In 1122 B.C., at the battle of Muyeh, the rebellious Zhou tribe defeated the imperial troops of the Shang Dynasty, China’s first Imperial Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty is itself composed of two periods that historians have dubbed Western (1122-771 B.C.) and Eastern (770-221 B.C.). During the Western period, the Zhou ruled from their capital Zongzhou (near modern X’ian). While the Zhou were highly influence by the Shang, over time, they developed their own unique style of decorating bronze and terracotta vessels. Perhaps their most important artistic innovation was the creation of primitive glazes. However, ambitious campaigns to expand their territory westward failed, and in 771, nomadic invaders ransacked Zongzhou, forcing the Zhou to flee eastwards to the city of Chengzhou, which became their second capital.
Thus began the second period, the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, also known as the Spring and Autumn Period, a name taken from one of the oldest histories of China which was recorded by season. Along the road to Chengzhou, the Zhou relied upon the aid of the powerful Qin and Jin states to secure their escape. Yet, once the Eastern Zhou was established, infighting and succession struggles plagued the house and the Zhou were never able to recapture their ancient dominance, merely ruling in name alone. Instead, a coalition of powerful states, including the Qi and Chu in addition to the Qin and Jin, ruled ancient China. However, by the 5th Century B.C., internal quarrels began to shake the foundations of these independent states and the peace that characterized most of their coexistence began to rapidly disintegrate, culminating in the brutal defeat of the Qi, an event that ushered in the appropriately named Warring States Period.
This two-part bronze steamer (alternately known as a Yan or Xian) was discovered buried inside the tomb of an elite member of the Zhou Dynasty. The raised four-legged vessel at the bottom (individually known as a Li) would have been filled with water and placed over a fire. As the water boiled, the steam would rise upwards through the grated opening of the upper vessel, where it would cook the food contained within. No doubt, modern culinary techniques have altered little from this ancient device. However, this work is remarkable not so much for the sophisticated culinary culture of the Zhou, as much as for the beauty and sophistication of the design. The shape of the rare four-legged Li appears to be fairly zoomorphic, similar to a quadruped with thick, stout legs, such as an elephant. Likewise, the small loop handles could then be interpreted as curling tails. Furthermore, the exterior sides of the flaring food container have been elegantly decorated in low relief with abstract swirling patterns divided into two bands. Such decorative elements are typical of the Zhou period.
This glorious utensil surely would have been a treasured possession. However, this Yan was not interred with its owner as a sign of wealth. Instead, this steamer was expected to continue cooking meals in the afterlife. The Ancient Chinese believed that the afterlife was an extension of our earthly existence. Thus, it seems logical to reason that as we require food to nourish our bodies on earth, we will require food to nourish our souls in the afterlife. This Yan was created to steam eternally, ushering the deceased into the next world. The bountiful feast that this Yan symbolizes continues throughout eternity. Today, we marvel at this work both for its historical and cultural significance as well for its overwhelming beauty.