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Awash with Stories

An ancient bronze handwash basin embodies one man’s devotion to his beloved by combining both art and technology

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Nov.1

The Zi Zhong Jiang Pan basin has 32 characters (above) engraved on its inner rim, which tell the story of how it was made

I want to give my love an unforgettable gift. The question is what?”  

This is a challenge many guys face but few get right. Perhaps they can draw some inspiration from a young official that lived 2,700 years ago. He commissioned a stunning piece of art that not only was likely a hit with his lady, but also the world for generations. 

Instead of the gold or silver one would expect, his gift was a cast bronze handwash basin.

Love Eternal
It was first unearthed by grave robbers in Central China’s Shanxi Province in the 20th century. Engraved on its inner rim are 32 characters that read: “On the seventh day of the sixth lunar month, a handwash basin was made for Lady Jiang Zhong at the request of Grand Master, who with it wishes Lady Jiang health and longevity.” 

The inscription concludes with, “May our descendants forever possess this vessel.” Historians called it the Zi Zhong Jiang Pan – which means “Handwash Basin of Lady Jiang Zhong.” 

Archaeologists identified the basin as originating from the State of Jin, carbon-dating it between 770 and 476 BCE during the Spring and Autumn period. With this information, we can sketch out a rough profile of the piece. 

The man who commissioned it identifies as Grand Master. This is a senior position in the Jin government in charge of rituals and music. He intended the gift for his wife, Lady Jiang Zhong. Her surname suggests she came from the ruling Jiang clan in the neighboring state of Qi. A side note – her given name, Zhong, means she was the second daughter of her family. 

Marriages like these between noble families of different kingdoms were commonly arranged to cement diplomatic relations. The Jiang clan of Qi were descendants of Jiang Ziya, chief strategist for the founding king of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). Many of the Jiang daughters were married off to ruling families in neighboring states. 

So, what exactly makes this bronze artifact special? Unlike today, bronze ware in the Spring and Autumn Period was exclusive to nobility because of the difficulty of casting. Ordinary people could neither afford nor legally own it. 

Since chopsticks would not be adopted for another 300 years, people most often ate with their hands, making handwash basins an everyday item. This gave rise to ritual handwashing, a ceremony widely practiced on important occasions like sacrificial offerings or weddings. 

For example, when receiving distinguished guests, the patriarch of the host family poured water using a long-spouted vessel called yi, while his eldest son would hold a basin below it called pan so the guest could wash their hands. The yi and pan were usually made as a set. Lady Jiang Zhong’s handwash basin is a pan. 

But the ingenuity and sophistication of this bronze ware is what truly sets it apart.

Art and Technology
Measuring 45 centimeters wide and weighing 12.4 kilograms, the basin has a pair of broad handles. Engraved cloud patterns circle the outside. On the rim sit two small dragons. With their protruding heads and coiled body, they appear ready to spring into the vessel as if they are about to pounce on something below. 

On the bottom of the basin sit 12 animal figurines. Right in the center is a crowned male waterfowl. Four fish surround him, as if on guard. Surrounding them are four female waterfowl, looking outwards. Originally there were four frogs in the outermost circle, but one was lost to corrosion. Aside from the figurines, animals are embossed on the bottom such as turtles, frogs and small fish. 

These sculptures are as vivid and detailed as they were 2,700 years ago. But the real magic happens when water is added. The flowing water makes the figurines spin 360 degrees, as if they are dancing. 

Computer scans of the interior reveal the figurines swivel on shafts that connect to the basin’s bottom. The talented artist behind the bowl designed the shafts to blend with the animal’s sculpted shape, rendering them invisible to the eye. 

The casting techniques were unprecedented. Casting the figurines, which measure an average 6.5 centimeters, was a challenge. What makes it more impressive is that the artist had to design them just right to allow for rotation, all the while making sure water did not seep through the clearances. 

So how was this precious bronze ware actually made? The technique of section mold casting was used, where the figurines, shafts and basin were cast separately, then welded together. 

One of the biggest technical challenges was fixing the delicate shafts to the thin base of the basin. This problem was solved by putting a very thin layer of mud at the joints to ensure the weld did not damage or puncture the bottom. They had to get the thickness of the layer just right: too little would likely cause the basin to leak, while too much would not allow the shaft to fuse to the bottom. 

The basin perfectly embodies the inseparable relationship between technology and artistry. Technology is a necessary condition to create art, and the development of art is affected by the development of technology at every stage.

Way Home
No doubt the vessel comes from ancient China, but it did not go straight to a museum in modern China. 

It was first discovered by tomb robbers in Shanxi Province in the early 20th century. Before long, it vanished. The piece did not resurface until in the 1990s, when it was put up for auction in Macao. Many foreign collectors were eager to bid on it. Experts from the Chinese mainland were also anxious, expecting a foreign collector to outbid everyone else. 

Enter Sunny Yip. The founder of Hong Kong financial firm Sun Group paid 37.5 million yuan (US$5.6m) for the piece. Born in 1950, Yip has engaged in philanthropy focused on public welfare and education in his hometown of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, donating over 100 million yuan (US$15m). 

After the purchase, Yip consulted with a number of bronze experts to determine its value. But many were unaware of the basin’s existence, and some dismissed it as a fake. Afraid that he might have made a bad decision, Yip was disheartened. 

However, when Ma Chengyuan, former director of the Shanghai Museum, flew to Hong Kong and examined it in person, he was struck by the sight of it, calling it a one-of-its-kind, priceless national treasure. 

Ma was so excited that night that he barely slept and wrote his now widely cited article “Postscript on Zi Zhong Jiang Pan,” in which he provides an extremely detailed description of the basin. 

Yip later learned that the Chinese government had its eye on the piece. It was one of the two national treasures embassies and consulates had been tracking for nine years.
During a TV interview in 2002, Ma said that two years after first encountering the basin, he wrote to Yip, asking to borrow the treasure for a two-month exhibition in Shanghai as part of the events marking Hong Kong’s return to China. Yip offered to donate the piece to the Shanghai Museum. 

The basin for Lady Jiang Zhong was originally paired with another vessel for pouring water, known as an yi. Regrettably, that yi is in the possession of a private collector in New York. Separated by thousands of kilometers, the two may remain so for the foreseeable future. 

This is the case for many Chinese antiquities. According to data from UNESCO, over 1.64 million historical artifacts from China are in the possession of over 200 museums in 47 countries, not including private collections. The Chinese Cultural Relics Academy estimates nearly 10 million. 

Since 2012, China has stepped up efforts to recover artifacts, including incentives to encourage private efforts. In the past 10 years, over 1,800 artifacts in private collections overseas have been returned to China. Perhaps someday, Lady Jiang Zhong’s handwash basin set will also be reunited.