Jia (vessel)

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Three examples of the Jia vessel form from the 14th century BCE

A jia is a ritual vessel type found in both pottery and bronze forms; it was used to hold libations of wine for the veneration of ancestors. It was made either with four legs or in the form of a tripod and included two pillar-like protrusions on the rim that were possibly used to suspend the vessel over heat. The earliest evidence of the Jia vessel type appears during the Neolithic Period (c. 5000-2000 BCE). It was a prominent form during the Shang and early Western Zhou dynasties, but had disappeared by the mid-Western Zhou.[1]


The vessels had a ceremonial function. They were decorated with varying geometric designs and zoomorphic motifs, possibly symbolizing varying religious beliefs. There are several theories as to the origin and meaning of the symbolic iconography. Early Chinese scholars extended their traditional beliefs as regarded the symbolic meanings of the designs and motifs. They believed them to have a religious, cosmic, or mythical function. The Western historian Max Loehr has argued that the designs and motifs are ornamental and have no inherent symbolic meaning. There are no extant texts or sources contemporary with the creation of the Shang bronzes that offer descriptions or explanations of the symbolic meanings of the Jia vessels. [2]


The Jia bronze type functioned as a wine vessel.[3] The bronze vessels were used at feasts as drinking vessels; they were exhibited in ancestral halls and temples, and most prominently buried in tombs for use in the afterlife. These bronze vessels were not for everyday use, as the ancients typically used lacquerware or earthenware for eating and drinking.[4] The Shang were practitioners of a form of ancestor worship, which incorporated ritual sacrifices. They would make their offerings based on a calendar of ritual sacrifices. The sacrifices would include the presentation of food and drink, depending on the vessel type. The bronze vessels were used to prepare, and or present these offerings.[5]


When it comes to the décor of the jia vessel, simple designs are most common. The lack of complex design is due to the jia vessel being one of the oldest vessel forms. As time progressed, vessel décor got more elaborate. While one simple band of décor was prevalent in Early Shang times, towards the middle and late Shang periods more than one band of décor was more common. As the Zhou period began it was not unlikely to see a jia covered in ornamentation. The vessel shape changed to accommodate the change in decoration, and vice versa. When more elaborate designs are seen it is normally the taotie motif, or mask design. The taotie motif shows two dragon-like figures in profile, that together to form the taotie mask. Whorl circles were also a common decoration on the jia vessel.[6] The décor on the jia can be classified by Max Loehr's five styles of Anyang bronzes. Style I is classified by thin thread relief designs, they are described as being light and airy and consist of simple forms. Style II uses a thicker ribbon relief. It has incised ornaments and harsh and heavy forms. Style III has more of a curvilinear design where only the eyes of the figures protrude and uniform like patterns appear. In style IV the decoration becomes separate from the background, which normally is made of the thunder pattern. The motifs and pattern are flush with the surface of the vessel. Style V vessels have decoration in a very high relief.[7]

Vessel form[edit]

The form of the jia changed slightly through different cultural periods. The most common form consisted of two parts, a skirt and an upper section that flares out at the top. This form was developed based on older versions of the jia that which had hollow conical legs that opened to the lower bowl section of the vessel. These hollow legs were replaced by small slits in the early Anyang period, this allowed for bracing the core against the outer parts of the mold. Another variation on the shape of the jia is a rounded bottom and an almost spherical body. A jia with a flat bottom and no skirt has also been found and dated to a pre-Anyang time. After the Erligang phase the skirt was made less obvious and the silhouette appeared almost vertical.[8]


Inscriptions on Jia vessels are typically found on the handles or pillars. Larger inscriptions are found on the belly of the vessel. Only a small percentage of Jia vessel types have been discovered with inscriptions.[9] The vessel known as the Yayi Jia, from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco contains an inscription on the bottom portion of the vessel. The Yayi Jia's inscription depicts the symbolic characterization of a man, and on top of his head lay a cross-shaped symbol. This vessel gets its name from the modern reading of the symbolic nature of the inscription. The inscription, Yayi, appears frequently in late Shang bronzes; It is possible that the Yayi inscription on these bronzes makes reference to a particular clan.[10] The Jia vessel from the Saint Louis Art Museum provides further textual insights into the function of these vessels. There are two characters located under the handle of the vessel. Max Loehr states that the two characters are qiu Yi, "fermented liquor, Yi." Loehr further states that when read together it appears to mean, "for libations for (father or ancestor) Yi."[11]

