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Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels

Beauty of the Four-Ram Fang Zun


At first glance, your eyes may be caught by the four extraordinary crested heads of rams of this exhibit (Fig. 1 and 2). The large horns are shaped in elegant curves whirling to the center, and extravagant decoration is found all over the faces and bodies of the rams. It is hard to believe that this intricate and extremely stunning bronze vessel was casted ca. 1300 – ca. 1030 B.C. The 58.3cm.(23 in.)-tall vessel was discovered in Hunan Province, South China and is now exhibited at the Historical Museum in Beijing, China.


The underlying beauty of this vessel lies in the perfect combination of the crested ram shapes, mythical motifs and the architectural features of the fang zun vessel type. Zun is a common type of Chinese bronze wine container, while the fang zun literally means the zun in a square shape. Early Shang people were said to be big drinkers so the existence of wine containers like zun are widely found around the central area of China. Shang people’s love of alcohol is reflected by both descriptions in history books and the large proportion of wine containers among all bronze vessels excavated.


The four crested rams on the shoulders of the fang zun are a bold design. Compared to the early example of fang zun from Fu Hao’s tomb (Fig. 3), the ram heads on this vessel are more protruding and also larger in size. The artist sacrificed some of the architectural features of the fang zun to meet the exotic design of ram heads. The violent distortion of the traditional zun shape was a successful art attempt, not to mention the skillfulness in the casting process.


Underneath the protruding ram heads, meticulously designed details can been seen all over the vessel. The surface patterns depict the bodies and legs of the rams. They are mainly decorated by geometric shapes like whirls and squares. Another significant motif is the taotie mask on the neck of the fang zun. Taotie is a mythical animal which is cruel and fearful and never stops eating. The primary attribute of this animal-like mask is a prominent pair of eyes, often protruding in high relief, which is right above the ram heads on this fang zun. The elaborate decor on the vessel is a blend of mythical symbolism and decorative art. It is not visually obvious on a dark bronze vessel, but is as elegant as dark embroidery on a black silk coat.


Overall, the squared shape of the fang zun is beautifully blended with the artistic design of animal heads along with mysterious patterns all over the surface.


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