The Legendary Bronze Houmuwu Ding
The Houmuwu Ding (a sacrificial vessel), a national treasure of China, was commissioned by a Shang Dynasty king in memory of his mother.
In the National Museum of China, stands a magnificent, large rectangular ding (sacrificial vessel) that dates back to the Shang Dynasty (16th century–11th century BC). It is the largest and heaviest piece of bronzeware to survive from anywhere in the ancient world and is a national treasure of China. This is the Houmuwu Ding (lit. “Queen Mother Wu Sacrificial Vessel”), commissioned by a Shang Dynasty king in memory of his mother.
The Houmuwu Ding was buried underground for more than 3,000 years before it was finally excavated. The ding is world-famous for its huge size and exquisite decoration, combining dignified and elegant styles. The 832-kilogramme (kg) bronze vessel embossed with panlong (coiled dragons) and taotie (animal-faced creatures) is an example of the superlative craftsmanship and level of Chinese bronze casting over 3,900 years ago, and a masterpiece of Shang bronze culture.
Discovery and Protection
One day in March 1939, Wu Xizeng, an inhabitant of Wuguan Village, Anyang, Henan Province, was secretly out looking for treasure in a field. At a depth of more than 10 metres beneath the earth, his probe hit something hard. As he removed the probe, Wu noticed its end was covered with some kind of patina and so knew he must have found something valuable. After night fell, he returned to the site with a dozen villagers and they started digging. At the time, China was in the midst of its War of Resistance against Japan and Anyang was occupied by the Japanese army. To prevent the Japanese fiding out about their digging, the villagers covered the hole again with soil at dawn. The next night, more than 40 people joined the dig and after three nights of continuous excavation, they managed to lift up a large corroded bronze ding.
After being unearthed, the huge ding was secretly transported to the village and temporarily re-buried in the courtyard of Wu Peiwen, a cousin of Wu Xizeng. However, it was not long before news of the discovery found its way to Kuroda Eiji, captain of the Japanese police force. Kuroda visited Wu Peiwen's home and spent a long time admiring the massive ding before he reluctantly had to leave.
After the Japanese left, Wu Peiwen and the others became worried—afraid that they were in the danger of losing their lives if they kept hold of the ding. After discussion, they contacted Xiao Yinqing, a well-known antique dealer in Peiping (present-day Beijing), planning to sell the artefact. Xiao offered to buy it for 200,000 silver dollars ( dayang), but demanded that it be cut into several parts before being packed and transported. The villagers set to work using steel saws and hammers,
but it was hard going and they only managed to knock off one handle using their hammers. Seeing this situation, Wu Peiwen stopped the villagers and decided to protect the ding by reburying it. The Japanese continued to send troops into the village to search for the ding but they failed to find anything. Later on, Wu Peiwen bought a fake bronze ding and hid it beneath his brick bed. Not long after, the Japanese army found and took away the fake bronze. Wu entrusted the real ding to his brother and took refuge far from his hometown. After the War of Resistance against Japan ended, Wu returned to the village. In 1946, an officer surnamed Chen in the Anyang County Government heard about the whereabouts of the bronze ding and persuaded Wu Peiwen and the others to turn it over to the government. Later, the massive vessel was transported to Nanjing and stored in the Central Museum of the National Government.
In 1948, the bronze ding caused a huge sensation when it was first put on public display in Nanjing. During the exhibition, Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), politician and military leader of the Republic of China (1911–1949), visited it personally. In 1949, when the Kuomintang Government was defeated and decided to leave for Taiwan, they originally planned to take the ding artefact with them. However, they finally had to leave the vessel at Nanjing Airport due to its huge weight. It was later discovered by the People's Liberation Army led by the Communist Party of China and transferred to Nanjing Museum.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, historian Guo Moruo (1892–1978), initially named the vessel “Simuwu Ding” meaning “Mother Wu Sacrificial Vessel.” The name then became commonly used—albeit not without controversy. Some scholars suggested that it should be called “Houmuwu Ding” as in ancient Chinese, the characters for “si” and “hou” were written the same. But, when used as part of a name, “hou” is a better choice because it means “great and respectable” as in the idiom “huangtian houtu” (“great heaven and sovereign earth”). In 1959, the Simuwu Ding was transferred from Nanjing to the newly built National Museum of Chinese History (now the National Museum of China) in Beijing, where it became one of the highlights of the museum's collection.
In 2005, the ding returned to its roots and was exhibited in Anyang. Fifty-nine years had passed since Wu Peiwen, then an 83-year-old man, had last seen the ding. That day, Wu, as the discoverer and protector of the bronze ding, was allowed to touch it. Wu had risked his life dealing with the Japanese army, relocated the ding three times and managed to safeguard this national treasure.