Historical developments[edit]

The Erlitou Culture Period[edit]

First Half of the Second Millennium B.C

The origins of China's Bronze Age still remains unclear. Chinese historical writing suggests Xia is the first dynasty instead of Shang, which is not conclusively proved archeologically. Erlitou site shows Shang culture at its primitive stage which remains apparently Neolithic features.[12]

In 1986, four bronze jia vessels are found from Erlitou in Yanshi, Henan Province. This site is approximately dated to ca.1860-1545 BCE based on calibrated carbon 14. They are cast by piece mold method. One of them has decorations featured by three bands of continuous small circles around the waist. This motif appears on other vessels from Yanshi.[13]

The Zhengzhou Phase (The Erligang Period)[edit]

Mid-Second Millennium B.C.

The Zhengzhou Shang city was discovered 62 miles (100 km) east of Erlitou. Objects unearthed from the site of Panlongcheng represent the Zhengzhou phase. Stylistic similarities are seen from the two sites although Panlongcheng is not a very important city by then. Bronze vessels shared uniform styles across regions while later during Anyang phase outlying areas were diverging from the artistic tradition of central North China.[12]

Max Loehr suggests that bronze vessel during Zhengzhou phase consist of three styles in their decor: style I is featured by thread relief which is incised in the model not on the mold; in style II, thread relief is replaced by ribbon relief which is carved in the mold not in the model; style III combines styles I and II with thunder patterns, quills pattern, and more bands of designs which are carved on the model not the mold. Jia vessels fit well into such categorization. The decorations develop from thread relief to ribbon relief with one or more vivid taotie mask according to how many sections they have.[8]

The Regional Bronze-Using Cultures[edit]

15th – 11th Centuries B.C.

The Shang culture expanded early and vastly. So did bronze-casting technology, which laying the bases for provincial bronze-using cultures that was apparently distinguished from the metropolitan style. Systematic excavation of Shang sites in out of the civilization centered around the court just starts. The most found archaeological evidence contains bronzes and jades. Some are imports from workshops in metropolitan areas or faithful copies of metropolitan pieces. Others show radically different tastes. Areas that had strong ties with the court would have kept in better touch with the style of metropolitan fashions.[12]

The High Yinxu Phase (Anyang Period)[edit]

About 1300 –About 1030 B.C.

Apparently, an obvious upsurge of activity at the Anyang site is extant during the long reign of Wu Ding, fourth of the Anyang kings. Obsessive number of oracle inscriptions from Wu Ding’s court record many sacrificial observances, during which the bronze vessels are surely essential.

One name that occurs especially often is that of Fu Hao. She is a royal consort and lady-general.[12] Style IV and Style V of Anyang Phase are seen from the two pairs of jia vessels in Fu Hao's tomb. In Style IV, images are popped out with real vividness. In Style V, images are raised up in high reliefs from the more flat thunder patterns in the background. Moreover, these jia vessels are squared-sectioned, one of the distinguishing features of Anyang Period. This fashion immediately faded away in Zhou.[8] Moreover, square forms in these jia vessels show a new aesthetic favor.

Ritual Revolution[edit]

During the Middle to Late Western Zhou period, changes in the ritual vessel types began to arise. The production of wine vessel types from the Shang Dynasty, (Jue 爵, Gu 觚, Jia 斝, Fangyi, and Gong vessel types), began to decline and would eventually disappear. The Hu 壺 was created at this time and would become the only vessel type used for wine rituals.[14] The change in vessel types from those of high quality and variety, to mass and uniformity, suggests a movement away from the ritual function of the vessels to a symbol of the owners status.[15]

Important Examples[edit]



  • Bronze Jia
  • Location: Yanshi, Henan Province
  • Period: Shang dynasty
  • Date: Early Shang dynasty, Erlitou cultural phase, 1,600- 1,400 BCE
  • Dimension: 31 cm H.

