this Zun vase has a clear use of Style IV, as each taotie is surrounded by fine curling scrolls, also known as the thunder pattern or leiwen. This technique provides a clear distinction between the foreground taotie and the background leiwen, making the former standout and highlighting it. Another important characteristic to note about this Zun vessel is its medium and how it was made. It is a bronze vase inlaid with black pigmentation, which is one of the reasons it has been able to remain in the condition it is in today. Along with other bronzes made during the Shang-dynasty, this vessel was definitely made by the piece-mold casting method, cast using a ceramic piece mold built around a clay model and then cut in quarter sections to allow for molten bronze to be poured in the hollow space between the mold and the clay model. This technique made each piece unique as it created symmetrical quarters of each section and a high degree of sharpness in the intricate designs, including the flanges.

Besides the vessels’ elaborate designs and motifs, what makes them truly exceptional are their uniqueness to their time. “No other Bronze Age culture ever achieved a level of aesthetic perfection in bronze comparable to Shang culture. The imaginative vision and expertise that are combined in Shang ritual vessels represent a peak of virtuoso art that is rare in world history.” [1] They were more than just beautiful objects placed underground beside the ancestors, although I imagine it must’ve been a sight to behold, seeing rows of these glistening works arranged in the tombs. They were made and used for rituals led by the very wealthy elite and thus symbolized power, respect and a high status. The vessels had multiple purposes in these rituals including holding wine, similar to the Zun vase mentioned earlier, as well as to contain food and water for heating and serving purposes. These rituals, which were often held in family temples or over tombs for ceremonial purposes, relied on the vessels to serve the food and wine, one of the most important roles. Deeply believing in the afterlife and ancestral rituals, the Chinese wished for their deceased ancestors to have food and wine to sustain them on their journeys to other dimensions. [2]

Other aspects that show the importance ritual bronzes held in the Shang dynasty are the amount of resources available to construct the vessels and the specific way that the Chinese decided to use them. According to Eno, “to achieve such a level of magnificence, the Shang had to invest enormous resources. Copper and tin, the principal components of Shang bronzes, were not easy to come by. Although there are substantial deposits of these minerals within a few hundred kilometers of Xiaotun, given the rudimentary forms of mining and transportation available, quarrying and shipping the ore to the capital would have been a great drain on labor and a major expense to the Shang elite.” [3] Additionally, the Shang chose to invest their ore resources mainly in the art industry versus productive industries. “The Shang could have used copper or bronze to strengthen their ploughs, but they did not; they could have used them to reinforce their weaponry, but with few exceptions, they did not.” [4] With the Shang frequently at war, this further proves the level of importance ritual vessels had in China during this period, as they chose not to use their resources for aid in political matters, but rather spiritual matters. “Bronze was reserved for the near-exclusive use of the ritual industries, and within that, chiefly for the manufacture of sacrificial vessels. It was the ancestors who enjoyed the fruits of the most developed form of manufacturing technology in Shang China.” [5]  In other regions of the world, the Mediterranean and other Bronze Age cultures created bronze objects out of thin sheets of bronze in order to keep them light in weight, minimizing their resources. In contrast, the Shang utilized bronze in a much more resource-heavy way, creating dense, thick-walled solid objects.

Ritual ceremonies were performed often in the Shang and the following dynasties of ancient China. As mentioned earlier, since the very beginning of China’s civilization, the serving of food and wine in bronze vessels have played an important role in death/funerary rituals. Meat such as cattle, pigs and sheep “were the most precious food because people risked their lives to obtain it” and was therefore “…the principal offering for divine spirits.” [6]  “Domestic animals offered in a ritual are called “xi sheng.” [7] In addition to burying food and wine/spirits with their ancestors, people of the Shang dynasty also buried human sacrifices in certain tombs depending on that persons rank in society. For instance, Shang rulers and other people of great wealth or importance in society were able to take their servants and other individuals as human sacrifices into the afterlife alongside them. The largest tombs have been believed to contain upwards of 300 bodies.

It is believed that the invention of alcohol in ancient China was formed around 2100 BC. “The origin of wine began with the Ancient Kings. Some say it was (made by) I Ti, others say it was Tu K’ang. In fact, it began when discarded rice was fermented and it accumulated a rich fragrance after a long period of time in an empty truck.”8 A recent finding from an excavation in the ancient village of Jiahu, have found traces of rice, beeswax which is associated with honey, and either hawthorn fruit or wild grape. 9 The same researchers say that the chemical structure of this 3,000-year-old wine, which has been incredibly preserved all of this time, is very similar to that of modern rice and grape wines.9 It was likely only made available to the wealthy during this time since alcohol production required a large amount of grains, which were not always easily available in certain areas of China. As “people came to enjoy drinking… It was a matter of course that alcohol came to be offered to deities as it was something people enjoyed.”10 However, alcohol including wine were not to be used as much for enjoyment but as a sacred liquid. Out of the many ritual bronze vessels uncovered in the tombs during this time, a significant amount of those were wine vessels. “For example, in the tomb of Fu-hao, the Queen of King Wu-ting, seventy percent of the bronze vessels are wine containers. Another report of the excavation of mid- late Shang tombs at An-yang shows that among the 468 potteries found there, 218 are wine containers; and out of the 128 bronze objects, 33 are wine vessels.”11 Furthermore, thousands of other wine containers have been unearthed over time at smaller tombs in the Shang region, demonstrating the importance these vessels held to everyone, even the poor. [8]


  • Bower, Bruce. “China’s Fermented Past.” Science News 166, no. 24 (December 11, 2004): 371.
  • Eno, R. “3.6 Shang Ritual Bronzes.” 2010. Accessed November 29, 2018. www.iub.edu/~g380/3.6-Bronze-2010.pdf.
  • Poo, Mu-Chou. “The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42, no. 2 (1999): 123-51.
  • “Shang and Zhou Dynasties: The Bronze Age of China.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. October 2004. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shzh/hd_shzh.htm.
  • “Shang Dynasty (approx. 1500‒1050 BCE) Ritual Bronze Vessels.” Asian Art Museum | Education. Accessed November 26, 2018. http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/shang-dynasty-approx-1500‒1050-bce-ritual-bronze-vessels.
  • Wei, Wang, Liu Hua Yuan, Chen Jian Xian, and Jiang Bo. “A Study on Ancient Rituals in China.” Institute of Archaeology. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

[1]R. Eno, “3.6 Shang Ritual Bronzes,” 1, http://www.iub.edu/~g380/3.6-Bronze-2010.pdf.

3 R. Eno, 1

2″Shang Dynasty (approx. 1500‒1050 BCE) Ritual Bronze Vessels,” Asian Art Museum | Education, 1, accessed November 26, 2018, http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/shang-dynasty-approx-1500‒1050-bce-ritual-bronze-vessels.

[4] R. Eno, 1

5 R. Eno, 1

6 Wang Wei et al., “A Study on Ancient Rituals in China,” 19, Institute of Archaeology:.

7 Wang Wei et al., 19

8 Poo, Mu-Chou. “The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China.” 1. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42, no. 2 (1999): 123-51.

9 Bower, Bruce. 2004. “China’s Fermented Past.” 1. Science News 166 (24): 371.

10 Wang Wei et al., 19

11 Poo, Mu-Chou., ” 5.


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