Cheers to a drinking vessel that's brimming with culture

Updated: 2012-02-09 10:10

By Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Editor's Note: Every week we look at a work of art or a cultural relic that puts the spotlight on China's heritage.

Cheers to a drinking vessel that's brimming with culture

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is praised for its openness and cultural integration with neighboring countries. One proof of this is the Animal Head Agate Vessel.

Excavated in 1970 from Hejia village in rural Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and now kept at Shaanxi History Museum, the vessel is one of the country's top-class cultural relics.

About 6.5 cm in height and 15.6 cm in length, the vessel is made from one rare piece of natural red agate with white strips. Its narrower end is carved into the shape of an ox-like animal's head, while the other end is made into a ram's horn with a caliber of 5.9 cm.

The animal's head is vividly presented with wide-open eyes and depicted muscles, as if profiling the animal running in a freeze-frame.

Cheers to a drinking vessel that's brimming with culture

The mouth of the animal is made of gold, which also functions as the plug for the narrower end of the agate vessel. The two horns of the animal, which connect two ends of the vessel, cleverly function as the two handles.

"The vessel is unique both in terms of the material and its shape among drinking vessels in China," says Shen Qinyan, a researcher at Shaanxi History Museum. "But its kinship to rhyton can be seen from some Chinese and foreign stone inscriptions and relic decorations."

The rhyton, which originated in ancient Greece, is a horn-shaped drinking vessel with a draining hole at one end, while liquor is poured from the other end. People drank liquor from the draining hole with their chins up.

Rhytons were widespread in Central and West Asia. It is generally believed that rhyton ware was influenced by Chinese white spirit culture and drinking cups when it was introduced to China. The combination of rhyton ware and cups gave birth to the Animal Head Agate Vessel.

Experts are not in agreement about its maker. Some believe it was a gift dedicated to a Tang emperor from a neighboring country, while others claim it was an imitation made by a Chinese Tang craftsman.

"But one thing is certain - this article could only be used by nobles, since it is a symbol of fortune and high rank," Shen says.