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November 06, 2008


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“I wonder what powerful object Obama will inherit as his right to rule?”

At the end of the documentary “Raiders of the Lost Ark” we learn that there is an immense warehouse full of such legitimating objects, in the care of the executive branch of the government of the United States. What we don’t know is whether any of them are left.

Much of Western thought is dominated by the imagery of enclosures or containers. We think in terms of “form” and “content.” We think of geometry as being primarily about closed figures (circles, triangles). We tend to think of conceptual order as taxonomy: hierarchies of sets. We tend to think of concepts and meanings in terms of criteria for inclusion/exclusion, seeking do draw a sharp line around the matter in question, and we think similarly of law. Public order should draw sharp boundaries around what is permitted, and be completely tolerant of differences within those boundaries.

Chinese culture, on the other hand, seems to favor the image of the paradigmatic pattern (cross-hatching, river networks, stick figures, skeletal figures) which is then extended to a greater or lesser degree, like a crystal. The salient exception seems to be the vessels, which seem to fit the Western image. I’ve long (but not much) wondered why. Maybe it’s all about cooking-for as a model of care for elders.

Hi Bill,

I think sacrificial offerings was fairly universal to the great ancient civilzations (I am flipping through one of my japanese books called the 4 Great Civilzations because I can never recall what they consider the 4 to be! In English do we have a similar expression, like 4?) Anyway, I think vessels-- in their relation to sacrifice-- became sacred in this way.

The cutest archaeologist who once showed me around a small ancient site not far from here in a necktie and Indiana Jones hat remarked in a very reverent tone that vessels 器-- that is, the invenstion of pottery to make vessels-- prolonged human life by a decade at least. So, perhaps this assiciation with sacrificing to gods/oracles; fire/cooking and life gave vessels their great presitige.

This really ended in the West with the rise of the fine art, though, don't you think? In Japan, a fine pot will fetch more than a fine oil painting even today-- as ceramics are the fine art par excellence here.

Isn't the photograph above stunning? I really would like to see China's famous mountains someday. That and the Kingdom of Shu, of course...


Are you sure about those legitamating objects? It sounds like a Nicholas Cage movie...


This is the novel about the First Emperor I was telling you about. More than about Shihunagdi, though, it's probably really about how absolute power is achieved. I'd like to read his other novel on Confucius

In early China, vessels seem to be the paradigmatic instruments/tools. I agree that sacrifice was pretty universal, but maybe there was more concrete emphasis on the culinary aspect in China ?? I suppose the invention of pottery was valuable everywhere, and I would expect that matter to have been lost in the mists of time once the bronze age rolled around. Dunno.

As for Obama’s objects, you were right to question me. They might have spent recent years in safer hands than I thought.

The motif that Obama has repeated throughout his campaign has been the puppy he and Michelle will give to Sasha and Melea -- a puppy.

The Humane Society of the United States as been a huge supporter of the Obama campaign because of his and Biden's record supporting humane legislation.

The Obamas are indicating they are going to bring a homeless dog to the White House.

This is in keeping with Michelle's choice of largely unknown hyphenated American designers instead of the big European design houses.

I think the Obamas are choosing to exalting humble, humane, and humanitarian symbols during their tenure in Washington.

I'm still going with the Nicholas Cage version! (I just cannot bear thinking about Ally McBeel getting her hands on Obama's objects....

Hi Jean,

Nice to see you. The above Post actually was not about Presidential motifs or First Lady styles... In fact, it was not about our man Obama in any way. Looking forward to seeing pictures of the new puppy though!!

PPS Bill, I am going to see if my expert Conrad can back this up, but I seem to recall reading that the Greek bronze tripods were also first invented for cookery-- but quickly came to be used for both sacred practices and cooking... Don't quote me though because this is just something I read online. I am really looking forward to reading the Calasso book as well as in it the author compares Chinese and Greek tripods.... Have you read it by any chance?

Right, enough about Obama; back to the bronzes. I haven't read the book.

