As in later periods of China’s history, aristocrats of the Shang dynasty (sixteenth to eleventh century B.C.) practiced ancestor worship, commissioning sumptuous cast bronze vessels as containers for ceremonial offerings of food and wine to the dead. In accordance with such rites, a variety of costly bronze vessels were committed to the tomb. By such practices the Shang nobles sought to appease the spirits of their ancestors, thus ensuring the continuation of their dynastic power.
The Art Museum’s vessel, called fangyi in ancient Chinese, functioned as a storage container for wine used in rituals. The vessel type comes from the classic and most highly developed phase of the Shang period and exemplifies the technical mastery achieved by the bronze foundries that served the Shang capital of Anyang. Like other Chinese bronzes of this period, the Art Museum’s fangyi was cast in multi-sectioned clay molds. This casting method, which was unique in the ancient world, was brought to a highly sophisticated level by Chinese metalworkers, who were able thereby to produce precise, detailed surface decoration. This fangyi bears a typical decoration consisting of paired dragons and taotie (a fantastic dragon-like mask with horns and bulging eyes) set against a spiral-patterned background.