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Ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros
晚商 青銅 清道光時山東壽張梁山出土“小臣艅”尊
Place of Origin: China, Henan province
Date: prob. 1100-1050 BCE
Historical Period: Shang dynasty (approx. 1600-1050 BCE)
Object Name: Ritual object
Materials: Bronze
Dimensions: H. 9 in x W. 9 in x D. 14 1/2 in, H. 22.8 cm x W. 22.8 cm x D. 32.8
Credit Line: The Avery Brundage Collection
Department: Chinese Art
Collection: Metal Arts
Object Number: B60B1+
On Display: Yes
Location: Gallery 14

Description

Label:

An Unusual Bronze

The only bronze work in the form of a rhinoceros made during the Shang dynasty, this vessel is the most famous object in the Asian Art Museum’s collection and among the most celebrated ancient Chinese bronzes in the world.

The rhinoceros exemplifies a type of luxurious object befitting aristocrats in the Chinese Bronze Age (2000– 220 bce). This vessel, originally with a now-missing lid, likely functioned as a container for alcohol, offered as a sacrifice to the gods or ancestors at rituals that incorporated ancient Chinese religious and philosophical beliefs.

The rhinoceros’s flesh-like representation distinguishes it from other animal-shaped vessels of the same period, which have dense geometric motifs. It features a round belly and muzzle, animated eyes, and life-like folds of skin around its head and shoulders, creating an effect of dynamic energy and animation.

Rhinoceroses in Ancient China

Can you imagine what rhinoceroses that lived three thousand years ago looked like? This vessel depicts a two-horned species that could be found in a wide area of Southeast Asia. There is no doubt that the craftsmen who made these bronze rhinoceroses had seen the actual animal. The fact that rhinoceroses lived in ancient China was confirmed in 1949, based on scientific analysis of the rhinoceros bones excavated in the Shang site in Anyang.

Early Chinese texts carved on ox bones and turtle shells used in divination during the Shang dynasty, known as “oracle bone inscriptions,” mentioned the “rhinoceros hunt.” Evidently capturing rhinoceroses and sacrificing them during rituals was a significant state event during the Bronze Age, while the animal’s horns were worked into elaborate ornaments or small cups collected by aristocrats.

Inscribed with a Story

This rhinoceros is one of the finest and best-preserved bronze vessels to survive from China’s Bronze Age. A twenty-seven character inscription cast on the bottom of the inside provides firsthand information about society in the late Shang, which was based in the city of Anyang in central China during the mid-Bronze Age. The inscription tells us that an unnamed king of the Shang state was drawn into a military campaign against Renfang, who lived far from Anyang. On a tour of inspection to a place called Kui, the king was pleased with the good service he received from officer Yu during a ritual ceremony, so he awarded Yu with local cowry shells (an ancient currency).

The discovery of this rhinoceros was an important event in the history of modern Chinese archaeology. In 1843, the vessel was found in a cache of seven bronzes buried in Shandong province, homeland of the great philosopher Confucius, and remained in the possession of Confucius’s descendants for several generations.


More Information

Inscriptions: 27-graph inscription cast into the inside of the rhinoceros' belly (inscription indicates that the object was made for storing "money" (shells)
Exhibition History: "Chinese Treasures from the Avery Brundage Collection", Asia House Gallery (New York) 1/18/1968-3/3/1968, Detroit Institute of Arts 3/26/1968-5/7/1968, The Art Institute of Chicago 6/5/1968-7/7/1968, Honolulu Academy of Arts 8/1/1968-9/15/1968, Seattle Art Museum 10/15/1968-11/24/1968, Portland Art Museum 12/5/1968-12/27/1968, M. H. De Young Memorial Museum 1/15/1969-2/16/1969

"Brundage Collection: The Fascination of Asian Arts", Osaka (4/5/70-5/17/70), Tokyo (5/23/70-6/10/70), Fukuoka (6/20/70-7/5/70), Takaoka (7/12/70-8/2/70)
Label:

An Unusual Bronze

The only bronze work in the form of a rhinoceros made during the Shang dynasty, this vessel is the most famous object in the Asian Art Museum’s collection and among the most celebrated ancient Chinese bronzes in the world.