For me the bronzes have always suggested the China of brute force rather than the China of poetry and civilization. I associate them with those stocky squat gates of walled cities, and with a bit of newsreel I saw of testing the rain-making artillery just outside Beijing before the Olympics. BOOM! BOOM! Uncanny by virtue of sheer size.

Because of their being manufactured in large sets and in such great numbers-- yes, in that sense I see what you mean-- they are somehow reminiscent of the terracotta warriors in technical achievement and their power to evoke great authority. Especially the early Shang vessels-- they are stocky and highly decorated (which is probably appropriate as a religious/sacrificial vessel).

The later bronzes, however, like the Mao gong ding that I linked to above are really very refined, I think-- very much like poetry, in fact.

I don't know if you read this post but the story about CKS carting that gigantic bronze around China has always fascinated me as well.

The bells too-- in Java, someone told me that Indonesian gamelan had its origins in the Chinese bells. I don't know if it is true or not. I never really realized either how much I love bronze till I starting thinking about my young friend found off the coast of Fano... bronze and jade really do share many attributes that are pretty pleasing (at least to these eyes!)

While it is not totally un-related, my topic above really was not on the way leaders and kings choose to use symbols, but rather about legitimating symbols which are passed down and entrusted to them. And more to the point: the way the bronzes have served this function in early Chinese history and what implications this is has had in art history, for example.

The more I thought about the issue of America's legitimating objects (and I was really being tongue in cheek at first) the more I wondered if this type of "regalia" isn't just part and parcel of kingship so, for example, maybe ancient Athens did not have nor need any kinds of legitimating symbols since no person held that much power? Or that there power was not based on a heavenly mandate but on a democratic one-- so that perhaps modern America or Australia would not necessarily have such objects to entrust to our leaders.

In Europe or Japan-- it is the royals who safeguard the various regalia; Japan has its Three Treasures, the British their crown jewels.

In China, I think because their's was national art (a concept that originated in the nine bronzes)-- and not national treasure-- it has had implications in the way art continues to be viewed in China today-- and this is particularly so of bronzes. This is quite different than Bonapart's trophy-collecting as well-- since in China it was national art which made up the vast majority of the collection.

This probably has nothing to do with anything (but it could have everything to do with everything), but this book just arrived and I am really looking forward to reading it. Bill, have you heard of it?

I picked up a copy of that book last month at an HKU Press discount sale. It’s not on my immense short-list of must-reads, but I’ve read the review you posted. Thanks for introducing me to that book-review web site! It will be a help.

It seems plausible to me that gamelan has roots in those old bronze bells.

The big bronzes look to me like power rather than poetry not because of how they were made, but just because of how they look: gauche and unfriendly (enough to remind me also of Aztecs). If you tried to carry them, they’d leave you not only exhausted but also badly bruised.
The ding you showed isn’t quite like that, but I wouldn’t call it poetic.

I suppose the idea of legitimating objects is related to the game of king-of-the-hill, in that the ability to keep possession shows one’s alpha status. Hence the weight. Why do you say national art originated with the nine bronzes? A different conception is that they were like giant coins or tokens for the keep-away game. Big units of metal given an identity-stamp, and made to look daunting or threatening.


Here’s a slightly different view, from Mencius 5B1
孟子曰:“伯夷,聖之清者也;伊尹,聖之任者也;柳下惠,聖之和者也;孔子,聖之時者也。孔子之謂集大成。集大成也者,金聲而玉振之也。金聲也者,始條理也;玉振之也者,終條理也。始條理者,智之事也;終條理者,聖之事也。智,譬則巧也;聖,譬則力也。由射於百步之外也,其至,爾力也;其中,非爾力也。” Mencius said,'Bo Yi among the sages was the pure one; Yi Yin was the one most inclined to take office; Hui of Liu Xia was the accommodating one; and Confucius was the timeous [timely] one. In Confucius we have what is called a complete concert. A complete concert is when the large [metal] bell proclaims the commencement of the music, and the ringing stone [or jade tubes] proclaims its close. The metal sound commences the blended harmony of all the instruments, and the winding up with the stone terminates that blended harmony. The commencing that harmony is the work of wisdom. The terminating it is the work of sageness. As a comparison for wisdom, we may liken it to skill, and as a comparison for sageness, we may liken it to strength - as in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.' (Legge’s translation, plus bracketed extras)

That's the 1st time we've ever mis-communicated. My fault.

