Object: Ceremonial Wine Goblet

E/1960/3/7
Ceremonial Wine Goblet
China
1766-1122 B.C.
Material: Bronze

This is a gu or ku, a bronze ritual wine goblet from the Shang Dynasty in China from approximately 1766-1122 B.C. This type of goblet was used in ancestor worship ceremonies and rituals to hold wine as an offering to the spirits of deceased family members. During this time it was a common practice to make offerings of food, drink, and valued possessions to ones ancestors to ensure their well being in the afterlife. The Chinese believed that their ancestors had the power to influence things that happened in the living world and intercede for the living with the gods. If offerings were not made to the ancestors, they might cause misfortune to the living.

Upon the death of a king or queen huge sacrifices were made to ensure his or her happiness in the afterlife. All of the worldly possessions collected by the king or queen would be sacrificed, often buried along with the deceased or burned. Sheep, dogs, pigs, and draft animals were sacrificed. Human sacrifices were sometimes also made. The king’s wife, concubines, servants, guards and skilled crafts people could be sent into the afterlife along with the king. Bronze wine vessels were extremely important to the royalty because of their significance in the ancestor ceremonies. Bronze technology was used mainly for weapons and tools in other cultures, but in Chinese culture it was reserved for use as ritual vessels and musical instruments.

This vessel is very heavily incised with lettering common to the time period. It was common that vessels for ancestor worship were incised with the ancestor’s names and dates of life to honor them. Later, inscriptions started to tell of the feats of the deceased as well. The ku vessel was used in the late Shang Dynasty when ancestor worship sacrifices were at their height. In these ceremonies wine was drunk from these incised ritual goblets in tribute to the dead. The use of the ku vessel decreased after the invasion of the Zhou in 770 B.C. [Katrina Kassis]

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For more information on Chinese bronze vessels see:

Art from ritual : ancient Chinese bronze vessels from the Arthur M. Sackler collections by Dawn Ho Delbanco.

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