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Pen, The Origins of the Shallow Tray

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By Robert J. Baran, USA

"This article was first published by Robert Baran at www.phoenixbonsai.com. For more of his articles we suggest visiting this excellent web site."

From seven or eight thousand years ago and crafted in fishing settlements along the southern coast of what is today mainland China comes the earliest pottery currently known to us from there. Bowls and large-globular jars were made from a thick gritty clay.

Beautifully painted red earthenware pottery, some later pieces showing clear evidence of having been turned on the potter's wheel, was made by this Yangshao [Yang-hsiao] culture. Two types of bowls were among the varied forms produced: the thin-walled bo basin with a straight mouth, and the wider and footed pen bowl [aka pan or p'an or p'un].1

late 6th-5th millenium B.C.E.

(Source: Lee, Sherman China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 114)

Red earthenware basin with black pigment human head and fish designs. 39.5 cm D x 15.5 cm H. Neolithic period, late 6th-5th millenium B.C.E. , Banpo type. Unearthed in 1955.


3200-2700 B.C.E.

(Source: Valenstein, Suzanne G. A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics (NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1975, 1989), B&w Fig. 4 and pg. 6)

Earthenware basin with painted decoration. 27.9 cm D. Neolithic period, c. 3200-2700 B.C.E. Majiayao Yangshao culture, Majiayao phase.


Pottery Prototype

Pottery Prototype

Early Shang

Early Shang


SHANG (16th - 11th cent. B.C.E.)

The Bronze Age contained the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The former, primarily in modern day Henan, Hebei and Shandong provinces, is the first completely scientifically verifiable Chinese dynasty, alternately dated 1766-1122 B.C.E.

Now, with the production of bronze -- an alloy of copper and tin, or copper and certain other metals -- life took on more sophistication. Tin-copper bronzes were 14 to 20% tin; tin-copper-lead bronzes were 1 to 18% lead; copper-lead bronzes could be 30% or more lead. These latter seem to be more prominent in burial caches: perhaps cheaper lead was substituted for tin in bronzes, whether weapons or vessels, destined merely to be buried. (In the course of time many of these bronzes -- originally somewhat shiny, moderate yellowish-brown -- have acquired a beautiful patina, much valued by connoisseurs, which ranges from malachite green and kingfisher blue to yellow or even red, according to the composition of the metal and the conditions under which the vessel was buried. Forgers have gone to enormous trouble to imitate these effects. Copies can sometimes be discovered by metallurgical analysis which shows an uncharacteristic blend of metals for the claimed period of origin.)

Bronze vessels made possible more civilized ways and means of preparing food, and laid the foundation for an elaborate system of etiquette and ceremonial rituals. These became an important part of life for the ancient Shang rulers and aristocracy. All the known major weapons had their cutting or piercing parts made of bronze. The metal was not widely used for agricultural implements. Bronze vessels and weapons were among the symbolic gifts bestowed upon a royal relative sent by the king to his own land to establish his own town and political domain. When the provincial lineages became further segmented, the bronzes were again a part of the gifts handed down the aristocratic line. They were both associated with rituals for ancestor worship and, as objects of precious materials that could only be acquired by those in control of vast technological and political machinery, they were suitable as symbols for sumptuary rule.

The large-scale production of such technologically sophisticated bronzes must have required multistage operations by many kinds of specialists, who must have been organized and supervised by the state. The production of bronze -- from mining, ingot smelting, transportation to foundries and workshops, guarding of the transportation routes, creation of the section-molds for casting, etc. -- depended on the presence of a social order with sufficient organization and force to generate and replenish the required reservoir of forced labor. Bronze products, hence, assumed the role of symbols of that order and then came to reinforce it.

These ritual bronzes, acting as a kind of "collection plate," were made for the offerings of food and wine to ancestral spirits which formed the core of the sacrificial rites. Symbolizing the legitimacy of the aristocratic rule of chosen groups of kin, the bronzes were then buried with nobles, whose spirits were assumed to continue with the same sort of rituals after death.

Pen basins attributable to the Shang dynasty are rare, and they appear to belong to the end of the dynasty.2

12th - 11th cent.  B.C.E.