Early to Middle Shang[edit]

Bronze Jia

  • Period: Shang dynasty
  • Date: ca. 15th-14th century B.C.E. Early Shang period
  • Dimension: H: 21.9 W: 14.5 D: 16.0 cm
  • The decor of this Jia is within a single narrow register around the waist of the vessel. The style of decoration has been developed beyond the thread-relief on the preceding examples, and the taotie formed by two kui dragons is now franked in raised riboon-like bands. This style loses the delicacy of thread relief but represents the Shang progression toward the distinction of figure and ground.[16]

Bronze Jia

  • Period:Shang dynasty (1600-1050 BCE), approx. 1500-1250 BCE (Middle Shang dynasty)
  • Dimensions: H. 13 in x W. 8 in x D. 7 1/2 in, H. 33 cm x W. 20.3 cm x D. 19.1 cm
  • This is a beaker-shaped container with three hollow, pointed legs. It has a plain bow handle and two capped uprights. This jia is one of the most elegant of the Middle Shang period. The decoration, mainly in thread relief, consists of two bands both framed by small continuous circles - typical for the period. The lower band is divided into six panels by thick and shallow ridges. Every other ridge forms the central part of a taotie face with two bulging eyes. This mask is formed by the dissolved bodies of two confronted dragons in profile. The upper band above the constricted waist is a smaller, narrower and eye-less version of the same theme. The short uprights spring upwards from the rim of the flowing mouth. Set at right angles with the handle, they occupy the segment of the rim the farther away from this handle, which is another characteristic of the Middle Shang style. The nipple-like caps arc incised with whorl-circles, the only dynamic elements in an otherwise frontal and static decoration.[17]

Late Shang Anyang Phase[edit]

Bronze Yayi Jia

  • Period: Shang Dynasty(1600 - 1046 BCE)
  • Date: Late Shang Dynasty, Anyang Phase, 1300 BCE - 1050 BCE
  • Dimensions: H. 29 5/8 in x W. 15 in x D. 12 1/2 in, H. 75.3 cm x W. 38.1 cm x D. 31.8 cm
  • Details
  • Inscription: Yayi
  • Most jia vessels were used for pouring wine. This vessel is too tall and heavy, and its center of gravity is too high. Maybe it was more for display than for actual use. The decoration consists of taotie masks and small kui dragons against a spiral background of thunder patterns (leiwen). The handle bears a horned beast with a bird in its mouth. This peculiar combination appears often on handles. This vessel was found near the late Shang capital at Anyang in Henan province. It is similar in size and decoration to a group of objects from the tomb of Fu Hao.The inscription cast in the bottom of the vessel represents a man with a cross-shaped symbol on top of his head. Now read "Yayi," this symbol appears in many late Shang bronzes and is probably a clan sign.[10]

Bronze Jia

  • Period: Shang Dynasty(1600 - 1046 BCE)
  • Date: Late Shang Dynasty, Early Anyang Phase, 1200 BCE - 1100 BCE
  • Height: 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm.)
  • This jia has three blade-form legs. The low reliefs are conformed in a wide band with three taotie masks positioned between the supports. They have rounded eyes and a slender dividing flange. Beneath is a narrow band of stylized dragons. It has a pair of rectangular handles with large conical caps cast with comma motifs.

Bronze Jia

  • Period: Shang Dynasty(1600 - 1046 BCE)
  • Date: Late Shang Dynasty
  • Height 29.3 cm
  • From a Yin Tomb at Dasikongcun, Anyang

Bronze Fangjia

  • Period: Shang Dynasty(1600 - 1046 BCE)
  • Date: Late Shang Dynasty
  • Height 67 cm (26.375 in.)
  • Weight 19.2 kg (42.25 lb (18.45 kg)[18]
  • Late Xiaotun Locus North, at Yinxu, Anyang, Henan Province
  • The Institute of Archaeology, CASS, Beijing
  • Three large fangjia are found in Fu Hao's tomb. This is one of them. The three jia bear the names of other lineages. It may be included in the gift set of jue and gu from the Si Tu Mu, Ya Qi, and Shu Quan lineages.
  • In addition to the innovative animal-shaped vessels, the artisans of the Anyang period produced vessles in new, square-section (fang) shapes. Such vessel types include vessels for warming or serving wine jue, jia, he) and several types for drinking and storing wine gu, lei, zun, hu, as well as the new fangyi).
  • While there is a sudden interest in fang vessels was, it does ont seem to be enduring: The fangjia from Tomb 5 are the only examples from the period (Yinxu II) at Anyang; andother pair from Tomb 160 Yinxu III are the only later followers among excavated examples.
  • The formal innovations of this vessel embody a body and tall neck in square-section with relief decoration and relatively thick flanges.[19]

Bronze lidded fangjia

  • Period: Late Shang dynasty
  • Date: ca. 1200-1050 B.C.E.Late Anyang period
  • Medium: Bronze
  • Dimension: H: 40.6 W: 25.1 cm
  • Place: Anyang, China
  • Boxy geometric shapes and compartmented designs reveal the continued use of fitted clay mold sections. New shapes emerged, like the wine container resembling addorsed owls.[20]

