In 1976, archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, discovered in Xiaotun village an intact royal tomb which belonged to Fu Hao, one of the consorts of King Wu Ding. Amongst the large number of jade animals found in her tomb were representations of buffaloes, including a large (7.7 cm long) jade buffalo carving, illustrated in Queen, Mother, General: 40th Anniversary of Excavating the Shang Tomb of Fu Hao, Beijing, 2016, p. 27 (1976AXTM5: 1301).
The current jade buffalo and the Fu Hao example, which it closely relates to, demonstrate the highly stylised approach of the Shang artisan. Both are carved in the round from lustrous stone, and depicted recumbent with legs spread, their stylised features sensitively rendered with skilful incisions, the surface of both bodies covered with a design of raised-line square spirals. The overall representation is highly abstract, with use of these scrolling geometric motifs to convey the archaistic design, but with key features including the horns, eyes, nose and snarling expression naturalistically rendered.
Similar craftsmanship is evident on a Shang jade buffalo in Harvard Art Museum, illustrated in Max Loehr and Louisa G. Fitzgerald Huber, Ancient Chinese Jades from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1975, cat. no. 148.
Outside of museum collections, however, it is extremely rare to find a complete jade sculpture of a buffalo in Shang art. In contrast to the current buffalo, the majority of early jade depictions are two-dimensional plaques. See for instance the jade water buffalo in the Mrs Edward Sonnenschein Collection, Chicago, illustrated by Alfred Salmony, Carved Jade of Ancient China, 1938, pl. XXIII (8), the example in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, illustrated by Jessica Rawson, 'Animal Motifs in Early Western Zhou Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections', Chinese Bronzes: Selected articles from Orientations, 1983-2000, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 20, fig. 12, and the small jade buffalo plaque from the Harris collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 16th March 2017, lot 802.
This superb jade buffalo encapsulates the Shang approach to jade craftsmanship and is an extraordinary legacy of the era. Endowed with a prestigious history, originally in the collection of the celebrated dealer C.T. Loo, and later in the collections of Frederick Mayer and the Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo, in quality it ranks alongside the finest surviving examples from the royal tombs of Anyang.
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