Hu: Wine Storage Vessel
Late Eastern Chou Dynasty, 1122-722 B.C
Material: Bronze and wood
This Chinese hu vessel is from the Late Chou or Zhou Dynasty and is a good representation of the change in use of ritual wine vessels around this time. Bronze wine vessels slowly became less important for ancestor worship and more important as symbols of wealth and status. When the Zhou took over the Shang Dynasty in 770 B.C., they instigated some changes to religion and the arts. Although large elaborate sacrifice ceremonies were still favored for the dead, there was a waning importance of making living sacrifices, including human and animal, to the ancestors. Human sacrifices were stopped and life size clay figurines were used in their place. Also, money that was buried with the dead was replaced by “spirit money,” or symbolic money.
Styles of art changed favoring abstract designs as opposed to inscriptions and zoomorphic motifs. Bronze vessels remained important, but more because of their artistic significance than their practical uses. These highly prized vessels became more akin to a European king’s crown, only belonging to the ruler and being passed down to the heir or buried as a grave good with the ruler at his death. The story behind the founding of the first dynasty in China shows how important bronzes were to the ancient Chinese. When King Yu stopped a major flood in his land in the year 2200 B.C., He separated his territory into nine provinces, each with its own ding, or bronze cauldron. When the first dynasty was conquered by the Shang Dynasty, the cauldrons came under Shang control. When the Shang Dynasty was overtaken by the Zhou, the cauldrons came under Zhou control. And so they became a symbol of control of power.
During the time period from the Xia to the Zhou Dynasties, 11th century through 221 B.C., the artistry of Chinese bronzes was especially exceptional. The use of bronze in court life increased because of its use as mirrors, musical instruments and weapons. This bronze vessel is decorated with gold and silver leaf and has a wooden lid. It is covered with fanciful decoration from top to bottom unlike ones that came before it that were more plain. Vessels like this would have inscriptions that extolled the accomplishments of the leaders that owned the vessel as opposed to listing the ancestors’ accomplishments. [Katrina Kassis]