This you, intended to hold fermented beverages, is unquestionably the most famous work in the Cernuschi Museum. The piece rests on the animal’s two hind paws and spiral tail. A feline, with an open mouth, holds a small human in a close embrace with its front paws. The prolific, almost baroque decoration, consisting of large animal motifs including numerous kui dragons, stands out against a background of square spirals, characteristic of the late Shang Era. The back of the animal, in the shape of an elephant protome, is particularly majestic. A horned caprid, with large ears, stands over the lid. The back of the handle is decorated with masks of animals with pointed ears and a curved trunk.
The archaeological context behind the discovery of this piece is unknown. However, an oral tradition places its origin in Hunan, at the foot of Mount Weishan, on the border between the Anhua and Ningxiang districts west of Changsha. Two elements make this “southern” origin plausible. The dark green bronze, nearly black, possesses a brilliance lacking among stripped vessels found in ancient collections kept by erudite people. This aspect, however, is found among pieces definitively discovered in Hunan. The zoomorphic you also seem to be characteristic of the work produced in this province, independent of the Shang Kingdom further north. Several centuries later, during the era of the Chu Kingdom (9th century – 223 B.C.), the cultural specificity of this region becomes even more evident.
The theme of a feline joined with a human figure, although present during the Shang Kingdom, is more common in the south. It could be linked to a legend described in the Zuozhuang, an ancient commentary in the Spring and Autumn Annals (8th – 5th century B.C.) which tells the story of the grandson of Ruoao, born in the Chu Kingdom, named Ziwen who as a baby was rescued and raised by a tigress. The calm expression on the person’s face and the confident manner in which his feet rest on the feline’s paws give credit to this explanation. This legend is part of the totemic narratives that establish the origins of many aristocratic clans, bringing together man and beast (Xiong, 1992) in a protective relationship or through a sexual union that leads to the birth of a mythical ancestor. It is, however, impossible to identify such an unusual iconography and the hypothesis sometimes advanced, that this depicts the sacrifice of a slave child, symbolising evil, cannot be completely discounted.
Vase You en forme de Félin
© Musée Cernuschi