The appearance of pedestaled vessels is one of several distinct developments in the form of ritual bronzes in the early Western Zhou dynasty. In the late Shang and early Zhou period, vessels were sometimes placed on stands (jin) in order to raise the height of vessels that were used in ritual. Coming into the Zhou period, food containers such as gui were cast with an integral podium. This particular form seems to have been favored by the elite class of society, and often indicated the social status of the owner. One of the most celebrated Western Zhou bronzes is the Tian Wang Gui, a pedestaled gui unearthed in Qishan county, Shaanxi province in the middle of the 19th century, and now in the China National Museum, Beijing. The earliest dated Western Zhou bronze is the Li Gui, also a pedestaled gui from a hoard in Lintong county, Shaanxi province, discovered in 1976; its inscription records the conquest of the Shang by King Wu of Zhou on the jiazi day when the Suixing (Jupiter) appearing on the sky (equivalent to the 20th day, first month of the year 1046 BC). More recently, in June 2012, archaeologists from the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology excavated an early Western Zhou tomb of a high ranking aristocrat in Shigushan, Baoji city, and a pedestaled gui was among the numerous bronze artifacts. Although there have been findings of pedestaled gui vessels in different provinces including Shaanxi, Gansu, Henan, Shandong, Liaoning and Jiangsu, the prototype is likely to have originated from the Zhouyuan area (Baoji) in Shaanxi.
Taking a closer look at the present Zuo Bao Yi Gui, a striking feature must be noted. Although a number of early ritual bronzes bear the distinctive taotie mask, the present example is highly unusual in the positioning of this motif: the bovine horned mask is centred on each of the four corners of the square base, rather than on the side facets. This gives them a different viewing perspective and lends a three-dimensional sculptural quality to the vessel, lacking in others. With the raised eyes, nostrils, curved fangs, ears and raised bovine horns, the mask is vivid and powerful. This design is extremely rare, found only on very few other examples. Two pedestaled gui vessels dating to the early Western Zhou period were excavated from the tomb of Yu Bo in Zhifangtou village, Baoji city, Shaanxi province in 1981 and are illustrated in Zhongguo wenwujinghua dacidian, qingtong juan (Dictionary of gems of Chinese cultural relics: Bronzes), Shanghai, 1992, p. 111, nos 0388, 0389. Both gui have the taotie masks placed on the corners of the square base. A third example, the date of which has been debated, is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and published in Roger Ward and Patricia J. Fidler, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, A Handbook of the Collection, New York, 1993, p. 278. The fourth example is the Bo Ju Gui sold in our London rooms on 8th June 1993, lot. 119 (fig. 1).
Pedestaled gui have survived in only small numbers. According to Zhang Maorong’s study Xizhou fangzuogui yanjiu (A research on the Western Zhou pedestaled gui vessel), there are only some sixty square pedestaled bronze gui vessels in various forms extant, ranging in date from the beginning to the end of the Western Zhou dynasty, the majority of them in major museums around the world. There are several early examples in the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing, the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Harvard Art Museum (formerly the Fogg Museum of Art) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Pillsbury Bequest), the Art Institute of Chicago (Buckingham collection), the Newark Museum, the Sumitomo Collection in Kyoto, and the Hakutsuru Art Museum in Kobe. A wide range of motifs is seen on these vessels including in particular taotie mask, kui-dragons, birds, elephants, hybrid-animals, stylized vertical ribs and wavy patterns.
The most interesting comparison to the Zuo Bao Yi Gui is the above mentioned Bo Ju Gui. Like the present example, it is also decorated with the striking taotie mask on the corners of its base. However, on the Bo Ju Gui the taotie mask has heart-shaped horns and the terminals of the taotie turning into bird heads, and the execution of the double-bodied serpent on the ring foot also differs from the present example. These variations suggest that they were cast by different foundries, although they all date approximately to the early Western Zhou period. The Bo Ju Gui was made for Bo Ju who resided in the territory of Yan, the northeast region of the Zhou Kingdom, and the present Zuo Bao Yi Gui seems stylistically closer to the Zhou ancestral land at Baoji.
The Bo Ju Gui came from the collection of the celebrated collector and connoisseur Pan Zuyin (1830-1890), and in 1946 was sold by the Shanghai antique dealer T.Y. King to a European collector. The Zuo Bao Yi Gui was also sold by T.Y. King, two years later in 1948, to H.E. Alexandre J. Argyropoulos, the Greek Ambassador to China. In the inventory list of Pan’s bronze collection, there is a record of a Zuo Bao Yi Gui. That could possibly be the current piece.