The Chinese sage Confucius (551-478 B.C.E.) greatly esteemed the founders of the Zhou Dynasty, who lived five hundred years before. This is reflected in several of his sayings, including, "How weak I have become. For a long time I have not dreamed about the Duke of Zhou."
In 1046 B.C.E., the Zhou clan, led by their king Wu, had overthrown the corrupted Shang Dynasty and took power. When King Wu died only three years later, his brother, the Duke of Zhou, preserved the Zhou kingdom until his young nephew, Wu's son, reached maturity and could assume responsibility as King Cheng.
Bronze vessels in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art are a link back to the early Zhou Dynasty. The vessel pictured at left was acquired by the Freer Gallery in 1930 and has almost matching inscriptions inside the cover and on the bottom. Because the inscriptions record that the vessel was cast for Nie Ling, a Maker of Books at the royal court of King Cheng, and mention services performed by Nie Ling for the Duke of Zhou's son, the vessel is sometimes called the Ling yi. Edward L. Shaughnessy's Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels notes that
"the inscription on the Ling yi immediately attracted the interest of Chinese paleographers, sparking a debate that led in great measure to the development of the periodization methodology in use today. On the one hand, mention of the famous Duke of Zhou, fourth son of King Wen (r. 1099/56-1050) and interim head of state after the sudden death of his elder brother King Wu (r. 1049/45 – 1043), suggested to some scholars that this vessel must date to the beginning of the dynasty, probably to the reign of King Cheng (r. 1042/35-1006). On the other hand, other scholars have argued that the vessel must have been cast at least two generations later, during the reign of King Zhao (r. 977/75-957), since the inscription commemorates certain ritual activity taking place in a 'Kang gong', presumably a temple dedicated to the then-deceased fourth king of the dynasty, King Kang (r. 1005/3-978). Because of the important role this debate has played in the history of Western Zhou bronze studies, and because the debate, which still simmers, influences the periodization of a wide range of other early Western Zhou bronzes, it seems appropriate here to review the main issues …"
Another bronze vessel in the Freer collection with links to the early Zhou is the Taibao gui. The inscription on this vessel commemorates the role of the elder half brother of King Wu and the Duke of Zhou, the Grand Protector or Taibao, in helping to suppress a rebellion against the newly established Zhou Dynasty.
The Freer-Sackler Library contains many useful resources for research on Chinese bronzes and inscriptions on them. For example, the multivolume set Jin Wen Zong Ji reproduces inscriptions from bronzes at the Freer and other museums around the world. These resources are all available for public use at the Library.
Images, top to bottom: The Ling yi, Lid of the Ling yi with inscription, The Taibao gui
Pope, John Alexander, Rutherford John Gettens, James Cahill, and Noel Barnard. The Freer Chinese Bronzes, Volume 1 Catalogue. Washington, D.C.: The Freer Gallery of Art, 1967.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. "The Role of Grand Protector Shi in the Consolidation of the Zhou Conquest," Ars Orientalis 19 (1989): 51-77.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. Sources of Western Zhou History: Inscribed Bronze Vessels. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.