At the end of March 2011, the newly built National Museum of China opened. The Simuwu Ding was moved to the new museum and officially renamed the “Houmuwu Ding” meaning that the bronze vessel was dedicated to “Queen Mother Wu.” Research shows that the vessel was commissioned by either Zu Geng or Zu Jia, a pair of brothers who were kings during the Shang Dynasty, in memory of their mother Wu. The vessel is a representative work of bronzeware made during the Shang and Zhou (11th century–256 BC) dynasties.
Casting of the Ding
In 1948, the newly unearthed ding was transported to Nanjing Central Museum. Back then, Chiang Kai-shek was amazed by the vessel and had his photo taken standing beside it when the two handles were still missing. After the founding of New China, only one of these handles could be located due to the years of war. In 1959, the National Museum of Chinese History was established in Beijing and the ding was transferred there. Before moving it, the Director of Nanjing Museum Zeng Zhao consulted with Director of Shandong Cultural Relics Management Committee Wang Xiantang and decided to invite Pan Chenglin, a master of bronze restoration at Shandong Museum, to come to Nanjing and repair the ding.
Prior to the restoration, the experts first made a comprehensive and meticulous study of the artefact. Tests revealed that the proportions of bronze, tin and lead used were almost identical to that documented in The Artificers’ Record ( Kaogong ji), an ancient Chinese encyclopedia of technology written during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). A total of more than 1,000 kg of metal was used to cast the vessel. Its four hollow legs were cast together with the body whereas the handles were cast afterwards. Because of the complexity of the processes involved, it took several
Taotie imagery is often found on bronzeware from the late Shang Dynasty. It is said that taotie were divine creatures that ate all kinds of food.
months to finally repair the ding. Pan Chenglin began by filling-in the saw marks on the vessel's legs before making a handle by copying the pattern of the extant one. In 1959, the restored ding was finally transferred to the National Museum of Chinese History.
After many trials and tribulations, the vessel was finally added to the collection of the National Museum of China and received its new name: “Houmuwu Ding.” Experts on bronzeware and oracle bone inscriptions have concluded that the word “muwu” inscribed on the inner wall of the ding's body is the posthumous title of Fu Jing, a queen of Wu Ding (reign: 1250–1192 BC). According to the inscription, the vessel was commissioned by either Zu Geng or Zu Jia, two of Wu Ding' mother Fu Jing.
Wu Ding was the 23rd king of the Shang Dynasty. He reigned for 59 years and was known for being diligent in political affairs and skilled at appointing the right people to the government. As a result of his hard work, the Shang Dynasty achieved unprecedented development in terms of politics, the economy, military affairs and culture. It was for this reason that Wu Ding was hailed as “the ruler who brought back prosperity” and his reign became known as the “Wu Ding Revival.” His frequent expeditions led to the conquest of many tribes in northwest and southeast China, thereby greatly expanding the Shang Dynasty's territory. As is mentioned in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji): “Wu Ding was a diligent and virtuous ruler and the people lived in peace, hence the revival in the fortunes of the Shang Dynasty.”
Wu Ding had three queens, namely Bi Xin, Bi Wu and Bi Gui, known collectively as “Wu Ding's three spouses.” Of them, Bi Xin was known as Fu Hao, while Bi Wu was better known as Fu Jing and is the person to whom the Houmuwu Ding was dedicated. During the Shang Dynasty, there were many vassal states and Fu Jing hailed from the State of Jing (present-day Xingtai City, Hebei Province). According to oracle bone inscriptions, she was an agricultural expert who was especially focused on procuring millet. She is also known to have participated in military expeditions, although the oracle bones state that she only joined the expedition against the State of Long. The inscriptions also show that her son, Zu Geng, was made crown prince. She was worshipped along with her husband Wu Ding and was the only one of his three queens to be buried in the imperial tomb. Her posthumous title was “Wu,” and she was referred to as “Mother Wu” during the subsequent reigns of Zu Geng and Zu Jia, and “Bi Wu” or “Bi Wu Jing” after the rules of Lin Xin and Kang Ding. According to oracle bone inscriptions and research by scholars, Fu Jing can be written as both “妇妌” and “妇井” in Chinese.
After Wu Ding's death, Zu Geng became the new king, but died from illness after just 10 years. He was in turn succeeded by his brother, Zu Jia. For this reason, scholars believe that it was one of the two brothers who commissioned the Houmuwu Ding for their mother. In contrast, their half-brother Zu Ji (son of Fu Hao) died early and so never became king. The bronze ding unearthed from the tomb of his mother, the Houmuxin Ding, is therefore smaller in size and weighs only about 138 kg. The vessel is now one of the highlights of the collection in the Yinxu Museum.
Masterpiece of Craftsmanship
Ding vessels are witnesses of the Chinese civilisation and representatives of its bronze culture. These solid and magnificent bronze vessels decorated with exquisite, mysterious designs are works with the highest aesthetic value of all Chinese bronzeware. In ancient China, these vessels were considered symbols of the state and power, which is why people referred to a change of dynasty literally as “establishing the ding.” Pottery ding first appeared in China as far back as 7,000 years ago. Legend has it that Yu the Great (a legendary ruler in ancient China, reign: 2123–2025 BC) collected metal from all regions and cast nine ding at the foot of Jingshan Mountain to symbolise the territory of China, national unity and prosperity. From then on, ding were regarded as important treasures in the founding of a state, and the Chinese character “ding” was imbued with the extended meaning of “prominence,” “dignity” and “grandeur.”