(Source: Pope, John Alexander et al The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Vol. I Catalogue (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Publication 4706; 1967), Plate 3, pp. 34-35.)

12.3 cm H; 32.4 cm W; 5.3 kg. Shang (Late Anyang, 12th - 11th cent. B.C.E.)


Same Piece?

(Source: China's Buried Kingdoms (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books; 1993) pg. 35 with color photo and Picture Credit on pg. 160. "Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 56.26)

Same Piece? 12.1 cm H; 32.5 cm W. 12th to 11th cent. B.C.E.


Early Shang

(Source: Lee, Sherman China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 29, also pg. 78)

Pen with coiling dragon design whose three-dimensional head rises most convincingly from its two-dimensional snake-like body. 61.6 cm D x 26 cm H. Unearthed in 1984 Wenling, Zhejiang Province. Shang Period (c. 1600-1100 B.C.E.)


Late Shang

Late Shang

Early Zhou

Early Zhou


ZHOU (late 11th cent. - 221 B.C.E.)

During these first centuries of the historical age, there was actually no such people as "the Chinese." There were instead several kinds of kindred stock and common culture loosely united in a political and religious federation. There were also other states, apparently of equal culture and certainly not of very different race, which were outside this federation. Each of these peoples/states were groups of related tribes.

The first known Chinese dictionary was produced around 1100 B.C.E. The three-radical character pen was listed as a shallow basin or large, flat, low-rimmed bowl.

For perhaps a century after the Zhou conquest, the Shang bronze style survived, particularly in the Luoyang region of northern Henan province. It became increasingly modified by the taste of the Zhou court. Gradually, once popular Shang shapes disappeared, the range of wine vessels decreased, and religious overtones vanished. The bronze vessels -- now about FIFTY types -- generally have thinner walls compared to the Shang versions. The pen water bowl became more common. It was used for ablutions or, possibly, even to hold fruit. A frequent scheme of decoration on the early pen consists of a fish and a large serpentine dragon coiled in the center of the bowl. Both of these are appropriate to a water holder and this motif appears to have persisted into the eighth or early seventh century B.C.E . Early Zhou pen also have loop handles. In the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. they have three small feet below the foot-rim. Both foot-rim and tripod pen were made in the south beginning about 500 B.C.E. , and are often decorated with the fully modelled dragons which were then fashionable for the best bronzes.

The inscriptions were markedly longer than those of the late Shang and had become veritable documents. One particular pen bowl records events relating to the first kings of the Western Zhou dynasty and the history of the Wei family. The basin with an inscription of 284 characters was uncovered in 1976 in Shaanxi Province. The maker of this vessel, who may have been court historian to the seventh Zhou king, names the first six kings in order and praises each for his notable deeds. He then traces his own descent from a Shang vassal state.

Bronzes of this period tended to be more coarsely modelled, shapes were heavier, flanges large and spiky, the vessels more treasured by later Chinese connoisseurs for their inscriptions than for any beauty of form. No other age or culture has ever equalled the craftsmanship and artistry of the finest Zhou bronzes. Given the probable absolute increase in the number of metal vessels being put into circulation, bronzes of this period have to shout to be noticed; they have to be exceptionally large, or else they have to resort to devices such as inlay with copper, gold, or silver wire and other precious materials, since the meaning of bronze itself has undergone a transformation. Bronze, still the major metal of this culture, was now merely one kind of luxury among others, and not, as in the Shang and Western Zhou (late 11th cent. - 770 B.C.E. ) periods, as a uniquely privileged bearer of cultural meanings and prestige.3

Storage Pit No. 1 at Zhuangbo

(Source: The Great Bronze Age of China, B&w Fig. 78, pp. 242, 241)

A pen (right of center) in Storage Pit No. 1 at Zhuangbo, Fufeng, west of Xian. The pit contained a total of 103 bronzes, of which 74 were inscribed; many bear what seems to be the clan sign of a single family. The bronzes from the pit span virtually the entire Western Zhou period, so that some of them were heirlooms already centuries old when they were interred. The contents of this one hoard would probably suffice to write the history of the Western Zhou bronze vessels.


Eastern Zhou (7th cent.  B.C.E.)

(Source: Pope, John Alexander et al The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Vol. I Catalogue (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Publication 4706; 1967), Plate 82, pp. 448-449.)

