Among the bronzes vessels produced in the Shang and Zhou periods, it is the hu container that has probably the greatest variety. The name hu is found inscribed on a number of Western Zhou bronze vessels (fig. 14), and in the The Book of Songs the name refers to a kind of wine-container. Typically, a hu is a vertical container for liquid, with a narrow mouth, a wide belly and a steady foot or feet, with or without a handle. There are two main forms of hu. The first is a tall container with long neck, deep belly, and molded ring foot, with or without a moveable handle. The second is a large, heavy vessel, with a big belly (either round or square) that usually sits on a molded foot ring or on animal-shaped legs. The latter is perhaps derived from the first type, and was popular during the late Western Zhou, and Spring and Autumn period. Later, in the Warring States period, there were variations in the form of hu, including bianhu, a flat-bellied flask.

Fig. 14

The early form of hu, in the Shang and Western Zhou periods, was very close to the bronze you, which was also a wine container. The you and hu both have a bulbous body and moveable handles, and for this reason they are sometimes confused for each other (fig. 15). The single most noticeable difference is that the you often has a more pronounced tapering neck, and a swing handle cast in bronze, whereas the hu usually has two small loops on its shoulders, through which a rope could be passed for lifting. But, there are exceptions to the rule. In some cases, the swing handle of a you is cast in imitation of a rope, and a hu can also have a metal handle, as we see on the present example.

Fig. 15

The form of this hu and its inscription pose some challenging questions. In the Xiqing gujian (Reflections on the antiquity in the Xiqing Library), the Qianlong Emperor’s illustrated catalogue of the imperial collection of archaic bronzes, a Western Zhou zun was published in line drawing (fig. 16), which bears an eight-character inscription: X zuo xiong X bao zun yi X.  One hundred years later, a similar inscription was included by Wu Shifen (1796-1856) in his book Meigu lu jinwen (A record of pursuing antiquity: bronze inscriptions).

Fig. 16

Wu Shifen (literary name Zibi) was one of the most accomplished scholars and connoisseurs of the nineteenth century.  He was born in Beijing while his grandfather was serving as an official at the Qing court. He was the nephew of the well-known collector Liu Xihai (1793-1862), and his family originally came from Haifeng in Shandong, but moved around the country, following his grandfather’s official postings. For Wu Shifen, Haifeng was the homeland he associated with his personal success. He was a scholar-official, who served in a series of senior government positions including Scholar of the Cabinet and Vice-Minister of the Board of Rites.

Fig. 17

While in Beijing between 1830 and 1835,  Wu Shifen met up with his uncle Liu Xihai and made friends with other collectors such as Xu Han (1797-1866), Ye Dongqing (?) and Xu Song (1781-1848).  They enjoyed each other's company and as a group inspected various collections. In the fourteenth year of the Daoguang reign (1834), Wu passed the imperial examination. He lived in the capital for several years and named his residence the Shuang Yu Hu Zhai or Studio of the Paired Hu.  The famous political thinker and poet Gong Zizheng (1792-1841) also lived in his neighborhood. Wu’s scholarship in epigraphy was highly respected and many other collectors sought his opinion about their collections. Wu and Chen Jieqi (1813-1884), another celebrated connoisseur, became in-laws, and wrote several books together. Wu’s most important works are Meigu lu (A record of pursuing antiquity) and Meigu lu jinwen (A record of pursuing antiquity: bronze inscriptions), compiled between 1853 and 1856, with the help of his friend Xu Han, but the Meigu lu jinwen was not formally printed until 1895. While the Meigu lu listed over 18,000 inscriptions on ancient bronzes and stones, the Meigu lu jinwen is a multi-volume book providing tracings of nearly 1,500 bronze  inscriptions, and it is here that we find Wu’s record of  the inscription on a bronze you, which is almost identical to the one on the present example (fig. 17).

Fig. 18

Wu Shifen correctly deciphered the fourth and fifth characters of the inscription as ri and ren which had been misread as a single character in the Xiqing gujian. He therefore named it the Ri Ren You, (“the you made for Ri Ren”); he also suggested that the first character should be read, following Xu Yinlin (Xu Han)’s interpretation, as shi or fu. However, he did not attempt to date the bronze, nor to publish any image of the vessel. In Meigu lu, there is a note, probably from Xu Han, that says the vessel was ‘in the collection of Wu from Shandong Haifeng’. Xu Han also wrote elsewhere that the bronze you was purchased by Wu Shifen around 1844 in Yangzhou.16

Fig. 19

About twenty years after Wu Shifen’s death, the inscription was published again, this time together with a line drawing of the vessel (fig. 18), by the famous collector and connoisseur  Wu Yun (1811-1883). In his book Liangleixuan Yiqi tushi (An illustrated study of the ritual vessels in the Liangleixuan Studio), published in 1873, Wu Yun gave the name of the vessel as Zhou Ai Hu (“the hu made by Ai of the Zhou dynasty”), rendering the first character of the inscription Ai as the name of the maker of the vessel. Here, from the printed image, hu is perhaps a more accurate name for the vessel, but, as I have explained above, typologically, there is little differentiation in forms between the hu and you of the Shang and early Western Zhou periods, and we should not read too much into Wu Yun’s dating of it to the Zhou dynasty. At that time, before Wu Shifen’s books were in print, Wu Yun had already been informed by Chen Jieqi of the study of the inscription on the bronze you that once belonged to Wu Shifen, as he sent his manuscript to Chen for critical appraisal.17 Clearly, both Wu Yun and Chen Jieqi thought the bronze hu and its inscription were genuine.