During the Shang Dynasty and the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century–771 BC), Chinese casting techniques for bronze ding reached their peak. The Houmuwu Ding was made in the late Shang Dynasty when carrying out such a large project would have
taken a huge amount of effort from mining, smelting, alloying and casting to decoration and finishing.
The Houmuwu Ding is rectangular in shape, measuring 112 centimetres (cm) long, 79.2 cm wide and 133 cm in height up to the handle. Its walls are 6 cm thick and the entire vessel weighs 832 kg. The process necessary to manufacture the vessel was extremely complex and required a large number of skilled workers, at least 1,000 kg of metal and a huge furnace. The ding is believed to have been cast using the “piece mould” process, although many believe that the body and handles were made separately. What makes this piece particularly difficult is that each part of the ding is of a different thickness and the speed at which different alloys cools also differs. As such, only through perfect cooperation and rapid casting could the work be completed. The body and the four legs were cast in one piece. Eight clay moulds were used for the body, and three for each leg, with four moulds for the bottom and inside of the ding, respectively. Piece moulding was used in the manufacture of most bronzeware in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Molten bronze would be poured into clay moulds and left until it had cooled and solidified. The moulds would then be removed, leaving behind a bronze container in the shape of the mould. A high level of skill is required to integrate the separate moulds and create a whole item. During the pouring, the molten metal must be poured into the mould extremely quickly as hot metal cools down rapidly, which could cause gaps in the finished product.
Estimates suggest that a total of over 20 pottery moulds were used to make the huge Houmuwu Ding. Apart from its handles, the body and legs of the more than 800-kg ding were cast in one pour, which itself is a miracle in casting. One of the most surprising things about the item is that the four legs were discovered to be hollow. However, this is because if the legs had been cast in solid bronze, they would have cooled more slowly than the body. In that case, according to the principle of expansion from heat and contraction from cold, the joints where the legs meet the body would have broken. The craftsmen at that time had apparently mastered thermodynamic principles and so intentionally cast hollow legs, avoiding breaks caused by different expansion coefficients. The Houmuwu Ding, as an important piece of imperial Shang bronzeware, represents the highest level of casting from the Shang Dynasty and is an important representative work of bronze culture.
The decoration of the Houmuwu Ding is beautiful and solemn, and its craftsmanship is exquisite. The work fully demonstrates the unique rugged, primitive beauty of the Shang Dynasty. In the centre of each side of the ding is a rectangular blank space. The rest of the body is decorated with various designs, mainly cloud and thunder patterns. Ox head patterns also feature and the four sides are decorated with short ridges, whilst taotie run along a band around the edge in front of cloud and thunder motifs. The inner wall of the body is inscribed with the Chinese characters “houmuwu” in vigorous and powerful strokes.
The exterior of the handles are decorated with tigers devouring a human head. Two tigers are depicted facing one other on each handle, their heads at the top of the handle have their jaws open wide, whilst between them is a human head with a calm expression. During the Shang Dynasty, tigers were one of several animals that people worshipped. Legend has it that at that time, the ghosts of ancestors would turn into white tigers after death; so, people regarded these animals as guardian gods. Both sides of the handles are also cast with fish patterns, and the delicate coiled dragon and taotie designs on the four sides of the body add a sense of dignity and majesty. Taotie imagery is often found on bronzeware from the late Shang Dynasty. It is said that taotie were divine creatures that ate all kinds of food. They were added to bronzeware to symbolise a bumper harvest and a prosperous year and to also give vessels a more mysterious and magnificent look. The four legs of the ding are also decorated with different designs, namely bow string patterns and various exquisitely crafted animals.
The Houmuwu Ding has managed to survive more than three millennia. With its huge size, rich connotations and legendary stories, it portrays the brilliance and strength of the Shang Dynasty, and deserves its label as the “No. 1 Bronze Ding in China.” Now in the collection of the National Museum of China, this ding not only stands as a miracle of Chinese bronze casting but also enables people to feel the filial piety of the king who first commissioned it in memory of his mother.
Ding vessels are witnesses of the Chinese civilisation and representatives of its bronze culture. These solid and magnificent bronze vessels decorated with exquisite, mysterious designs are works with the highest aesthetic value of all Chinese bronzeware.
The decoration on the HoumuwuDing is pictured. The exterior of the handles is decorated with tigers devouring a human head. Two tigers are depicted facing one other on each handle, their heads at the top of the handle have their jaws open wide, whilst between them is a human head with a calm expression.
The Chinese characters on the Houmuwu Ding