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Arts of Asia

The MFAH collections of art from China, India, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia reflect Houston’s diverse communities. Ancient and contemporary works are displayed together to create innovative juxtapositions.


Ritual Vessel (Zun)
12th century B.C.

13 3/4 x 8 5/8 x 8 3/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of Asian Art

Arts of Asia

Bronze vessels such as this wine beaker—known as a zun—represent one of China's earliest and most refined technical and creative developments. This zun dates to the Shang dynasty (16th century–1045 B.C.) and would have been used to offer food and wine to the spirits in ancestral rites, state ceremonies, and various ritual sacrifices.
The vessel is flared and flanged at the opening and the base. Eagle motifs appear at the top, under which several small dragons stand in profile. The body of the zun is covered with a traditional decorative motif called taotie that may have symbolized ancestral spirits or auspicious creatures. Undecorated bands divide the piece's surface into three clearly delineated segments. Toward the end of the Shang dynasty, thin sections of ornamentation commonly applied to bronze vessels began to expand so that patterns covered the entire object.

The silvery patina and green malachite corrosion on the surface of this zun indicate that the bronze used to make the vessel is unusually high in tin content. The Shang and Zhou dynasties are often referred to as China's Bronze Age, because during this period bronze was widely used to create weapons and ritual vessels.