Bronze Hou Mu Jia

  • or jia addressed to the queen (Hou) mother (Mu)
  • From the Tomb of Fu Hao, Yinxu, Henan
  • Dimension: Height 66.5 CM; Mouth 30.7 CM; Leg 28CM; Weight 20.5 kg
  • The uprising handle is in the shampe of umbrellas. The body is divided into two parts with a bigger lower part. The bottom is flat. The handle on the side bears the design of an animal head. The legs are in three-edged awl shape. Twelve triangular patterns are around the mouth rim. Whirling circles are on top of the uprising handles. Three taotie masks are on each section of the body. On the upper section, are inward curling patterns while on the lower section are outward curls. On the side of one of the taotie masks are two kui dragons. Kui dragons and banana leaf patterns are on the legs.

Bronze Jia*

  • Dimension: Height 46.5 CM ; Mouth 22.2 CM
  • From Bennanxian, Anhui Province
  • Anhui Province is not part of the central plain. This vessel reflects a close communication between the metropolitan and the provincial areas.
  • This is a round-sectioned vessel. Anhui Province, back to the Shang dynasty, is not part of the central plain area and considered provincial areas. This drinking vessel is very much like those in the metropolitan area which shows a close connection and communication.

West Zhou[edit]

Bronze Jia

  • Period: Late Shang dynasty or Early Western Zhou dynasty 11th-10th Century BCE
  • Height:11 1/8 in. (28.2 cm.)
  • the body is heavily cast. It has three equal lobes on top of slim columnar legs. It is bordered with double bow-string bands. It has a three-character inscription in a rectangular panel cast on the bady behind the handle.[21]

Bronze Jia

  • Period: Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 B.C.)
  • Date: late 11th century B.C.
  • Culture: China
  • Medium: Bronze
  • Dimensions: H. 12 3/4 in. (32.4 cm); W. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm)
  • Altar Set at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 207
  • This set is said to be excavated in 1901 and later collected by Duan Fang, a senior Manchu official. Eleven vessels are inscribed. The set was created around the time that Zhou conquers Shang and clearly by different foundries, the set may represent the accumulated wealth of a family shrine.[22]

Bronze Jia

  • Date: 11th-10th century B.C.E.
  • Period:Western Zhou dynasty
  • Medium:Bronze Cast
  • Dimension:H: 36.4 W: 22.0 D: 25.0 cm

Later Period[edit]

Nephrite Jia

  • Date: 1900-1949
  • Medium: Nephrite
  • Dimensions: H. 10 in x W. 5 1/2 in x D. 6 in, H. 25.4 cm x W. 14.0 cm x D. 15.2 cm
  • Making copies of old vessels in other materials becomes a trend in the early part of the twentieth century due to increasing amount of archaeological activity. Jade jia vessels is especially popular. This motifs consist of abstracted dragons based on Western Zhou models. The thinly cut jade is caused by the influx of Mughal styles during Qianlong reign.[23]

Historical and Cultural References[edit]

During Ming and Qing periods, jia gradually becomes a tea drinking vessel, as recorded in Dream of the Red Chamber.

  • 第四十一回 “栊翠庵茶品梅花雪怡红院劫遇母蝗虫”有一节云:又见妙玉另拿出两只杯来。一个旁边有一耳,杯上镌着“𤫫瓟斝”三个隶字,后有一行小真字是“晋王恺珍玩”,又有“宋元丰五年四月眉山苏轼见于秘府”一行小字。妙玉便斟了一斝,递与宝钗[24] 。In this chapter, the author writes about Miaoyu's collection of tea drinking vessels. Among which is a pao jia with seal script inscription "ban pao jia" on it.

Jade jia is frequently mentioned in poems and other literary works.

  • 身在瑶台,笑斟玉斝,人生几见此佳景[25] 。[清 孔尚任桃花扇·草檄》] This describes how happy it is at a banquet by talking about the beautiful scenery around and pouring wine into the jade jia vessels. (The Peach Blossom Fan, Kong Shangren)
  • 太庙初献,依开宝例,以玉斝、玉瓒,亚献以金斝,终献以瓢斝[26] 。[《宋史·礼志一》]This records a ritual performed during Song Dynasty in the book History of Song in Twenty-Four Histories. Jade jia, gold jia and jia made from other materials are used sequentially in the ritual.


