Wine cup with ring handle, birds, animals, and grape vines
Although silver was sometimes inlaid on ancient bronzes, Chinese metalworkers only started producing vessels wholly using silver and gold during the Tang dynasty, after pieces and techniques were introduced by Central Asian traders. Metalwork in the Sasasian style transited through Sogdiana, and fostered the birth of a new tradition of metalworking in China.
The types of functional vessels produced in China were similar to earlier Central Asian models in shape and style. This cup, in particular, is closely related to a Sogdian example. It preserves the original fluted body and foot, while the thumb rest on the handle is replaced by an ornamental leaf design. Metalwork shapes and styles also had a significant impact on Chinese ceramics of this and later periods. Its similarity with gold and silver vessels excavated from the hoard at Hejiacun in Xi’an, which are widely regarded as Chinese works in the style of Sogdian silver, place it within the wider trend of Chinese adoption of Sogdian and Sasanian decorative language in the eighth century (Hansen 2003).
The main motifs consist of long vine tendrils producing grapes and leaves, interlacing with various types of birds and hares. The top and bottom sections feature vine scrolls, while the interior of the cup is lined with an undecorated layer of silver to give it a polished, finished look. Lines of decoration are chased into the surface of the metal, and contrast is created between closely hatched background lines and plain shiny areas for the animal and plant designs. The animals, as well as the handle, are mercury gilded while the vines retain their silver sheen.
The imagery suggests that it was used for drinking wine. Sogdiana has a climate that is particularly suited to grape cultivation, and wines made from fermented grapes were introduced in China during the early Tang dynasty (Valenstein 2014, 15-16). Grapes were also cultivated in the Chinese protectorates of Gaochang and Gansu.
In the Tang dynasty, grapevine motifs were also used to decorate bronze mirrors (Fig.2). It is possible that this pattern was transmitted to China by way of objects produced in Rome, since similar pieces of Roman origin were found in the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Shanxi (Juliano et al. 2001, 323-4). Tendrils and grapevines also feature prominently on a gilt bronze cup dated to the fifth century, believed to be either eastern Roman or a replica of such a model (Fig.3). It is questionable that Chinese owners of these objects would have known that their motifs originated further west than Central Asia. To them, the decoration was probably seen as exotic, associated with indistinct western lands of which the Sogdians were the best-known representatives. Perhaps this is why this design was chosen to adorn a cup whose shape was directly inspired by Sogdian models. This cup not only constitutes a prime example of Chinese metalwork, but also demonstrates the prestige associated with objects and symbols coming from the western regions.
Hansen, Valerie. 2003. “The Hejia Village Hoard: A Snapshot of China’s Silk Road Trade.” Orientations 34 (2): 14–19.
Juliano, Annette L, Judith A Lerner, Michael Alram, Asia Society, Asia Society, Museum, and Norton Museum of Art. 2001. Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia 4th-7th Century. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams with the Asia Society.
Valenstein, Suzanne. 2014. Cosmopolitanism in the Tang Dynasty: A Chinese Ceramic Figure of a Sogdian Wine Merchant. Los Angeles: Bridge 21 Publications.
Early Tang dynasty, late 7th century
Additional Research Metadata
Freer Gallery of Art F1930.51