No, I didn't mean that the national arts originated in the bronzes, but rather that "ART AS LEGITIMATING SYMBOL (regalia)" had its origins in China in concepts surrounding those nine bronzes (See Ledderose's essay)...

The metals for the original bronzes (you probably already know this) were tribute sent from the "Nine Provinces" so yes, you have a point about alpha wolves and possession
("possessing the past")

By the way, I do not think I have ever seen a translation by Legge that I can comprehend--

We should read the stele book at the same time and then argue with each other about all the fine points! How much did you get it for by the way? It was being sold for a pretty penny in Japan so I bought mine at amazon in the US and had my sweet mom send it over to me...

jade bi??

To each his own but in a way not unlike how I feel about the jars from Borneo, I really feel I could spend the rest of my life staring at just the right bronze ding and always find something new to fall in love with.... This is if you are desparate to waste some time online... but I think yixing shares some of these same charateristics with jade and bronze.

I think my copy was about HK $30, or US $4, but it could have been a little more or less.

Ledderose's book looks worth looking at.

Clearly I've been looking wrong at the bronzes.

Mencius’ initial point is that while Bo Yi wouldn’t associate with anyone who was beneath him or serve a bad prince, and Liu Xiahui never felt polluted by his associates and so didn’t avoid bad ones, Confucius was moderate and also took the occasion into account. Here’s DC Lau’s translation of the rest:

“Confucius was the one who gathered together all that was good. To do this is to open with bells and conclude with jade tubes. To open with bells is to begin in an orderly fashion; to conclude with jade tubes is to end in an orderly fashion. To begin in an orderly fashion pertains to wisdom while to end in an orderly fashion pertains to sageness. Wisdom is like skill, shall I say, while sageness is like strength. It is like shooting from beyond a hundred paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches the target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.”

I don’t find Legge difficult, but I find Mencius very difficult whenever he gets talking about archery.

$4-- that just kills me! Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder-- but I've long thought that there are more to Chinese bronzes that meets the eye! I like that very much too

"To begin in an orderly fashion pertains to wisdom while to end in an orderly fashion pertains to sageness. Wisdom is like skill, shall I say, while sageness is like strength."

Well, this may be a first… Conrad has recommended a book that I have already read & in the year that it was published! I also recommend Calasso; after fifteen years the book's content may have dimmed a bit in my memory, but the beauty of his literary style has not. After three pages I was wishing I could read it in italian, not translation. I think you might also enjoy "Ka" where he takes on the complexities of India's mythology. ( To answer a previous question: No, I've never been to India.)

Being, as you know, obsessed with craftsmanship, I have always had an interest in the connection between fabrication technology & form. (Digression alert…) The bronze forms in China (for that matter in most cultures) follow a progression. One starts with a naturally occurring form (gourd, coconut, etc.) First it is interpreted in the earliest technology, basketry where the construction methods are eventually transformed into decoration, next the basic construction methods of baskets are transfered to the next material jump, clay, which then moves along to bronze. While there are some stylistic changes made possible by the structural differences in the materials, the forms themselves go back to the most basic construction technologies. This is my usual vague, round-about way of saying that I find the idea of cooking tripod transforming into an object of symbolic power fascinating as well.

By the way; amazing photograph! I always assume that the mountains in chinese paintings are a purely stylistic convention when, in reality, they do indeed look like the paintings!

That IS impressive MW!! I can only hope the day will come when I can say the same thing-- Conrad also, by the way, recommended the other book by Calasso and both items are in my shopping basket.

Thinking about your comment, I realized that-- just as you said-- it is pretty fascinating that these objcts made for cooking became associated with symbolic power as perhaps the regalia we often think about don't really have such everyday origins -- being treasures like crowns, swords, scepters, etc.. Japan has its Three Sacred Treasures

Bill, you will note these treasures are also known as 三種の神器-- note the: "utsuwa" 器 even though none are vessels per se-- as the three jewels are the jewel (jade), the mirror and sword. They still exist and are used by the Imperial family in rituals of state-- I believe (it is surrounded in a lot of mist).

