Lot 103
  • 103


400,000 - 600,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • bronze and Paulownia wood box
of rectangular section, supported on four tubular legs each cast at the top with taotie and a flange, the sides decorated with taotie in high relief, centred and flanked with flanges, below the lipped rim supporting two looped handles, the interior with a twenty-one character inscription, the olive and light green patina with minor turquoise and ferrous encrustations, Japanese wood box


Collection of Jin Futing, 19th century.
Collection of Willem van Heusden.
Mayuyama & Co., Ltd, Tokyo, acquired between 1960 and 1975.


Kodai Chūgoku seidoki meihin ten [Exhibition of ancient Chinese bronze ware masterpieces], Daimaru Osaka-Shinsaibashi, Osaka, 1960, no. 35.
Tōyō kaikan kinen Tōyō bijutsu ten [Exhibition of Eastern art celebrating the opening of the Gallery of Eastern Antiquities], Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1968, no. 244.


Fang Junyi, Zhuiyizhai yiqi kaoshi, Shanghai, 1935, vol. 4, no. 4.2.
Wang Chen, Xu Yinwencun [Continuation of the surviving writings from the Yin dynasty], 1935, vol. 1, no. 24.
Luo Zhenyu, Sandai jijin wencun [Surviving writings from the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties], 1937, vol. 3, no. 46.3.
Willem Van Heusden, Ancient Chinese Bronzes of the Shang and Chou Dynasties. An Illustrated Catalogue of the Van Heusden Collection, Tokyo, 1952, pls XVIII and XIX.
Ryūsen Shūhō. Sōgyō shichijū shūnen kinen/Mayuyama: Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 2, cat. no. 9
(Inscription) Noel Barnard and Cheung Kwong-Yue, Rubbings and Hand Copies of Bronze Inscriptions in Chinese, Japanese, European, American and Australian Collections, vol. 5, Taipei, 1978, pl. 311.
Minao Hayashi, In Shū Jidai seidōki no kenkyū. In Shū seidōki souran [Research of bronze ware of Shang and Zhou dynasty], vol. 1, Tokyo, 1984, pl. 40.
Jessica Rawson, Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington D.C., 1990, vol. II B, fig. 1.3.
Wu Zhenfeng, Shangzhou qingtongqi mingwen ji tuxian jicheng [Compendium of inscriptions and images of of bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties], vol. 4, Shanghai, 2012, pl. 2183.

Catalogue Note

Fang ding are among the rarest ritual vessels of the Bronze Age, and the present piece with its bold taotie mask and powerful shape is an exceptional example that ranks among the most attractive of its kind. Its square form and magnificent size gives this vessel a sense of balance and strength while the green patina which has developed evenly on its surface enhances the striking design.

Food vessels of this square ding form have a long history in China. They were first produced as ceramic food containers in the Erlitou period and were later made in bronze in the Erligang period. In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, fang ding were made for use in ancestral worship or other sacrificial ceremonies, and their ownership appears to have been strictly regulated. Li Xixing, The Shaanxi Bronzes, Xi’an, 1994, p. 35, notes that in the Western Zhou the gentry was allowed to acquire three ding, high officers five, Dukes seven and the Emperor nine. Rectangular (fang) vessels of this monumental size and decorated in such ornate fashion have been generally found in tombs belonging to royalty or high-ranking officials, suggesting a similar ownership also for the present vessel.

The inscription on this fang ding may be translated as follows:

(In the year) Jihai, Yang was on duty in Peng, preparing chariots for the Duke of Shang, so (he) made a precious sacrificial vessel for Father Geng, Tian Mian.

The name ‘Tian Mian (or Yuan), a pictograph showing a man standing over a turtle, was in the past deciphered as zisun (offspring), but it is clearly a lineage name. About forty bronze vessels bearing this pictogram, all attributed to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, are known and archaeologists have recently unearthed further examples in Anyang, which suggests that the clan was closely associated with the Shang royal house. 

This rare fang ding shows elements attributable to both the late Shang and early Western Zhou dynasty and is thus representative of this transitional period. While the style of its inscription as well as the use of prominent flanges at the corners of the vessel that divide the surface in compartments and focus attention on the taotie masks, would point to a Shang dynasty attribution, the sharp ridges of the large taotie mask appear to be a Western Zhou innovation. Jessica Rawson in Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington D.C., 1990, vol. IIA, p. 37, notes that raised ridges appear on vessels cast with coiled dragons, a motif developed in the early Western Zhou that continued to be used in the second part of the early Western Zhou. Rawson further suggests that this was a Southern invention, possibly ‘borrowed earlier from the south, by metropolitan Shang casters’ (see ibid., vol. IIB, p. 219).

A very similar fang ding, but lacking the attractive green patina and with a different inscription, was excavated in the Western Zhou tomb of Yu Bo at the Zhifangtou cemetery in Baoji, Shaanxi province, and is now in the Shaanxi Historical Museum, Xi’an, illustrated in Li Xixing, op. cit., pl. 14. Another similar example with the same clan symbol of a man and tortoise, from the R.H. Ellsworth collection, was sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2002, lot 6, where it was attributed to the Shang dynasty.

Compare also a li ding cast with a related taotie mask in relief and the inscription also ending with the clan name ‘Mian Tian’, from the C. Ogawa collection, illustrated in Sueji Umehara, Selected Relics of Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Osaka, 1961, vol. 3, pl. 187; a li ding and a gui in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, included in the exhibition Ancient Chinese Bronzes, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1982, cat. nos 20 and 22; a you, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in Jessica Rawson, op. cit., vol. IIB, fig. 1.2; and a li ding, sold at Christie’s London, 5th March 1962, lot 143. 

Fang ding are more commonly known cast with taotie masks with coiled horns, such as the fang ding in the Hakutsuru Art Museum, Kobe, illustrated in Sueji Umehara, op. cit., pl. 197.

The provenance of this fang ding is noteworthy, as it was in the collection of the well-known 19th century scholar and collector Jin Futing, who impressed his seal under the base. Also known as Shuxian, he was born in Jinshan, Shanghai, and collected mainly archaic bronzes, jades and hardstones. This fang ding later later entered the collection of the scholar Willem van Heusden, who was particularly fond of this piece and studied in depth its inscription, publishing the results in his Ancient Chinese Bronzes of the Shang and Chou Dynasties. An Illustrated Catalogue of the Van Heusden Collection, Tokyo, 1952, pp. 106-108.