The three-legged ding is a ceramic shape that originated in the neolithic period. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties of China's bronze age, ritual vessels had highly specific shapes. In the Shang dynasty (1523-1028 B.C.), the commodious ding, used for the preparation of sacrificial food, was a sturdy, lidless vessel mounted on straight legs. Contact with other cultures introduced new elements in its shape and ornament, and by the time of the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-256 B.C.) the ding had acquired the refined form with convex lid in which it appears here. The three loops on the lid had practical purposes: they could be used as grips for lifting or as feet for the lid when it was overturned.
The ding had been secularized by this time; bronze vessels continued to be buried with the dead, but they were also presented as state gifts to foreign rulers and preserved and handed down as symbols of family honor and status. Bronze was a costly material, and this ding's large size and refined decoration suggest that it was made for the tomb of a high-ranking person.
The ding provided a ground for ornament. Fantastic creatures, symbols, and sometimes even written characters recording ritual procedures were cast into its surface. On this example, five horizontal bands of continuous patterns in finely detailed decoration cover the lid and body. Zoomorphic forms suggesting dragons and the heads of rams, birds, and cats are interlaced with geometric patterns of restless spirals, striations, S-curves, triangles, scales, and granulations. The top of the lid has a quatrefoil, or four-petal floral design. On the 'knee' of each cabriole leg is an inlaid animal mask, an image from earlier ding forms.
It has been suggested that the animal imagery on dings like this is related to an old fable. According to the legend, in the Xia dynasty of China nine dings were made and decorated with a myriad of animals. These nine dings became symbols of the ruling dynasty and were passed on to subsequent dynasties. Centuries later dings continued to show lively animal heads, or abstracted and stylized animal forms, as part of their decoration.
[This text is excerpted and modified from department records and the following published source: Lorna Price, Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988), 82.]
The Lidow ding is related stylistically to a cache of fine ancient bronzes discovered when a severe rainstorm washed down a cliff near the village of Liyu (northern Shanxi province) in 1923. Recent research places the vessel's production at Houma, an enormous foundry located in the Shanxi province, during the Eastern Zhou period.
This period was plagued by constant warfare. The fortunes of the royal house of Zhou were in decline. Anarchy among the vassal states and marauding nomadic tribes from the north had weakened the unity of China. Yet this era produced a renaissance in the arts-particularly in the fifth and sixth centuries-largely due to the artistic imagination and technical mastery of the Zhou bronze casters, demonstrated by the quality of the Lidow ding.
In ancient China the piece-mold bronze casting technique was used. Vessels were made in an assembly-line setting, where the production of a single object moved through separate manufacturing stages, each carried out by specially trained workers. The individual pieces were cast in molds, then assembled. In this example, the three feet were made first and the body was cast onto them. The lid was cast separately. This process allowed metalsmiths both to produce multiple vessels of the same shape and to achieve the finely detailed decoration seen here.
[This information is excerpted and modified from the following published sources: 1. Lorna Price, Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988), 82. 2)George Kuwayama, 'The Lidow Ting,' Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bulletin 23 (1976): 7.]