Each weight is in the form of a recumbent ox, its body coiled with hind legs wrapped tight and low around the body and the forelegs pulled up and pressed to the chest, the head with crescent horn, ears pricked, and flat muzzle, resting on the back. The dark greyish brown surfaces are cast with sunken linear designs consisting of a braided rope alternating with patterns of scales. The hollow interiors are filled with a dense metallic substance, identified in related pieces as a metal amalgam, giving added weight to each of the figures.
Fashioned to secure the corners of floor mats for seating, complete sets of four are a rarity today, but even if surviving as single entities, they can be quite captivating sculptures reflecting the tastes and styles of their time. Mountain forms, intertwined snakes, rams, deer, camels, bears, leopards,
tigers, and humans were all subjects for the small bronze accoutrements.
Most immediately eye-catching are those that gleam with overall coatings of gold or embellished with inlays of gold, silver and semi-precious stones. These are typical of the luxury items fashioned in bronze during the end of Zhou through the Western Han period. The present pair is, however, of a different era. The dark color of the bare cast metal bodies and the subtle, restrained yet strong geometric surface designs speak a different language that echoes from the Middle Zhou period. Excavated examples that provide the closest relatives include the intertwined-snake weights from the 5th century B.C. tomb of Zenghou Yi, Marquis Yi of the state of Zeng in Suixian, Hubei province.
While quite unassuming, the present bronzes are actually compelling as they are on the one hand naturalistic, capturing the essential features and weighty essence of the beasts they represent, and smartly stylized through the compact geometry of their forms. At the same time they are subtle manifestations of the artistic expressions of their time through the abstract patterns on their bovine coats.
1. Cary Liu, Michael Nylan, and Anthoy Barbieri-Lou, Recarving China’s Past, Yale Univ. Press, 2005, refer to records noting the widespread use of mats in the Han period especially in ceremonies, cat. no. 47, p. 417.
2. See Ancient Art from Hubei, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1997,
pl. 33, p. 93.
3. For further background see Sun Ji’s discussion of Han mat weights in “Han zhen yishu,” Wenwu, 1983:6, pp. 69-72 and Michelle C. Wang, with Guolong Lai, Roel Sterckx, and Eugene Yuejin Wang, A Bronze Menagerie: Mat Weights of Early China, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2006.