15.0 cm H; 42.3 cm W; 5.19 kg. Eastern Zhou (7th cent. B.C.E.)


Chunqiu period

(Source: Akiyama, Terukazu et al Arts of China, Neolithic Cultures to the T'ang Dynasty Recent Discoveries (Tokyo: Kodansha International; 1968), Fig. 62 a,b, pg. 44)

14.2 cm H; 34.5 cm D. Chunqiu period (Spring and Autumn Annals, 770 - 476 B.C.E.)


Gallery Of Unusual Forms Of Pen

Guo Ji Zi Bai Pen

(Source: http://www.jademall.com/a_history/003/3-5.htm )

Guo Ji Zi Bai Pen water container of Western Zhou. 137.2 cm L; 86.5 cm W; 39.5 cm H; 215.3 kg. Unearthed in Baoji, Shaanxi Province. On the inside bottom of the pen is an inscription of 110 characters. Their location sugests that only those persons authorized to be using the vessel could see the characters. It is the biggest bronze ware of the Shang-Zhou period discovered so far.


Unique shallow basin

(Source: The Great Bronze Age of China, Color Plate 65, pp. 272, 265)

Useful nowadays for bringing trees to shows? A unique shallow basin on three wheels of Eastern Zhou (6th - 5th century B.C.E.). Excavated in 1957, Yancheng, Wujin, Jiangsu Province. 15.8 cm H; 26 cm D; 1.65 kg. No other bronze vessel known alludes in shape to a vehicle. Such a bold invention was possible only in regional workshops where local peculiarities could still express themselves unhampered by an established metropolitan tradition. The casting is relatively crude and the surface decoration on the bowl is carelessly and irregularly stamped. (And why is this particular ancient bronze currently bronze in color? Was it refurbished between excavation and photograph or was it somehow uniquely preserved during its nearly twenty-five centuries out of sight?)



(Source: The Great Bronze Age of China, B&w Fig. 89, pp. 258, 257; Clunas, Craig Art in China, pp. 25-27, Fig. 5; China's Buried Kingdoms, Time-Life Books, 1993, pp. 47, 48 with color photo)

A zun (wide pitcher) with matching pen from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng at Sui Xian, Hubei province, dating to around 433 B.C.E. This extraordinary and rare set is characterized by decoration with an unsurpassed emphasis on energetic writhing forms, deeply undercut to produce a teeming surface. Decorative details made by the lost-wax technique were fastened to the main body of the object, cast in a removable mold. The piece is one of the earliest known examples of casting with the lost-art process in ancient China, predating by 200 years the previously assumbed date for the method. Both virtuoso pieces of casting, these bronzes have surfaces upon which appear to writhe dragons and tigers among a forest of tightly packed scrolls. The enormous tomb, measuring 68 feet long and 54 feet wide, was divided into four wooden chambers -- suggesting the rooms of a palace -- and contained 15,404 relics. Among its treasures were bronze zoomorphic figures and sacrificial vessels of exceptional design; ornamental pieces of jade, bowls, cups, spoons and buckles of gold; wood and bamboo lacquerware; and an array of weapons and musical instruments. Eight sacrificed female attendants and a dog were with the marquis, and an adjacent chamber contained thirteen other females, some of them at least the very musicians who had served their master in life. They were excavated in 1978.


Rectangular pen

(Source: Lee, Sherman China 5,000 Years, Innovation and Transformation in the Arts (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), Plate 48, also pg. 81)

Rectangular pen with turtle, fish, and interlacing dragon design on the exterior and interior. 73.2 cm L x 22.5 cm H x 45.2 cm W Eastern Zhou, Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E. )


Pen bowl

(Source: Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye A Journey Through Ancient China (New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 84 )

Pen bowl inside which, on a small column, there is an eagle ready to take flight. 46.8 cm H, 60 cm Diameter 4th century B.C.E.


The Pen As A Holder Of Worlds

The allusions to an island-mountain in the sea refer to the Three Isles of the Blessed: Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. The legendary Chinese Immortals (hermits of perennial youth) were thought to live partly in the Western Mountains and partly on movable islands in the Eastern Sea off the coast of Shandong. Like the Immortals themselves, these islands dissolved into mist as human travellers approached.

