This zun vessel, which was used for storing and serving wine, typifies the art of the late Shang period. It was cast using several ceramic molds, a method that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. In this technique, ceramic molds carved with complicated, multilayered designs were assembled around an interior clay core. Molten bronze was then poured in the space left between the mold and the core. After the bronze had cooled and hardened, the ceramic molds were broken to reveal the vessels. It required time and precision to make bronze vessels in this fashion, and the control of raw materials, labor, and technology needed to make such objects was one of the prerogatives of the ruling elite during the Shang period.
Bronze vessels were used in cult rituals, particularly those in which the rulers communicated with their ancestors, and were often buried as part of the grave goods in elaborate tombs. Drinking and eating played an important role in Shang-period ceremonies; the majority of the vessels cast during this time were intended for this purpose. Vessels were often cast in sets whose numbers of pieces increased according to the owner's rank. This zun was probably part of a large and complicated group, one used by the highest ranking members of society.
The striking designs on this zun typify the decorative imagery of ritual bronzes of the late Shang period. Interlocked spirals known as thundercloud motifs (leiwen), executed in low relief, fill the background of all the decorated areas. A triangular form, alternately identified as a cicada or a plantain leaf, decorates the neck and is filled with C-shaped horns and eyes cast in high relief. Small curvilinear dragons fill a narrow band directly beneath these triangles. The body and foot of the vessel are decorated with a design that consists of the horns, eyes, and snout of a mythical creature known as the taotie. The taotie design is one of the most commonimages in the decoration of Shang-period bronze vessels. Its function is controversial. Some specialists believe that the taotie design evolved as a result of the complicated technique used to make bronzes and insist that it has no iconographic orsymbolic function. Others point to the importance of bronze vessels as ritual objects, arguing that given their use, such significant and ubiquitous motifs must have had a purpose or meaning. The current trend in scholarship is toward the latter interpretation.
Debate over the taotie's meaning began as early as the Song period (960-1127), when the study of these ritual vessels was part of a broader interest in antiquarianism fostered by the imperial court. Some Chinese texts describe the taotie as a type of monster mask, suggesting that it may have been intended to serve as a warning against gluttony and overindulgence.