National Museum of China – HouMuWu Ding 后母戊鼎

It is the heaviest and largest Ding (bronze cauldron) found so far in China. Because of its size, HouMuWu Ding 后母戊鼎 is consider the most important bronze ware excavated worthy to be called the ultimate National Treasure.

后母戊鼎 Houmuwu ding

The Houmuwu ding (Chinese: 后母戊鼎; pinyin: Hòumǔwù dǐng), formerly called Simuwu ding (Chinese: 司母戊鼎; pinyin: Sīmǔwù dǐng), is a rectangular bronze ding (sacrificial vessel, one of the common types of Chinese ritual bronzes) of the ancient Chinese Shang dynasty. It is the largest piece of bronzeware to survive from anywhere in the ancient world. It was unearthed in Wuguan Village, Anyang, Henan in 1939.


The Inscriptions

虎食人纹 Pattern of tiger devouring man on the handle

The ding is 133cm high, 110 cm long and 79 cm wide, weighing in at 832.84 kg. The ding was carved with thunder-like patterns and mythical creatures, such as Chinese dragons and taotie 饕餮, a motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels. Experts estimate that up to 300 craftsmen used more than 1,000 kilograms of material to forge the vessel.

The Houmuwu ding was dedicated to Fu Jing 婦妌, a wife of King Wu Ding 武丁, a king during the Shang dynasty.

According to oracle inscriptions, Fu Jing enjoyed high social status among the king’s 60 or so wives, and one of her sons was designated the crown prince. Unlike Fu Hao 婦好, the wife who was such a skilled military warrior, Fu Jing was a farming specialist.

Her son Zu Geng 祖庚 ordered the making of the ding in memory of her.

商后期(约公元前十四世纪–公元前十一世纪)。高133厘米、口长110厘米、口宽79厘米、重832.84千克。司母戊鼎立耳、方腹、四足中空,除鼎身四面中央是无纹饰的长方形素面外,其余各处皆有饰纹。在细密的云雷纹之上,各部分主纹饰各具形态。鼎身四面在方形素面周围以饕餮作为主要纹饰,四面交接处,则饰以扉棱,扉棱之上为牛首,下为饕餮。鼎耳外廓有两只猛虎,虎口相对,中含人头。耳侧以鱼纹为饰。四只鼎足的纹饰也匠心独具,在三道弦纹之上各施以兽面。鼎腹内壁铸有铭文”司母戊”。据考证,司母戊鼎应是商王室重器。其造型、纹饰、工艺均达到极高水平,是商代青铜文化顶峰时期的代表作。 商代后期王室青铜祭器,一说为商王文丁为其母而作;另一说为商王且庚、且甲为其母而作。

An Interesting Journey

后母戊鼎 Houmuwu ding (view from back)

The Houmuwu ding, more commonly known as Simuwu ding, was unearthed in 1939 in Anyang. It is largest and heaviest bronze sacrificial vessel ever found in the world.

Some farmers accidentally dug out this ding in the 1930s (exact date unknown) and tried to sell it to an antique buyer for $20,000 yuan, a princely sum in those days. But he had one strange request – because it’s too big, he wanted it to be dismantled for transportation. Despite whatever tools the farmers used, it could not be dismantled. Only one of the handles came off because it was attached after the main body was casted from a single mould. So they decided to put it back into the ground, fearing some supernatural forces were protecting it.

And then came the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese army heard about this ding and wanted to acquire it. The farmers dug it out and presented it to the Nationalist government, who promptly moved it to Nanjing.

Because of its sheer size, it could not be moved to Taiwan when the Nationalist government retreated after their defeat by the Communists. It was recovered in Nanjing and since 1959, it was kept at the Museum of Chinese History and then the National Museum of China.


A ding in any other name…

司母戊 or 后母戊?

In 1949, historian and archeologist Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892-1978) read the inscriptions inside the vessel as simuwu 司母戊. He explained that si means sacrifice, and wu is the posthumous title of the tomb owner. That was how the ding came to be called “Simuwu.”

In 1962, Taiwan University oracle inscription expert Jin Xiang-heng translated the inscription as houmuwu, which means “the ding that is dedicated to the queen mother Wu.”

In 2011, when the National Museum of China was reopened after a restoration, the ding was officially introduced as the Houmuwu ding. The name, however, was not acknowledged by either Yinxu (where the ding was found) or the National Museum of Chinese Writing. Experts argue that the character hou didn’t refer to the “spouse of a king” until the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), and that the character in inscription is definitely si, not hou.

A bit confusing, all that, and the dispute has yet to be definitely resolved. In the meantime, the museum refers to it as Houmuwu ding.

National Museum of China 中国国家博物馆

The National Museum of China 中国国家博物馆 flanks the eastern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The museum’s mission is to educate about the arts and history of China. It is directed by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China. It is one of the largest museums in the world.

National Museum of China
No. 16 East Chang’an Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100006 (East side of Tian’anmen Square)

Closed on Mondays

Date Visited : Jun 2019

PS (2021/3/20) : Changed opening paragraph after fact checks.

1 comment on “National Museum of China – HouMuWu Ding 后母戊鼎

  1. Pingback: Sichuan Museum – #6 The Warring States Bronzeware 戰國銅器 (Part 1) – live2makan

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