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Gallery Text

One of the earliest forms of Chinese writing is preserved in the simple inscriptions on bronze vessels from the late Shang period. Integrally cast into the bronzes — as opposed to being incised into the vessel after the metal had hardened — these marks were usually placed on the interior wall or floor of a vessel; the lids of covered vessels had matching marks on their undersides. Shang inscriptions tend to be highly pictographic, with many resembling birds, weapons, or humanoid figures. The inscriptions are not always translatable into modern Chinese characters, but most are identifiable as the names of either the aristocratic owners who commissioned the vessels, or the ancestors to whom they were dedicated. During the succeeding Zhou dynasty, written characters became more standardized and bronze inscriptions lengthened, often commemorating an event in which the person commissioning the bronze was involved. Bronze inscriptions were thus akin to historical texts worthy of preservation and study.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
'Fangyi' Covered Ritual Wine Vessel with 'Taotie' Decor
Work Type
12th century BCE
Creation Place: East Asia, China
Shang dynasty, c. 1600-c. 1050 BCE
Level 1, Room 1740, Early Chinese Art, Arts of Ancient China from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age
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Physical Descriptions
Cast bronze with gray patina; with inscription cast on both the vessel floor and lid interior
H. 30.2 x W. 20.1 x D. 17.6 cm (11 7/8 x 7 15/16 x 6 15/16 in.)
Weight 6020.02 g (lid 2476.33 g, vessel 3543.69 g)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription: two ideographs integrally cast on both the vessel floor and lid interior
[C. T. Loo & Co., New York, March 17, 1942] sold; to Grenville L. Winthrop, New York (1942-1943), bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Publication History

Dorothy W. Gillerman, Gridley McKim-Smith, and Joan R. Mertens, Grenville L. Winthrop: Retrospective for a Collector, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1969), no. 036, pp. 32-33

Chen Mengjia, Yin Zhou qingtongqi fenlei tulu (A corpus of Chinese bronzes in American Collections), Kyuko Shoin (Tokyo, Japan, 1977), A 639

Kristin A. Mortimer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums/Abbeville Press (Cambridge, MA; New York, NY, 1985), no. 4, p. 14

Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Washington, D.C. and Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 105, fig. 131; p. 131, fig. 198

Robert W. Bagley, Art and Archaeology of the Erligang Civilization, ed. Kyle Steinke and Dora C. Y. Ching, P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art (Princeton, NJ, 2014), pp. 20, 22, fig. 6

Exhibition History

Re-View: S228-230 Arts of Asia, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 05/31/2008 - 11/23/2008

32Q: 1740 Early China I, Harvard Art Museums, 11/01/2014 - 01/01/9999

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

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This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu