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A Covered Bronze Ding
with Painted “Xuanwu” Décor
加彩玄武紋盖青铜鼎

Height: 11.6 cm. (4 5/8 in.)
Diameter: 16.2 cm. (6 3/8 in.)

Eastern Han dynasty
1st-2nd century

 

(NOTE: Further information is provided below the detailed images.)

Details:

 

 

The thin-walled, light-weight bronze bowl with a raised flange circling the waist and large angular U-shaped handles on two opposite sides is raised on three feet each in the form of a bear head supported by two legs pressed close together. The vessel is covered with a fitted dome-shaped lid with a small loop on top for attachment to a chain. The lid is painted with a massive tortoise with distinctive scaley carapace, a slender snake wrapped around the body, while two unusually elongated fish are stretched on opposite sides of the bowl with a geometric design below. The tortoise and fish are colored primarily with whites and yellows, the background with green, while highlights and decorative borders are in red. The pigments are relatively well preserved and matte and powdery in appearance.

Such small and fragile vessels as this that mime traditional Bronze Age ritual cooking utensils would not have been used for preparations over fire. However, offerings in the form of food and wine could have been presented and stored in such vessels and in fact painted bronzes have been discovered with liquid sealed within wine vessels and others with the desiccated remains of what appear to be fish or chicken bones.

The tortoise and snake intimately partnered in the scene on the lid of the vessel are the well-known Black Warrior (Xuanwu), signifying the direction north and the winter season. But how might we understand the image of the white fish? As the account has it, leaping into the “royal barge of King Wu [of Zhou] as he was crossing [the Yellow river]…..” and then offered as sacrifice was an albino fish. It is difficult to ignore the possibility that the albino fish is being represented here.

These symbolic creatures—the Xuanwu and albino fish– are depicted in almost precisely the same manner on a bronze ding in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 1) and on another that was excavated from a tomb in Inner Mongolia (fig. 2), both differing from the present only in the uprights on their lids. It is believed that given the comparative naturalism and use of multiple colors, this particular type of painted bronze is dateable to the Eastern Han and likely influenced by contemporaneous painted and carved tomb decoration.1

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1. For reference to the albino fish, see Wu Hung, The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art, Stanford, 1989, p. 241.

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Figs. 1a-1b: Bronze ding with tortoise painting, Western Han dynasty, 2nd-1st century BCE, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, after Diane M. Nelson.”Bronze Ming-chi Vessels with Painted Decoration: A Regional Study in Han Pictorialism,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 42, no. 2/3 (1980), figs. 19-20.

 

Figs. 2a-2b: Bronze ding with tortoise painting, Western Han dynasty, 2nd-1st century BCE, excavated in Inner Mongolia, after Diane M. Nelson.”Bronze Ming-chi Vessels with Painted Decoration: A Regional Study in Han Pictorialism,” Artibus Asiae, vol. 42, no. 2/3 (1980), figs. 21-22.

 

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