The mountainous island of Penglai came to be symbolized by small temple landscapes. By reproducing in miniature on a tray (for integrity, ease of transport, and holding of water) a realm of such religious significance, the people of earlier days gave expression to their longings for their idealized kingdom. And from trees, lichens, moss, etc. growing on these tiny mountain slopes came independent dwarf potted trees?

A second explanation traces the origins of miniature landscapes to plants raised in pots for medicinal purposes. Plants have always played an important role in Chinese medicine, so it is easy to imagine that sooner or later someone would decide to grow plants in pots readily at hand rather than have to constantly go out to look for them. After a few seasons containerized, most plants would have shown at least some degree of growth slow down and/or leaf-size reduction. Such plants, continuously trimmed, would eventually take on such a pleasing appearance that they would begin to be raised for ornamental purposes.

Perhaps a rock with a natural dwarfed tree growing out of it was dug up -- or a section of rock with a plant growing in it was broken off a larger stone -- and then brought back to a garden. There the wondrous little plant was cared for, and searches were made for other natural rock plants. Windblown seed might also have rooted and taken hold in a pocket of a larger rockery in a garden. Then someone decided to make one for himself, possibly using post-mortem information from a natural rock tree which had died and which, amazingly, was found to have grown and lived with its roots only in a paper-thin crack or tiny hollow within the rock. Such cramped quarters could be duplicated or improved upon in a flattened bowl, a pen, which already served to hold a small piece of mountain.

detail from the wall mural detail from the wall mural detail from the wall mural

Courtiers and Guests (c. 706 C.E. ), detail from the wall mural on a corridor leading to the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai at Qianling.


Water basin

(Source: Han, Prof. Pao-Teh External Forms and Internal Visions, The Story of Chinese Landscape Design (Taipei: Youth Cultural Enterprise Co., Ltd.; 1992), pg. 92)
(Stein, pg. 38, b&w Fig. 19, and pg. 40 refers to this as a polychrome ceramic inkwell that formed part of a model of a house found in a tomb from Shensi and now is in the Sian Museum. He cites his source as a 1972 work. from Peking.)

Water basin with an exotic mountainscape as backdrop. Polychrome earthenware, Tang dynasty (618 - 907). This was perhaps the earliest physical model of an artificial hill and water pond in the history of Chinese landscaped gardens.


Cognizant of their true scale in and communication with Heaven and Earth, certain sages may have begun to collect and later actually make powerful concentrated representations of this relationship so as to demonstrate and maintain the balance of creation. The utilitarian vessel which had been assigned the task of holding offerings to Heaven (or at least the water to properly cleanse oneself beforehand) was then eventually employed to define the limits of these magical miniature landscapes.

Note: At this time, we do not yet have a continuous sequence of containers from other-purpose bronze/earthenware trays which may have been employed to hold the first magical miniature landscapes, to trays specifically designed for use this way (and without a foot?), to [possibly] standard flower pots, to containers specifically created for dwarf potted living landscapes (with or without corner feet).


1 Note: All references herein to the water basin have been standardized using the spelling of "pen."

Wood, Frances A Companion to China (New York: St. Martin's Press; 1988), pp. 52-53;

Fitzgerald, C.P. China, A Short Cultural History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1985), pp. 18-20, 34-36;

The four line drawings of the development of pen are from Fig. 1 by Phyllis Ward in The Great Bronze Age of China, edited by Wen Fong (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1980), pp. 4-5;

Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye (A Journey Through Ancient China ;New York:Gallery Books; 1985), pp. 9, 11-12, 18-23, picture of bo on pg. 22 -- it seems to be only a linguistic coincidence that the pen (or pan) and bo were used in Banpo [Pan-p'o], the most famous and representative site which we know of from this time, a ditch-encircled twelve-acre village lasting from 5000 to 3000 B.C.E. This was located at a spot that would eventually see a series of ever-larger settlements, culminating with the present day city of Xian;

Per The Chinese Exhibition, The Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China (Kansas City, MO: Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum; 1975), pg. 14, the site was excavated between 1954 and 1957;

Scarre, Chris (editor-in-chief), Smithsonian Timelines of the Ancient World (London: Darling Kindersley, Inc.; 1993, First American edition), pp. 70, 73, 77-79, 88-90;

