Toward the middle of the second millennium B.C., using elaborately decorated ceramic piece molds, the Chinese began to cast superb bronze vessels of great technical sophistication and aesthetic refinement. They are among the masterpieces of ancient Chinese art. Large lidded vessels of this type, known as you, contained wine for use in rituals associated with ancestor worship. This example is of particular interest, since during the eighteenth century it was described and reproduced in the Xiqing gujian, a forty-volume catalogue of bronzes then in the collection of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-95).
The symbolic decoration on this vessel depicts the t'ao-t'ieh, a pattern for which there have been several explanations, none of which has been universally accepted. The cast inscription inside the cover indicates that the owner was of imperial rank.