Elliptical Vessel with Lid: Ding

  • China
  • China, Eastern Zhou period
  • 4th century B.C.
  • Bronze with gold sheet and glass inlay
  • H-17 W-16
Catalogue Entry

Lavishly decorated ritual vessels like this one that were filled with food for the dead were typical Eastern Zhou funerary offerings. This small tripod vessel is distinguished by its elliptical shape and fitted domed lid, both of which are fluted horizontally and inlaid with gold. A small round handle is placed on each side of the long axis of the vessel, and the three legs are each marked by a feline mask where they join the bowl. The lid is surmounted by four seated birds modeled in the round facing outward; these serve as legs for the lid that, when inverted, is transformed into a bowl. The bowl, lid, handles, feline masks, and birds are all decorated with geometric patterns inlaid with gold. Patches of azurite-blue and some malachite-green corrosion, consistent with the age of the vessel, mark the dark surfaces of the vessel and lid.

Examination under a microscope reveals, running vertically from the rim on the short axis, a mold mark that has been filed down. The lug handles and legs were cast separately, and then inserted in the mold when the vessel was cast. Tiny cuprite patches in the undecorated band may indicate the presence of spacers used in the casting process to maintain the space between the mold and the core. The lid appears to have been integrally cast with the four birds. The inlay channels were probably cast, rather than engraved. A band of eight circular inlays, of which a single blue glass example remains, accented the inlaid-gold design at intervals. The other bands on the lid and bowl are inlaid with rows of interlocked S-shaped spirals slanting to the right. The elemental composition of the alloy is a leaded tin bronze.1

When the vessel was first acquired, heavy corrosion prevented removal of the lid. After cleaning, the lid was removed and the remains of food were discovered inside. Further examination revealed remnants of a black lacquer lining on the interior surface. A darker elliptical area on the exterior base of the bowl may be a waterline resulting from wet burial conditions.

Although no elliptical covered ding with fluting and gold inlaid decoration has yet been published, the Shumei ding displays several features that suggest it should be associated with the Eastern Zhou principalities that occupied present-day Hebei province. The elliptical shape is a relatively late addition to the repertoire of bronze vessel shapes; it appeared first in north and northeast China during the early Eastern Zhou period.2 The distinctive interlocking S-shaped spiral design decorating the horizontal bands appears to be a simple and perhaps earlier linear version of a more complex pattern inlaid on the well-known table base excavated from the late-fourth-century B.C. tomb of the king of Zhongshan at Pingshan, Hebei province.3 The same Zhongshan tomb also yielded a globular bronze lamp with fluted horizontal lid and body similar to those of the Shumei ding4 and burnished black ceramic vessels embellished with similar spiral designs.5 The Brundage collection in San Francisco also has a similar lidded ding with fluting but no inlay.6

1. Analysis by X-ray fluorescence and examination by Marco Leona, Conservation Center, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
2. For elliptical vessels, see So 1995, nos. 9, 53-61.
3. Hebei sheng wenwu yanjiusuo 1994, p.150. I am grateful to Dr. Jenny F. So for this reference.
4. Tokyo National Museum 1981, color pl. 42.
5. Ibid., pl. 87.
6. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, no. B60 B1020: Erdberg Consten l958, pl. 47.