Fully sculptural animal-form vessels are the rarest forms of Chinese archaic bronzes. The only complete Shang example that appears to have been offered at auction is a buffalo-form zun sold at Christie’s New York, 1 December 1988, lot 143. The Fujita gong is particularly charming for its thoroughly prepossessing ram form. Compare two other gong vessels of related form, but with highly stylized elephant heads: one in the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C., illustrated by Robert W. Bagley in Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 416-420, no. 74; the other excavated in 1983 from Zhangjia village, Yangxian county, Shaanxi province, illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji (Compendium of Chinese Bronzes), Beijing, 1998, vol. 4, p. 90, no. 91. The ram had special prominence amongst southern bronzes, i.e. bronzes discovered in and likely to have been cast in the Yangzi River region. The most notable examples are the four-ram zun from Ningxiang, Hunan province, now in the National Museum of China, and two double-ram zun in the Nezu Museum, and the other in the British Museum (see ibid., nos. 115, 132, and 133 respectively).
There are twelve other known Shang quadruped animal-shaped vessels, including four buffalos, three elephants, two mythical animals, one boar and one rhinoceros, all in museum collections. The Hunan Museum holds three quadruped animal vessels: a gong of buffalo form, a zun of elephant form, and another zun of boar form, all found in Hunan province and illustrated ibid., no. 87, 130, and 135; the latter two vessels were selected for the exhibition ‘Min’ Fanglei and Selected Bronze Vessels Unearthed from Hunan, Shanghai Museum, 2015, cat. nos. 8 and 9. The Shanghai Museum holds a quadruped animal gong, with a later-made cover copied after the cover of the Hunan buffalo-form gong, illustrated by Chen Peifen in Xia Shang Zhou qingtongqi yanjiu (Research of the Xia Shang Zhou Bronzes), Shanghai, 2004, pp. 336-337, no. 163. A buffalo-form zun inscribed with a two-character clan name, Ya Chang, was found in the Huayuanzhuang Dongdi M54, and is illustrated by Yue Hongbin ed., Ritual Bronzes Recently Excavated in Yinxu, Kunming, 2008, pp. 158-161. A buffalo-form gong, but lacking surface decoration, is in the Harvard Art Museums Collection, Cambridge, and illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji (The Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes), Beijing, 1998, vol. 4, no. 89. Another plain buffalo-form gong is illustrated by Sueji Umehara in Nihon shucho shina kodo seika (Selected Relics of Ancient Chinese Bronzes from Collections in Japan), vol. 4, Osaka, 1961, no. 266. An elephant-form zun with a cover surmounted by a small elephant is in the collection of the Freer Gallery, Washington D.C., and illustrated ibid, no. 129. Another elephant-form zun, but of unusually large size is in the collection of the Musée Guimet, Paris, illustrated ibid, no. 131. A pair of mythical horned animal gong found in the Fuhao tomb in Anyang city is illustrated in the Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang, Beijing, 1980, fig. 40 and 41, col. pl. 9. A rhinoceros-form zun with a lengthy inscription dating it to the reign of the last Shang king is in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco and is illustrated in Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji (The Complete Collection of Chinese Bronzes), Beijing, 1998, vol. 4, no. 134.
The Fujita gong is exceptional in its naturalistic sculptural quality, as well as being fully embellished with fantastic animals. Such naturalism can rarely be found in early Chinese bronze art, which is characterized by an overriding interest in invented motifs and articulated designs. The Fujita gong in contrast captures various anatomical features of a ram, such as the undecorated naturalistic head, which features a slightly up-turned muzzle with a pair of ‘comma’-shaped nostrils, prominent cheekbones, eyes with elongated orbits, leaf-shaped ears, and horns with parallel ridges. Compared with the Fujita gong, the profile of the ram heads on the four-ram zun is quite flat and the ram heads on both double-ram zun are degraded into cone-shapes, which make them far removed from the lifelikeness of the Fujita gong. Another extraordinary anatomical feature on the Fujita gong can be seen in the rendering of the fetlock on the ram’s rear legs. The naturalism of this gong is further enhanced by the curved silhouette of the body, which convincingly conveys the three-dimensional volume of the animal.
The Shang bronze craftsmen’s creativity went beyond mere representation. One trait denoting the Fujita gong as a sacred creature rather than a real animal can be found in the diamond-shaped pattern on the forehead of the ram. This very symbol appears ubiquitously on the forehead of taotie, the main theriomorphic motif on Shang/Zhou bronzes. What distinguishes the Fujita gong further from a real animal is the pantheon of mythical creatures on the surface of the vessel. Both sides of the ram’s body are embellished with large crested birds with clawed foot extending downward onto the legs and their elongated tail curling around the haunches. The cover which forms the ram’s back is further decorated with dragons and a taotie, and is surmounted by a kui dragon and a bird. The standing kui dragon has striated decoration that is typical of southern bronzes. Similar dragons can be found on the aforementioned Hunan elephant zun, and on the elephant zun vessel in the Freer Gallery, Washington D.C. Also notable is the tiger motif filling the space on the ram’s chest. Tigers were a popular motif in southern China, and appear on top of the handles of many ding vessels found in Xingan county, Jiangxi province (see Shangdai Jiangnan [The Southern Land of Shang Dynasty], Beijing, 2006, pp. 30-34, 38-41, 162-163, 166-168, etc.). A vertically-oriented tiger, like that on the chest of the Fujita gong, can also be seen embellishing the chest of the Hunan elephant vessel. Tigers were also used as surface decoration on Anyang bronzes, particularly during the early Yinxu period, such as the previously discussed Ya Chang buffalo-form zun and the Fu Hao yue axe, illustrated in Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang, Beijing, 1980, col. pl. 13. The use of the tiger motif in Anyang is believed to have been influenced by southern bronzes.
LATE SHANG DYNASTY, 13TH-11TH CENTURY BC
Tokyo, Nihon Keizai Shimbun Inc., Chugoku In Shu dokiten (Exhibition of Chinese Bronzes from Yin and Zhou Dynasties), 25 November-7 December 1958.
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Zhongguo meishu quanji: gongyimeishu 4, qingtong (I), (Complete Collection of Chinese Art: Works of Art 4, Bronze 1), Beijing, 1990, p. 114, no. 123.
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Ma Chengyuan, Zhongguo qingtongqi (Chinese Bronzes), Shanghai, 2003, p. 233, fig. 13.
Ichirou Kominami, Kodai Chugoku Tenmeito Seidouki (Ancient China, Decree and Archaic Bronzes), Kyoto, 2006, p. 59.
Fujita Museum, Osaka, acquired prior to 1940.