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Ritual food vessel, approx. 900–850 BCE

Ritual food vessel

Ritual food vessel, approx. 900850 BCE.  Western Zhou dynasty (1050771 BCE). China. Bronze. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60B1056.

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What is this object?
The gui is a food container used in ritual ceremonies during the Shang (1600-1050 BCE) and Zhou dynasties. It is a deep circular vessel shaped like a basin. From the late Shang on, and especially at the beginning of the Zhou, the gui developed handles and bases.

How was it used?
Based on several finds, gui were used to store cooked rice, millet and other grains. Some have survived with lids. The lengthy (60 character) inscription inside this vessel gives a complete description of its use: “Jui, who revered Su Xi, attended with great care to her funeral. The emperor bestowed many bounties upon Jui. Jui made so bold as to extol the emperor by using (his favors) to make for his august forefathers this sacred gui. (It should be) used for memorial sacrifices to (these) late accomplished men and beg for longevity, eternal life, loyal service to the emperor, and a good death. May Jui’s sons and grandsons for ten thousand years treasure (it) and use (it).”

This vessel was clearly intended for ceremonial ancestor worship, but a note of personal pride seems to enter in here, as if Jui was intentionally making an heirloom that would honor him as a future ancestor. Gui, along with ding, became important objects indicating status during the Zhou. The maximum number of ding (nine) and gui (eight) used in burials was restricted to heads of state.

What is the significance of the designs on this vessel?
In contrast to the profusion of images on the gong, the decorations on this gui seem orderly and evenly spread among the base, several bands in the middle of the vessel, and on the handles. The taotie mask of earlier times has been reduced to an eye. Around each eye coils an animal shape in broad bands that looks like a transition between a dragon and the bird shape on the gong. Handles on gui from the Zhou period are quite strong and pronounced and give the vessel a strong sillouette. These handles are formed from twisting dragons with bottle horns. Decoration on vessels such as this gui indicate an abstraction of earlier animal forms.

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