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Gui pitcher: China’s prehistoric treasure

ZHAO YANJIAO | 2021-07-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS:  Two white ceramic gui pitchers respectively dated to the Dawenkou period (Left) and the Longshan period (Right)

When discussing pottery from the period of the Longshan Culture (c. 2500–2000 BCE), the first thing that usually comes to mind is eggshell pottery, which is praised as being “as thin as a piece of paper, as hard as porcelain, as bright as lacquer, which sounds like the note of a qing [stone chime used as a percussion instrument in ancient Chinese music].” Although Longshan ceramics were mostly black, a few unearthed ceramic artifacts exist in other colors, such as gray, terracotta, brown, and a rare white pottery made by heating kaolin to temperatures around 1,200 °C. Tripod ceramic vessels have also been found in various colors, though again, most of them are black. Interestingly, the precious white pottery was only found in the form of gui pitchers, a unique type of ceramic vessel.

Gui pitcher origins
The earliest discovery of the gui pitchers occurred at the Chengziya site in Shandong Province, a Neolithic site from the Longshan Culture period excavated in 1928. The gui pitcher is characterized by a flared neck pinched to form a long-pointed spout, a handle, and three hollow, bulbous legs that terminate in pointed feet. This peculiar ceramic vessel was named “gui” by archaeologists who found them at Chengziya, in accordance with the Han Dynasty dictionary Shuowen Jiezi. The term “gui” is an entry in the Shuowen Jiezi, described as a three-footed fu vessel (a type of cookware) with a handle and a beak-shaped spout. This description fits the unearthed tripod pitchers perfectly. Afterwards, various gui pitchers were unearthed from hundreds of archaeological sites across the country. These pitchers date back about 4,000 to 6,500 years ago. Because most unearthed gui pitchers date to the period of the Dawenkou Culture (c. 4500–2700 BCE), experts believe that these vessels originated in the Haidai region (which historically referred to the area between the Bo Sea and Mount Tai in Shandong Province), which was home to a succession of Neolithic cultures, particularly the Dawenkou Culture, although gui pitchers were found in many other areas throughout the country. 
Compared with other ceramics, gui pitchers are more sophisticated. For many years, they have been eye-catching due to their distinctive design. This design was gradually altered as it was used by ancient people, and the shape kept evolving as new elements were added.
In the early Neolithic Age, with the development of primitive agriculture and growing quotidian needs, people naturally required cookware and tableware similar to today’s counterparts. At the Xihe Site, an archaeological site near Chengziya, archaeologists found a fu pottery vessel dating back to about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. It was a round-bottomed vessel. Experts speculate that this fu vessel might be modeled after the shape of a cooking utensil made from a plant, such as a water scoop made from a gourd. Plant vessels were imitated and replaced by ceramics, because ceramics were harder and could be placed directly on fire without fear of cracking. But there was a problem—these round-bottomed utensils were difficult to balance on even surfaces. Therefore, people began holding the fu vessels in place by placing three stones directly underneath. Discovering the stability of a triangle and applying it to the use of pottery was undoubtedly a great improvement made by our ancestors.
However, the irregular shapes of stones still did not offer enough stability. So, primitive people crafted three regular holders to keep the cooking vessels in place. Another adaptation came when they attached three legs directly to their cookware in order to avoid the trouble of repositioning the holders every time they cooked. The “three-legged” design not only took into account the practical need to support the vessel, but also reflected ancient people’s superb craftsmanship, with precise distances between the feet. After solving the problems of stability and heating, a handle was added to prevent scalding when heating the food. It was believed that primitive people further improved this cookware by stretching and pinching the neck of the vessel to form a pointed spout to avoid spills. In the later development of gui pitchers, in order to improve their thermal efficiency, sometimes the three legs were turned from “solid” to “hollow,” which were known as daizu (literally known as pocket leg, indicating that the inside part of the three legs became part of the interior of the completed vessel). This change not only expanded the volume of the vessel, but also formed a larger surface area for transferring heat to the contents, speeding up the boiling process, killing two birds with one stone. The magnificent transformation from fu to gui pottery was most likely completed during the Dawenkou period.
Bird worship
During the Longshan period, the ceramic industry made a qualitative leap forward due to the maturity and prevalence of new fast-wheel technology. Many ceramic artifacts were neatly shaped, and some had been polished many times. A white pottery gui pitcher excavated from the Chengziya site, dated to the Longshan period, was made from kaolin. It resembles a bird gazing up to the sky, ready to fly. Experts believe that this animal-shaped design was associated with bird worship unique to the Haidai region. 
Worship of birds was common to ancient Dongyi tribes (the local people in the eastern part of China in antiquity) who lived in the Haidai region. Scholars have advanced two theories for the emergence of bird worship: “fertility worship” and “phenological worship.” Considering Haidai’s proximity to the sea, and the primitive development of agriculture, the worship of birds (mostly migratory birds) by the ancient Dongyi people might originate from the need for guiding agricultural production. Bird worship was completely integrated into Dongyi people’s lives. It’s no surprise that they made pottery shaped like birds.
Gao Guangren and Shao Wangping, two Chinese archaeologists, collected information about gui pitchers unearthed prior to the 1980s. They systematically sorted and collated information on the gui pitchers. Both scholars pointed out that more than 5,000 years ago, gui pitchers were exclusive to the Haidai region, which at that time was dominated by the Dawenkou Culture. Later, through interactions and communications with surrounding cultures for over a thousand years, gui pitchers were finally adopted and transformed by those other cultures. At that point, this ceramic style was no longer a “local product” of the Haidai region. It is particularly worth mentioning that even today when archaeological materials are so abundant, such peculiar ceramic designs have not been found in any area except China. In this sense, gui pitchers can be regarded as a unique element of Chinese prehistoric culture. After the Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE), Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE), and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties, bronzeware became the core of the ritual and music culture (liyue wenhua), and hé, three-legged bronze vessels derived from gui pitchers, were used to serve liquor and became important to rituals in the Shang and Zhou dynasties.
Zhao Yanjiao is an associate research fellow from the Institute of History at the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences.