Hsi Tsun: Wine Vessel
T’ang Dynasty, A.D.618-90
This bronze vessel in the shape of a cow-like animal is a Hsi Tsun vessel of T’ang Dynasty China. This vessel may have held wine, but could have also held other offerings of food or incense because it does not have a spout for pouring and contains charred natural material. The vessel is a relatively realistic representation of a cow or donkey, but it is decorated with fanciful designs and embellishments. Some of these designs, like the depictions of animal faces and abstract swirl and floral patterns that are often found on this type of vessel, have been linked to religious or ceremonial meanings that have to do with ancestor worship.
During this time in China, Buddhism was overtaking the old traditions and ideas, but Confucianism was still popular in some areas and never lost its hold on Chinese culture. With Confucianism was the strong belief in ancestor veneration and appeal to the gods through the ancestors. Buddhism did not emphasis sacrifices and so the use of bronzes as sacrificial vessels declined during this time. Vessels during this period were used to show wealth and status and also record the deeds of the living through inscriptions, but old styles of decoration associated with Confucianistic beliefs remained present on bronzes.
During the T’ang Dynasty, this type of vessel would have been owned by a wealthy or powerful person and would have been used to serve and prepare wine or food to use in ceremonies. The charred natural fiber and blackened ash-like substance contained inside suggests that offerings were burned inside the vessel rather than consumed. Hsi Tsuns are normally ovular in shape with a broad, flat base, but can have four legs if depicting a four-legged creature. Most hsi tsuns have spouts to pour liquid from and are often are decorated with taotie or animal mask motifs, which are thought to be associated with the afterlife or spirits. They also have zoomorphic elements and were either shaped like an animal or were incised with animal depictions. The use of hsi tsuns was most active from around the late 11th century B.C., but this specimen is thought to date from A.D. 618-907. [Katrina Kassis]
For more information on Chinese art see:
A Book of Chinese Art: Four Thousand Years of Sculpture, Painting, Bronze, Jade, Lacquer, and Porcelain, by Lubor Hajek and Werner Forman.