  1. ^ jia. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 13, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. ^ [Kuwayama 1976, p. 7]
  3. ^ [Delbanco 1983, pp. 16]
  4. ^ [Li 1980, p. 9]
  5. ^ [Delbanco 1983, pp. 15]
  6. ^ Thorp, Robert L. (June 1985). "The Growth of Early Shang Civilization: New Data From Ritual Vessels". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 45. JSTOR 2718958. 
  7. ^ Sullivan, Michael (1984). The Arts of China, The University of California Press, California ... (1. ed.). California: The University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04917-9. 
  8. ^ a b c Wen Fong; Robert Bagley; Jenny So; Maxwell Hearn (1980). The Great Bronze Age of China. New York City: Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870992261. 
  9. ^ [Li 1980, p. 14]
  10. ^ a b "Yayi Jia". Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. 
  11. ^ [Loehr 1968, p. 44]
  12. ^ a b c d Kelleher, Bradford D. (1980). Treasures from the Bronze Age of China: an exhibition from the People's Republic of China, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ... (1. ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-87099-230-9. 
  13. ^ Allen, Sarah (May 2007). "Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm". The Association for Asian Studies. The Journal of Asian Studies. 66: 461–496. doi:10.1017/s002191180700054x. JSTOR 20203165. 
  14. ^ [Rawson 1999, pp. 433-435]
  15. ^ [Rawson 1999, pp. 438]
  16. ^ Delbanco, Dawn Ho (1983). Art from ritual : ancient Chinese bronze vessels from the Arthur M. Sackler collections. Cambridge, Mass.: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. ISBN 0-916724-54-9. 
  17. ^ "Ritual Wine Vessel Jia". Asian Art of Museum of San Francisco. 
  18. ^ "Bronze Fangjia". China National Museum. 
  19. ^ Yang, Xiaoneng (1999). The Golden Age of CHinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of art. p. 172. 
  20. ^ "Square lidded ritual wine warmer (fangjia) with taotie and dragons". Freer and Sackler Galleries. 
  22. ^ "Ritual Wine Container (Jia)". Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
  23. ^ "Nephrite Jia". Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. 
  24. ^ translated, Tsao Hsueh-chin ;; Doren, adapted from the Chinese by Chi-Chen Wang; with a preface by Mark Van (1989). Dream of the red chamber (Abridged Anchor Books ed.). New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 0385093799. 
  25. ^ Weinwei, illustrated by Kwan Shan Mei; retold by Li Rongyao, He Donghu, Huang (1991). The peach blossom fan and other Qing Dynasty stories. Singapore: Federal Publications. ISBN 9810120532. 
  26. ^ zhu, Zhou Baozhu, Chen Zhen zhu bian ; Zhou Baozhu ... [et al.] bian (2007). Song shi (Di 1 ban. ed.). Beijing: Ren min chu ban she. ISBN 7010047022. 


  • Allen, Sarah (May 2007). "Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm". The Association for Asian Studies. The Journal of Asian Studies. 66: 461–496. doi:10.1017/s002191180700054x. JSTOR 20203165. 
  • Delbanco, Dawn Ho (1983). Art from Ritual: Ancient Chinese Bronze Vessels from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections. Cambridge: Fogg Museum/Washington, D.C.: Sackler Foundation. ISBN 9780916724542. 
  • Kelleher, Bradford D. (1980). Treasures from the Bronze Age of China: an exhibition from the People's Republic of China, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1st ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-87099-230-9. 
  • Kuwayama, George (1976). Ancient Ritual Bronzes of China. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ISBN 9780875870687. 
  • Li, Hsueh-ch'in (1980). The Wonder of Chinese Bronzes. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. 
  • Loehr, Max (1968). Ritual Vessels of Bronze Age China. New York: Asia Society. 
  • Rawson, Jessica (1999). "Chapter 6: Western Zhou Archaeology". In Loewe, Michael. The Cambridge History of Ancient China: Volume 1 - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C. Cambridge University Press. pp. 352–449. ISBN 9780521470308. 
  • Sullivan, Michael (1984). "Chapter 2: Shang Dynasty". The Arts of China. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. pp. 25–27. 
  • Wen Fong; Robert Bagley; Jenny So; Maxwell Hearn (1980). The Great Bronze Age of China. New York City: Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 9780870992261. 
  • Yang, Xiaoneng (1999). The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of art. p. 172. 

Further reading[edit]