Fig. 20

However, there is a discrepancy between the vessel and the inscription on it: the name Ri Ren in the inscription is only found on a few Shang bronzes18,  yet the style of the vessel is somehow later. The bronze hu and its inscription was published, with an ink squeezed image, by Zou An in 1916, in his book Zhou jinwen cun (Surviving bronze inscriptions of the Zhou dynasty). In 1941, in his seminal work Shang Zhou Yiqi tongkao (The bronzes of Shang and Zhou), the eminent Chinese scholar Rong Geng (1894-1983) followed the inscription and dated the bronze to the Shang dynasty, and called it a hu19.  He was not aware that in England, a year earlier, W. Perceval Yetts had already examined and confirmed that the inscription on the bronze hu was a later addition, and was not made at the same time as the vessel20.  For that reason, Yetts suspected that this bronze hu, which was then in the collection of Lionel Edwards, was not the one published by Wu Shifen, and that the original you had somehow disappeared.  Yett’s speculation was mainly based on the minor difference he had observed between a rubbing taken from the you owned by Wu Shifen and the inscription on the present hu (fig.18a).  We know from experience that, due to different circumstances, there can be minor differences between a tracing and rubbing of inscriptions, and in many publications the two inscriptions have been confused. In the revised edition of his book, published in 1984 by his students, Rong Geng still included this bronze vessel as being of the Shang period, but changed its classification from hu to you21.

Fig. 21

In terms of typology alone, this bronze hu seems to fall into the Eastern Zhou period. In his book Ancient Chinese Bronzes, published in 1962, William Watson dated this vessel to the fifth to fourth century BC22.  A few years later, this dating was apparently supported by an archaeological discovery. In 1970, archaeologists unearthed a similar bronze hu from a Warring States tomb in Zhucheng, Shandong province (fig. 19). This piece also has a pear-shaped body with horizontal grooves, hinged moveable handles and a bird-head cover. Thus, the majority of archaeologists and art historians have dated the present example to the Warring States period, c. fifth to third century BC (as did the Sotheby’s catalogue in 1989 when the bronze was last auctioned), as being of the same date as the Zhucheng example.

Fig. 22

There is clearly a typological relationship between the Zhucheng hu and the present example. They both have a pear-shaped body decorated with horizontal grooves, a tapering neck, swing handle, and the cover in the shape of a bird’s head, with the beak hinged. We can reasonably suspect that the present example also originated in Shandong. However, close comparison has revealed some significant differences between them. For instance, the Zhucheng example is taller and the horizontal bands of grooves are denser, and more noticeably, there is a raised bow-string around the middle, with a moveable ring attached (this feature is typical of the examples of the late Spring and Autumn, and Warring States periods); the swing handle is also different, with two hinged S-shaped arms, unlike the present example which has a U-shaped handle hinged to four straight arms; the bird-head cover of the Zhucheng bronze is more like an eagle, with the beak hinged to its eyes, while the cover of the present example is a much more animated owl’s head, with raised short ears, and a sectioned beak decorated with an intaglio pattern.  From these observations, we can conjecture that the present example must be earlier than the Zhucheng bronze hu, in other words, the Zhucheng piece drew inspiration from the present hu. Thus, I would suggest that the date of the present example is as early as the late Western Zhou to the early Spring and Autumn period, c. eighth to seventh century BC. One can also note that the horizontal grooves on the body of the hu bear a close resemblance to the concave bands seen on many bronze vessels of the mid-late Western Zhou period, for example, the “Wu Qi Gui” in the Shanghai Museum (fig. 20). As we have so few comparable examples, we must draw on stylistic characteristics as well as historical development when considering dating the present hu. Archaeology has shown that the bronzes produced in Shandong often have special features, being archaistic and at the same time inventive. Shandong is where the Shang civilization originated and much of the Shang beliefs survived there. Although this bronze hu could not be of Shang or early Western Zhou date, it does make stylistic reference to the earlier prototypes.

Fig. 23

While such a bronze vessel is an extreme rarity in archaeology, it appears to have offered inspiration for a number of later bronzes. We find that in the Xiqing gujian, there are illustrations of three similar bronze hu (figs. 21-23), two of which have swing handles.  There is a third example in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (fig. 24). All known examples have a bird-head cover. Although the 18th century wood block illustrations provide distorted images, their forms are clearly closer to the Zhucheng hu than to the present example. This magnificent bronze is truly a unique piece, probably made for a special occasion, with a fascinating story going back nearly two-hundred years.

Fig. 24

16 Xu Han, Pangu Xiaolu Zazhu (Random writings from Pangu xiaolu),  1875, vol. 7 .

17 Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Chidu (An illustrated study of the ritual vessels in the Liangleixuan studio), 1886, p. 660.

18 For example, there are three bronze daggers that bare the inscription xiong ri ren, see Zhongguo Meishu Quanji -Gongyi Meishu Bian Qingtongqi  (The complete collection of Chinese arts: arts and crafts series bronzes), Vol. 1, Beijing, 1985, p. 74.  See another example is found in Wu Dacheng’s Kezhai Jigulu (Kezhai’s records of collecting antiquities), vol. 20, p. 19. It is a bronze zhi baring the same inscription. 

19 Jung Keng (Rong Geng), The Bronzes of Shang and Zhou, vol. II, 1941, pl. 713, p. 378. Yenching Journal of Chinese Studies, Monograph Series no. 17.

20 W. Percival Yetts, “A Group of Chinese Bronze Flagons,” The Burlington Magazine, Feb. 1940, pls. A & B, pp. 38-44.

21 Rong Geng and Zhang Weichi, Zhongguo qingtongqi tonglun (A general study of Shang and Zhou Bronzes), Beijing, 1984, pl. 88, fig. 171, p. 54.

22 William Watson, Ancient Chinese Bronzes, London, 1962, pl. 64a.