Empress Wu performed the ritual with the ding for her mother-后母戊鼎祭母


The Shang Dynasty was conquered by the Zhou Dynasty, and the Yin ruins were destroyed, turning into ruins. Over three thousand years later, in modern times, extensive excavations in the area of Xiaotun Village in Anyang revealed a large number of ancient artifacts, including many turtle shells and animal bones inscribed with characters, which are known as oracle bones. Through deciphering oracle bone inscriptions, people learned that this area was once the site where Pan Geng moved the capital, and it was named “Yinxu.” This discovery also confirmed the existence of the Shang Dynasty, advancing our documented historical knowledge to the Shang period.

The unearthed artifacts from Yinxu provide modern people with insights into the social development of the middle and later periods of the Shang Dynasty. This includes a vast array of bronze artifacts, encompassing various daily utensils, ceremonial vessels, and weapons, showcasing a diverse range of types and exquisite craftsmanship. The development of bronze metallurgy indicates that humans had become adept at extracting metal from ores to manufacture tools, transforming nature. This not only signifies the progress of productivity but also reflects advancements in science and technology. The flourishing bronze industry led to the emergence of new handicrafts, contributing to the prosperity of various industries. Due to the development of the bronze industry, the Shang Dynasty created a brilliant bronze civilization. Notably, artifacts like the Houmu Wu large tripod appeared, reaching a pinnacle in Shang Dynasty bronze culture.

In ancient China, ding (tripod) initially served as a cooking vessel, equivalent to a modern pot, used for simmering and holding fish and meat. In the New Stone Age, China already had bronze artifacts. However, it was not until the Shang and Western Zhou periods, especially during the Shang Dynasty, that bronze culture, represented by tripods, truly reached its peak and was crafted into vessels for sacrificial rituals. With advancements in smelting technology and productivity, bronze tripods were created. Legend has it that in ancient times, after the Yellow Emperor and Yan Emperor merged to defeat Chiyou, they cast three tripods, symbolizing the unity of heaven, earth, and humanity. Emperor Yu collected metals from the nine regions and cast nine tripods beneath Mount Jing, symbolizing the nine provinces, adorned with images of demons to constantly alert people and prevent harm. Consequently, depictions on tripods were believed to have a warding-off-evil effect. To emphasize the solemnity of laws, legal texts were sometimes engraved on tripods.

Since the legend of Yu casting the Nine Tripods, tripods have acquired a mysterious and dignified significance, evolving from ordinary cookware to sacred “ritual vessels,” becoming treasures symbolizing the state. Tripods represented the political power of a nation. With each change of dynasty, the new monarch’s first task was to cast a tripod, promulgate laws, and pray for auspiciousness, symbolizing a new beginning. Therefore, dynastic changes were also called “dingge” (casting a tripod), and establishing a capital or founding a dynasty was called “dingding” (setting a tripod). The “Zuo Zhuan” records, “Jie had a corrupt virtue, and the tripod moved to Shang; Shang was tyrannical, and the tripod moved to Zhou.” When a state fell, the tripod relocated—after the Xia Dynasty was conquered by the Shang Dynasty, the nine tripods moved to the Shang capital, Bo. After the Shang Dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, the nine tripods moved to the Zhou capital, Hao.

In people’s perception, tripods also symbolized status and power. Ancient texts describe systems like “nine tripods for the Son of Heaven, seven tripods for the feudal lords, five tripods for the great ministers, three tripods for the lower officials, or one tripod for ordinary scholars.”

Furthermore, tripods were used to commend achievements. During significant ceremonies or when granting rewards to royal and ministerial officials, tripods were cast to extol merits and record grand occasions.

In modern Chinese, the character “鼎” (ding) has also taken on metaphorical meanings such as “prominent,” “honorable,” and “grand.” For example, expressions like “一言九鼎” (one word carries nine tripods), “大名鼎鼎” (renowned and illustrious), “鼎盛时期” (a period of great prosperity), and “鼎力相助” (mutual support) use the term “鼎” (ding).

According to research, during the Shang and Zhou periods, bronze tripods were the most significant ritual vessels, with the Houmu Wu large tripod being the most famous royal artifact from this period.

The Houmu Wu large tripod was unearthed from the tomb in the Houjiazhuang village of Yinxu, Anyang, Henan province. It represents the pinnacle of Shang Dynasty bronze culture, as evidenced by the inscription “后母戊” (Houmu Wu) on the inner wall of the tripod. It is named after this inscription. The Houmu Wu large tripod, due to its enormous size and exquisite craftsmanship, is hailed as the “crown jewel” of bronze artifacts. It is the largest and heaviest bronze artifact excavated so far, and it is a rare and precious cultural relic globally.

Apart from its impressive size and weight, the decorative patterns on the large tripod are beautiful, intricate, and dignified, showcasing exceptional craftsmanship and adding to its value. The square sections on all four sides of the tripod have blank surfaces, and the rest of the areas are adorned with various patterns. Intricate cloud and thunder patterns cover the entire surface, each section featuring unique designs. The four sides of the tripod bear intricate coiled dragon and taotie (mythical animal) patterns. Taotie is a mythical creature resembling a composite of tiger, cow, and sheep, created through artistic exaggeration. It is said that taotie is a delicious wild beast, and using its image to decorate bronze vessels signifies good fortune and abundance. The junctions on the tripod’s body are embellished with door-edges, above which are ox heads and below are taotie. The outer edges of the tripod’s ears are carved with two opposing fierce tigers, their heads wrapping around the upper part of the ears, with open mouths biting a human head, creating an image known as the tiger devouring a human head pattern. Using such a fearsome image as decoration creates a terrifying atmosphere, evoking a sense of spiritual oppression and emphasizing the supreme authority of the ruling class. The four tripod legs feature cicada patterns with clear lines, and above the cicada patterns are beast faces, showcasing unique craftsmanship while enhancing the majestic and solemn feel of the large tripod.

Generally, it is believed that this tripod was cast to commemorate the king’s mother, who is referred to as “母戊” (Mu Wu). However, who exactly “母戊” (Mu Wu) refers to is a subject of debate. Generally, it is believed that this tripod was cast by the son of King Wu Ding in memory of his mother. Therefore, this large tripod was likely cast by either Zugen or Zujia, and based on this speculation, Mu Wu is assumed to be one of the wives of King Wu Ding.

Fu Hao was one of the numerous wives of King Wu