Per "Chinese put relics' age at 7,000 years,"The Arizona Republic, November 8, 1986, pg. A19, Dateline Peking, United Press International, evidence has been mounting for another civilization, the Liangzhu in southern Zhejiang province's Taihu Lake Valley region. Lasting from perhaps 5,000 to 2,000 B.C.E. , it was agriculturally based, developed experience working jade, silk, pottery, and bamboo-weaving, and had its own written language. We need to remember that the fossil evidence of human beings in China extends back some four hundred thousand years. It would be a terrible conceit on our part to assume that no civilization of any kind existed until the last tenth of that period just because we currently do not know of or recognize any evidence of earlier civilizations. Archaeological finds are continually being discovered, evaluated and re-interpreted.

Going back to the misty origins of this art, we actually have only very sketchy and incomplete details about the lives of the ancient people mentioned herein. Many gaps have been filled based on conjecture and comparison with more recent lives. Those earlier peoples experienced their world in fundamentally different ways six millennia ago -- or even those of four or two thousand years past -- than we do today. We must be careful of thinking we can really understand their concrete lives and abstract thoughts. Their tools which have been discovered by archaeologists may have a recognizable purpose that most can agree upon, but rare are the preserved dreams and beliefs of our ancestors who may have been eminently successful in nontechnological ways. For example, see The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.; 1994).

2 Fitzgerald, pp. 15, 16, 21, 23, 28, 42-43, 116; Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China (Berkeley: University of California Press; 1984), pp. 14, 22-24, 31; Fong, pp. 45-47; Wood, pp. 53-55; Chu, Arthur and Grace Chu Oriental Antiques and Collectibles, A Guide (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.; 1973), pg. 15; Wu, Yee-Sun Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants (Hong Kong: Wing-Lung Bank Ltd.; 1969, 1974. Second edition), pg. 62; Koreshoff, Deborah R. Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984), pg. 2; Jellicoe, Sir Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe (consult. eds.) and Patrick Goode and Michael Lancaster (exec. eds.) The Oxford Companion to Gardens (Oxford University Press, 1986), pg. 111; Liang, Amy The Living Art of Bonsai (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1992), pg. 98; Chiu, Milton M. The Tao of Chinese Religion (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.; 1984), pp. 2, 56-67; The Chinese Exhibition gives two examples of bronze pen from this time, both decorated with the kuei dragon design: B&w Plate 73 is of a vessel dating from the 16th to 11th centuries B.C.E. from Henan province, 10.5 cm high and 30 cm in diameter, and B&w Plate 103 is from 11th century B.C.E. Anhui province, 9.4 cm high and 31.6 cm in diameter; other bronze pen from the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.E. are in Watson, William Ancient Chinese Bronzes (London: Faber and Faber; 1962, 1977, Second edition), b&w fig. 26 a,b, 26c, and 27b, text on pp. 45-46, 111.

3 Fitzgerald, pp. 15, 16, 21, 23, 28, 42-43, 116; Sullivan, pp. 14, 22-24, 31; Wood, pp. 53-55; Chu, pg. 15; Watson, pg. 45-46; Henricks, pg. 194; Fong, pg. 198; The Chinese Exhibition, pg. xiv; Clunas, Craig Art in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1997), pp. 27; per Clunas Superfluous Things, Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press; 1991. Paperback edition 2004), pg. 95, "But it was in the Song period (960-1279) that a culture driven by a revivified and systematized Confucianism elevated ancient bronzes to a pinnacle of esteem from which they were never to descend.

"The earliest extant work to be devoted to archaic bronzes is the Kao gu tu, Researches on Archaeology Illustrated of 1092, containing 211 vessels from both the palace collections and the collections of some thirty private individuals. The catalogue entries for each piece show a rubbing and deciphering of the inscription, together with its shape, weight and provenance. It further set up the system of classification of bronzes by period which was to be used by the majority of post-Song compilers."; Wu, 2nd, pg. 62; Koreshoff, pg. 2; Jellicoe, pg. 111; Keswick, Maggie (Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture ; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; 1978), pp. 31-33; Liang, pg. 98; Chiu, pp. 2, 56-67.


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