Ritual food vessel, or gui, with coiled figures and taotie masks

On display

Bronze ritual vessels were probably first manufactured in China during the early part of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC–1050 BC), and this continued, with various changes in shapes and decoration until the end of the Eastern Zhou period in the third century BC. The earliest bronzes were decorated with narrow horizontal bands, with swirling ornamental lines centred on a pair of prominent eyes. These abstract patterns were developed during the Shang Dynasty and Western Zhou period (1050BC-771BC) to become more complex animal-like designs. The eyes provide a focus around which a more or less easily recognisable animal face gradually forms. This symmetrical mask, known as a taotie, and a related mythical beast called a kuei dragon are the predominant decorative themes on Shang bronzes.

The decoration on this gui shows a further development in style where the main elements of the taotie and kuei were gradually separated and distinguished from the background, which was filled with squared-off curls called leiwen. The leiwen are cast in relief on this vessel, with the main design raised above it with certain elements in even higher relief. The animals, with their curled trunks, resemble elephants more than kuei dragons, and their bodies are coiled rather than extended. The band around the foot of the vessel is also decorated with a frieze of kuei dragons.


Glossary of terms



Further reading

Loveday, Helen, Chinese Bronzes in the Ashmolean Museum: An Illustrated Handbook to the Collections (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1990), p. 28, illus. p. 23 pl. 7

Reference URL

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