The wine vessel that saved a life

More than 2,000 years ago, China already had a primitive fridge. In the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), the double-layered "refrigerator" existed.
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Bronze fou-and-jian

Length: 76cm

Width: 76cm

Height: 63.2cm

Period: Warring States Period (475-221 BC)

More than 2,000 years ago, China already had a primitive fridge, mainly used to keep wine fresh.

In the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (1046-256 BC) dynasties, wine played a significant role in rituals. 

There were a wide variety of bronze vessels associated with wine — heaters, containers, cups and storage vessels.

The cups can be further divided into three categories: jue filled with one liter of wine, gu with two liters and zhi with three liters.

In the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), the double-layered “refrigerator” existed. To cool or keep wine, the bronze utensil combined a covered fou (wine vessel) inside and a square jian (ice basin) outside. The space between the two vessels is used to place ice cubes. In winter, hot water can be poured into the space to warm wine.

The one held by the National Museum of China was unearthed in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suixian County of Hubei Province. The tomb is a significant archeological site where around 15,000 relics including 6,239 bronze vessels were found.

The jian, the outer layer of the utensil, is cast with eight dragon-shaped handles. Four feet in the shape of mythical creatures that look like dragons support the bronze. 

With the extensive openwork decoration, the lid of the jian is separated from that of the fou. People did not need to open the large and heavy lid of the jian but just the lid of the fou, which is much smaller. Facilitating holding the lid of the fou, knobs were cast in its four corners.

There are three rectangular mortises at the bottom of the fou, which can be fastened with the three hooks at the bottom of the jian

It is said that in a summer of the early Warring States Period (475-221 BC), the monarch of the state of Sui visited the state of Zeng. Before his coming, the marquise Yi ordered people to prepare for a feast, including several jars of good wine. During the banquet, guests were fully immersed in the joyful atmosphere. However, the marquis Yi suddenly threw his cup to the ground. All the people at present were shocked by his behavior.

“How dare you, the wine officer, serve such poor-quality wine?” the indignant marquis shouted.

“It hurts our national prestige. Drag him out and behead him,” 

The officer who took charge of the issue of wine knelt down immediately and explained that the rice wine might ferment in hot weather, which led to the change in taste.

Other officers also knelt down and interceded for the wine officer.

They said that the pleasure of the banquet would be ruined if someone was killed.

Thinking that the excuse was plausible, the marquis asked the wine officer to solve the problem in 10 days otherwise he would be punished severely.

Returning home, the anxious officer was completely engrossed in the research.

A few days later, he still had no idea. 

One night the officer’s son was reading an article included in the book “Rites of Zhou,” one of three ancient ritual texts listed among the classics of Confucianism. The article mentioned that in the beginning of spring people started to make the vessel jian which was used to keep food.

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During the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, fou returned to the public spotlight. 

Drawing the inspiration from the text, the officer asked craftsmen to make a bronze jian through the technique of lost-wax casting, which was fairly cutting-edge at that time.

The marquis was amazed by the splendid bronze vessel. 

Instead of punishing him, the marquis awarded him with a large sum of money and gave him promotion.

As one of the marquise’s favorite objects, the bronze utensil was buried with him. It came to light again in 1978.

Like another national treasure pan-and-zun found in the tomb, the ancient refrigerator is also inscribed with “Forever used by Marquis Yi of Zeng.”

Facilitating wine serving, a bronze ladle long enough to reach the bottom of the fou was also found in the tomb. 

The fou evolved into a percussion instrument later. 

During the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, the ancient instrument returned to the public spotlight. A total of 2008 fou were struck by the drummers. Every fou was surrounded by a white LED array to form giant digits to count down to opening ceremony at 8:08pm.

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