Isn't the photograph amazing, though?

I have thought the same thing as you too-- China really has mountains like that-- is it possible??!! I work off and on on this series of Japanese video translation about the beautiful and historic spots of China (I think JAL uses them for their in-flight entertainment on flights flying into Mainland China from Japan). Of course, I am already a great lover of Chinese history, but seeing some of the scenic spots too have really amazed me.

Lately, I have felt a real yearning to see mountains. I have this video about the train to Tibet and I put it on at night and try to tempt Adonis to run away with me to Tibet-- to which he repeatedly answers: "There's not enough air up there for a little boy".... so now I am working on the Yellow Mountains-- but he says he isn't sure about all the stairs to the top.

I linked to the photographer's website and all of his work is pretty phenomenal... I-- alas-- am still waiting for my own perfect shot. You might also like Kenro Izu's work


I had only glanced at the picture and turned to the text, assuming that the picture was a painting. My wife has just been to Guilin and taken hundreds of pictures, which I hope to see soon.

MW, do you know this piece?:


Interesting! This makes me rethink the idea that 器 sometimes means simply “tool, instrument.” Maybe the concept is something a little different, something some concept I don’t yet have in my repertoire, something of interest philosophically. A symbol is like a tool in the sense that it points beyond itself in some sense; it’s valuable because it represents something else. (“The reason Smith was so glad to get the pot is that it means she can cook now; it represents better meals for her this winter.”) That's worth exploring.

Analects 2.13:
Zigong asked about the gentleman (君子). The Master said, “First practice his sayings, then follow him.”

Zigong wanted to be told how to be a gentleman, and Confucius’ reply is a bit of a put-down, I think. (Other people read the passage differently.) Compare:

Analects 2.12:
The Master said, “The gentleman is not a vessel (器).”

Analects 5.4:
Zigong asked, “What am I like?”
The Master said, “You are a vessel.”
“What kind of vessel?”
“A jade sacrificial vessel.”

I’d like to know better how to interpret the metaphor.


The term神器 appears in Daodejing 29, but I’m not sure what to make of it there.


Peony, の is the only properly Japanese character I know. It’s a very useful one to know. Would you be so kind as to tell me one more very useful one? :)

MW, are you saying that we can recognize in the bronze forms aspects of gourds or basketwork that aren't inherent in or favored by the function of the vessels or bells?

Bill, I **knew** you were going to love that 器!! You know, I almost suggested we make it our next secret mission to ponder the depths of 器 but I didn't want to distract you.

の is really the only hiragana that I would recommend. And I almost added the 乃 in there but figured you didn't need the hint!

Back to Utsuwa 器, though, I also think it is worth exploring. In Japanese it means "vessel," --but then those Japanese three treasures are clearly not vessels, are they? Tools/treasures/vessels... it's pretty interesting.

Actually in Japanese, there are two meanings for 器:
1) Vessel
2) Ability, capacity, caliber (talent, skill)

A very common expression is 器が広い人 A person with "a wide utsuwa"-- which is similar but not the same as "big-hearted” in English. I would wager that that is what the Confucian gentleman above is about (and that the English is not on-target) -- to be skillful, cultivated but most of all the Japanese seems to be used to connote a person who can take on and deal with a lot of hassles...A person who is not narrow-minded.

Teachers should be like that.

I'd love to see the Chinese and english versions of ddj 29. Also the Chinese for this:
Analects 5.4:
Zigong asked, “What am I like?”
The Master said, “You are a vessel.”
“What kind of vessel?”
“A jade sacrificial vessel.”

Here’s DDJ 29 with Ivanhoe’s translation.

Those who would gain the world and do something with it,
I see that they will fail.
For the world is a spiritual vessel, and one cannot put it to use.
Those who use it ruin it, those who grab hold of it lose it.
And so
Sometimes things lead and sometimes they follow;
Sometimes they breathe gently and sometimes they pant;
Sometimes they are strong and sometimes they are weak;
Sometimes they fight and sometimes they fall;
This is why sages cast off whatever is extreme, extravagant, or excessive.

