Ricumbent Ox

  • China
  • China, Late Eastern Zhou period
  • Late 4th to 3rd centuries B.C.
  • Bronze with silver inlay
  • H-5.2 D-11 W-9.7
Catalogue Entry

This heavy bronze ox was probably used as a weight, judging from its size, flattened base, and rounded form, which makes handling easy. A number of similar sculptural weights for funerary mats or palls have been found in tombs of the late Warring States and Western Han periods (third-second century B.C.). An exquisite example is the set of four bronze leopards, their life-like forms identically inlaid with gold, silver, and carnelian, found at the Western Han royal tombs at Mancheng, Hebei province.1

Like those leopards, this ox was beautifully sculptured in a naturalistic pose, its body tightly curled over the four tucked-under legs and its head lifting slightly, as if the animal had just awakened. The abstract surface pattern of curvilinear forms, superbly inlaid in silver, can be compared with designs found on a hu vessel also excavated from the Mancheng tombs.2 However, a partly legible inscription, "Da fu [?] [?]"3 on its underside favors identification with precious objects made for the royal house of Chu, the powerful state controlling the south of China during the later Warring States period.4 Da fu, literally "Great Storehouse," most likely refers to the department in charge of the royal storehouse of the Chu ruler.5

This ox is almost identical to a bronze ox excavated in Shou Xian, Anhui province, in 1956.6 Dated to around 323 B.C., that ox has a complete inscription, "Da fu zhi qi (object of the Great Storehouse)." The dimensions and weight of both oxen are similar. Their only differences are different interlacings in their silver inlay surface decorations and differently drawn silver details on their horns, teeth, and hooves. It is possible the Shumei ox and the excavated one were once part of a set of weights.

Evidently, this ox was cast in lost wax. Channels for its surface decorations and the inscription on the underside were probably directly worked on the wax model. After casting, silver foil and strips were forced into the precast channels, then worked to produce a smooth surface level with the bronze.7 This accomplished metalworking technique was common during the period of the late Eastern Zhou to early Western Han.

1. See Hebei sheng 1980, vol. 1, p.265; vol. 2, pl. XXVI.
2. Ibid., vol. 2, pl. XVIII.
3. Under magnification, one can see parts of two other characters following Da fu. Corrosion has rendered them illegible. I thank Professor Lothar von Falkenhausen and his student Lai Guo-long of UCLA for confirming the reading of Da fu.
4. For the Da fu seal see Li 1985, p.167. Many Chu artifacts found in Shouchun, a later capital of the Chu state, bear the inscription "Da fu," suggesting that they are artifacts from the royal court of Chu.
5. See discussions of Da fu in Yin 1959, pp. 1-2.
6. See ibid. This comparison was pointed out in Eskenazi 1993, pp. 97-98. This excavated ox is currently housed at the Chinese History Museum in Beijing: see Zhongguo lishi bowuguan 1984, no. 77.
7. These technical aspects were determined through close examination by John Hirx and Pieter Meyers of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Conservation Center.