The rhinoceros exemplifies a type of luxurious object befitting aristocrats in the Chinese Bronze Age (2000– 220 bce). This vessel, originally with a now-missing lid, likely functioned as a container for alcohol, offered as a sacrifice to the gods or ancestors at rituals that incorporated ancient Chinese religious and philosophical beliefs.

The rhinoceros’s flesh-like representation distinguishes it from other animal-shaped vessels of the same period, which have dense geometric motifs. It features a round belly and muzzle, animated eyes, and life-like folds of skin around its head and shoulders, creating an effect of dynamic energy and animation.

Rhinoceroses in Ancient China

Can you imagine what rhinoceroses that lived three thousand years ago looked like? This vessel depicts a two-horned species that could be found in a wide area of Southeast Asia. There is no doubt that the craftsmen who made these bronze rhinoceroses had seen the actual animal. The fact that rhinoceroses lived in ancient China was confirmed in 1949, based on scientific analysis of the rhinoceros bones excavated in the Shang site in Anyang.

Early Chinese texts carved on ox bones and turtle shells used in divination during the Shang dynasty, known as “oracle bone inscriptions,” mentioned the “rhinoceros hunt.” Evidently capturing rhinoceroses and sacrificing them during rituals was a significant state event during the Bronze Age, while the animal’s horns were worked into elaborate ornaments or small cups collected by aristocrats.

Inscribed with a Story

This rhinoceros is one of the finest and best-preserved bronze vessels to survive from China’s Bronze Age. A twenty-seven character inscription cast on the bottom of the inside provides firsthand information about society in the late Shang, which was based in the city of Anyang in central China during the mid-Bronze Age. The inscription tells us that an unnamed king of the Shang state was drawn into a military campaign against Renfang, who lived far from Anyang. On a tour of inspection to a place called Kui, the king was pleased with the good service he received from officer Yu during a ritual ceremony, so he awarded Yu with local cowry shells (an ancient currency).

The discovery of this rhinoceros was an important event in the history of modern Chinese archaeology. In 1843, the vessel was found in a cache of seven bronzes buried in Shandong province, homeland of the great philosopher Confucius, and remained in the possession of Confucius’s descendants for several generations.


Inscriptions: 27-graph inscription cast into the inside of the rhinoceros' belly (inscription indicates that the object was made for storing "money" (shells)
Exhibition History: "Chinese Treasures from the Avery Brundage Collection", Asia House Gallery (New York) 1/18/1968-3/3/1968, Detroit Institute of Arts 3/26/1968-5/7/1968, The Art Institute of Chicago 6/5/1968-7/7/1968, Honolulu Academy of Arts 8/1/1968-9/15/1968, Seattle Art Museum 10/15/1968-11/24/1968, Portland Art Museum 12/5/1968-12/27/1968, M. H. De Young Memorial Museum 1/15/1969-2/16/1969

"Brundage Collection: The Fascination of Asian Arts", Osaka (4/5/70-5/17/70), Tokyo (5/23/70-6/10/70), Fukuoka (6/20/70-7/5/70), Takaoka (7/12/70-8/2/70)
Resources:

Video: A Unique Pair: The Bronze Rhinoceros and Its Collector, Avery Brundage (Part 1 of 2): http://youtu.be/xzNBaI0ZWUw
Video: A Unique Pair: The Bronze Rhinoceros and Its Collector, Avery Brundage (Part 2 of 2): http://youtu.be/iIN0lVK7ZwU

Jay Xu gives a talk about the Chinese bronze rhinoceros in the Asian Art Museum's Collection. A lecture presented by the Society for Asian Art on February 6, 2015.