Wine Vessel: Fang Lei

  • China
  • China, Eastern Zhou period
  • 4th century B.C.
  • Bronze with malachite chips and copper wire inlays
  • H-32.8
Catalogue Entry

Wine was an important part of the religious and courtly rituals of ancient China, and wine vessels were among the earliest vessels made in bronze, the prestigious material of the time (see cat. nos. 78, 80). Squat, square wine containers like this example were latecomers to an extensive repertoire of wine vessels, appearing in south-central China only in the last centuries B.C. A pair of similar wine vessels from the late-fifth-century B.C. tomb of the Zeng Hou Yi in Sui Xian, Hubei province, were recovered inside large squared basins.1 Archaeologists believe that such assemblages represented an ancient way to keep the wine at a desired serving temperature by immersing the containers in a bath of iced or hot water. Long-stemmed ladles, to serve the wine from these vessels, were often recovered with them.2

Like that on the more ancient Shang and Western Zhou bronzes (cat. nos. 78, 81), all decoration on this fang lei was first carved in the clay mold, then cast in bronze. But unlike its predecessors, casting was only the beginning of its decorative process: considerable work was lavished on post-cast inlays, the focus of this vessel's design and appeal. The choice of materials to inlay different areas of the ground left by the cast design is calculated: red copper wires highlight the crossed diagonal grid and the addorsed squared C-curls inside each lozenge formed by the grid, and banded green malachite chips set in a light-colored paste fill the remaining ground. In its original state, this would have appeared sumptuous and brocade-like, with bright green and red against the darker gun-metal gray bronze body of the vessel, evocative of the similarly rich colors and patterns on woven and embroidered silks of the time.3 The bold design and colors on the body contrast with the fine geometric pattern on the neck, which is more subtly decorated with copper wire inlays and a few malachite chips.

The difference between the neck and body goes beyond their design and inlays. They were cast with alloys of significantly different compositions: the neck has considerably more copper and less tin than the body (which accounts for its greener patina).4 They were cast in two separate steps: the neck was precast and the body cast on to it in a second pouring. The neck is also significantly thicker than the body, with impressions of a similar design on its four interior walls. Both the delicately inlaid design and the unusually thick neck are duplicated on a similar fang lei excavated from a fourth-century B.C. tomb in Sanmenxia, Henan province,5 although we have no information on its casting process. The petal-crowned lid on the Sanmenxia vessel supports the restoration of the missing two petals on the lid of the Shumei fang lei.

The elaborate decoration on this wine vessel signified the unusual status of its owner and the predominant aesthetic of the period. Excavated and collected vessels with similar diagonal grid designs inlaid with malachite, copper, gold, and silver form a distinctive group among late Eastern Zhou inlaid bronzes.6 As the most lavishly decorated vessels of their time, they epitomize a new and developing taste for ritual and ceremonial articles that were also irresistibly beautiful. Their sumptuous appearance made them the most coveted luxuries of the political and social elite, who probably saw them not so much as necessary ritual props (as did their Shang and Western Zhou predecessors) but symbols of the affluence and sophistication they enjoyed in their daily lives. These extravagantly decorated bronzes, together with richly woven and embroidered silks they emulate, colorfully painted lacquerwares, and lustrous worked jade ornaments created an unprecedented world of luxury and glamour in late Bronze Age China.

1. Hubei sheng bowuguan 1989, color pl. 9.3-.4.
2. Hubei sheng bowuguan 1989, pl. 66; Beijing 1976, no. 71.
3. Jingzhou diqu bowuguan 1985, color pls. 13.1, 19.1, 20:2; Mackenzie 1991, pp. 12-13.
4. Bennett 1993, p. 24.
5. Wenwu 1976.3, p. 53, fig. 2.
6. So 1995, pp. 46-49, 55-63.