The Leg­endary Bronze Houmuwu Ding

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by David Ball

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

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