Tripod Wine Vessel (Jia)
Shang dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1050 B.C.), 12th/11th century B.C.
Bronze 51.5 x 23.5 cm (20 1/4 x 9 1/4 in.)
Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection, 1926.1599
With the transition from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age, China saw the gradual rise of urban centers and rival states ruled by hereditary clans. The succession of dominant states was known as the “Three Dynasties”: Xia (c. 2100–c. 1700 B.C.), Shang (c. 1700–c. 1050 B.C.), and Zhou (c. 1050–256 B.C.). The beginning of the Bronze Age coincided with the Shang dynasty. The Shang dynasty was ruled by a theocracy in which political, social, and religious authorities were interlinked. Bronze vessels such as this one were used for offering food to ancestors in temples and for serving the deceased in tombs.
To cast these vessels, the Chinese invented and perfected a remarkable technology now known as piece-mold casting. First, a clay mold was formed around a model of the desired vessel. After drying, this outer mold was cut into sections, which were then carved or impressed with decoration on their inner surfaces. The mold-sections were fired, and reassembled around a clay core. The hollow space between the core and mold was filled with molten bronze, which simultaneously was shaped and decorated from the piece-molds. When the molten bronze had cooled and hardened, the assembly was broken and the core dug out. This process was used to produce this tripod wine vessel. Pieces of the core left inside the sharply tapered legs are still visible. This use of clay in casting bronze is unique to early Chinese metallurgy.
Bronze vessels made to contain offerings are the supreme aesthetic and technological achievement of Shang civilization. This tripod vessel, or jia, which would have been placed over fire to heat sacrificial wine, displays precise surface decoration executed in several levels of relief. Two tiers of monster-like masks, each formed of hooks and spirals around a pair of eyes, encircle the flared bowl. Paired serpents descend the legs, and a snub-nosed bovine head with sculpted horns crowns the strap handle.