And the Chinese for Analects 5.4:


Note that Confucius said the gentleman is *not* a vessel.
What looks like a better fit with your point about “wide utsuwa” is this passage, Analects 3.22 (here with Legge’s translation because I can just copy and paste it). Apparently Confucius' turn of phrase wasn’t common currency at the time:

The Master said, "Small indeed was the capacity of Guan Zhong!"
Someone said, "Was Guan Zhong parsimonious?"
"Guan," was the reply, "had the San Gui, and his officers performed no double duties; how can he be considered parsimonious?"
"Then, did Guan Zhong know the rules of propriety?"
The Master said, "The princes of States have a screen intercepting the view at their gates. Guan had likewise a screen at his gate. The princes of States on any friendly meeting between two of them, had a stand on which to place their inverted cups. Guan had also such a stand. If Guan knew the rules of propriety, who does not know them?"

But then look at these passages:

Analects 15.10
Zi Gong asked about the practice of virtue. The Master said, "The mechanic, who wishes to do his work well, must first sharpen his tools (利其器). When you are living in any state, take service with the most worthy among its great officers, and make friends of the most virtuous among its scholars."

Analects 13.25
The Master said, "The superior man is easy to serve and difficult to please. If you try to please him in any way which is not accordant with right, he will not be pleased. But in his employment of men, he uses them according to their capacity (器之). The mean man is difficult to serve, and easy to please. If you try to please him, though it be in a way which is not accordant with right, he may be pleased. But in his employment of men, he wishes them to be equal to everything."

Hi Bill ~ Thanks for the link, the article looks very interesting but it's 2:30 AM here & I need to go to bed so it will have to wait until tomorrow. I should have thrown the word "speculate" in my comment somewhere as I am in absolutely no way an expert on anything chinese. I install museum exhibits so I have the rare opportunity to handle collection objects from many cultures & since I am constructing mounts to support these things, I have to be attentive to their construction.

"…are you saying that we can recognize in the bronze forms aspects of gourds or basketwork that aren't inherent in or favored by the function of the vessels or bells?"

I suppose I am speculating that might indeed be the case, as it holds true for other cultures. One must keep in mind that often these "fabrication based" design elements have become highly abstract over thousands of years so that, for example, the lines formed by the coiling technique of a basket, then the coiling of a clay pot may have found their way onto a bronze vessel but as a purely abstract design, say a series of horizontal lines encircling the neck of the vessel. Of course, over the millennia they may have also acquired a symbolic aspect as well. If there are any experts out there I'd be interested in hearing what you think…

This is a really interesting thread! Peony, I'm also intrigued by the symbolism of the mirror. I've installed a few of those, including an ancient egyptian one (Yes, bronze…) that was completely patinated & so gave back absolutely no reflection.

Now off to bed for me.

MW - as you may have noticed, the visual arts are not among my top priorities, but I've been looking at your photos - the nocturnes and the garden diptychs(?) - and I think they're really wonderful, even exciting. Thanks.

Bill, his photos of the moon are also splendid.

MW, I think my favorites are your garden diptychs. I wanted to write a post on it for your perusal but haven't been able to dig up any real information, but last month I was watching a documentary about the Japanese kokyo in which cameras were allowed into the vast forested area that surrounds the Palace for the first time in history (or so the TV channel claimed).

Ordinarily, commoners can only catch a glimpse from very faraway and in fact I wasn't even aware of the vast grounds surrounding the palace. Well, what really interested me is that the grounds are unmanicured-- kept in a natural "feral" state-- like your garden! Apparently, the grounds had long been kept as a more formal garden space-- with formal japanese gardens, tea gardens, a golf range and other kinds of garden areas that you would expect, but during the war the Emperor decided to let it all go back to a natural state. Scientists came on the show discussing the wild flowers and grasses that you can find there that have all but disappeared around Eastern Japan- and there were trees given as gifts from SEAsian countries which were huge! there was one of those Malaysian buttress trees and clinging vines (how do they survive the cold winters here?)

The wildflowers were particularly sweet.

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