The "Min er quan" Fanglei

Shang Dynasty (1600BC-1046BC)
Unearthed in 1919 at Maoshanyu, Shuitian Village, Taoyuan County, Hunan Province. 
Total height: 88cm; length of mouth: 26.1cm; width of mouth: 21.6cm 

On the lid carved an eight-word inscription: 皿而全作父己尊彝(皿:family name of the owner, 而全:given name of the owner, 己: posthumous name of the owner’s father, 尊彝:wine vessel )while on the jar body is an six-word inscription: 皿作父己尊彝. Featured with varied carving techniques, the container impressed people with its elegance and solemnity and was thus hailed as “King of all fangleis”. It was also considered a representative work of Shang Dynasty, the peak of Chinese bronze culture. Since its excavation in 1919, the body of the vessel had been separated from its lid for nearly a century until 2014,when it was brought from overseas and reunited with the other part. The whole antique is now collected in the Hunan Museum. 

Inscription inside of the lid and its rubbing


Further Exploration 



According to the recording of Taoyuan History During 1912-1949 (local historical materials), the Min Fanglei was unearthed in 1919 at Maoshanyu, Shuitian Village (name of the place underwent several changes due to administrative alternations, and has been settled as Maoshanyu, Qi Fengshan Village, Jiaqiao County since 2011. ) After field investigation, experts thought the excavation spot is located at the slope of Shanyuan Mountain, at the foot of which lies the residence of Ai Qingyan brothers (who no longer live in it now). The discovery coincides with a report in Changsha Ta Kung Pao(one of the most influential newspapers once released in China) in 1925, which reported that a local man dug out a vessel near the house of Ai Xinzhai (the son of Ai Qingyan). Local elders recalled that Ai Xinzhai found part of the bronze container protruding out of the ground when he gathered fertilizers down the slope. He told his father about his finding, who soon came over and dug it out.
Taoyuan History During 1912-1949

Shanwo Mountain, Maoshanyu Group, Qi Fengshan Village, Jiaqiao County

Former residence of Ai Xinzhai brothers (sons of Ai Qingyan) at the foot of Shanwo Mountain



In 1924, a man named Shi Yuzhang from Yiyang City, Hunan Province offered a high price for the body of the vessel and later had it carried away, resulting in its long separation from the lid.  At that time, Ai Xinzhai, who was studying at Xin Min School, proposed that the lid be taken as tuition fee. The school agreed and took the lid accordingly. Later, judging by inscriptions on it, staffs could tell that it was an antique in the Shang Dynasty and thus kept it in school. 

A document titled The antique caught the eye of Ministry of Education in China 

On June 11th, 1925,according to Changsha Ta Kung Pao, Zhong Fengyu, headmaster of Xin Min School, reported to government that the Min Fanglei had been bought by Shi Yuzhang and claimed that an investigation be launched without delay. This piece of news caught the attention of Zhang Shizhao, minister of the Ministry of Education in the Republican China at that time, who required provincial governor to initiate a thorough inquiry into the case. On July 5th, Changsha Ta Kung Pao reported that Internal Affair Department of Changsha released the 23rd directive, demanding that Yiyang County be in charge of the case. On July 26th, Changsha Ta Kung Pao reported that county magistrate of Yiyang replied to Internal Affair Department of Changsha: the body of the vessel was stored at Yang Kechang antique shop and hence couldn’t be confiscated; meanwhile, Shi Yuzhang was warned by authority to be brought to justice and hand in the antique within five days. Then no more information about the case was heard and later people had little knowledge about the antique. 

 Xin Min School 

Headmaster Zhong didn’t manage to keep the lid either. As was written in Taoyuan History During 1912-1949, the lid was forcibly taken by Zhou Pan with 3000 yuan.  In 1950, Zhou was arrested in Kunming and he handed in the lid along with a file, both of which were sent to the Hunan Provincial Cultural Relic Administration Committee by then vice-governor Jin Ming in 1952. In 1956, the committee and Hunan Museum were merged into one organization, therefore, the lid and the material were transferred to the museum. 



1919 Taoyuan→1925 Changsha→Shanghai→Paris→1930 Osaka→1950 Tokyo→New York→2001 France→New York→2014 Changsha

In A History of Chinese Art, a book written by French scholar George Soulie de Morant in 1928, there are photos of the Min Fanglei. The antique, as was noted in the book, was collected by A.W. Bahr, C.F.Yau, C.T.Loo etc. In 1931, the book was published in English language in America. 

During 1940s-1950s, the Min Fanglei was collected by Japanese collector Asano Meyoshi. His son, carrying on his unfinished work, published Old Chinese Art in 1961, which presented photos and descriptions of Min Fanglei. According to the book, the vessel was purchased by Asano Meyoshi in 1930. 

In 1950s, the body of the vessel was collected by Japanese collector Arata Dongchi, who bought it with high price in 1950, as was recalled by Arata himself later. The antique was kept by him until 2001, when it was sold through Christie’s auction company in New York. 

In 2001, Christie’s auction company was to put the body of the Min Fanglei for auction. On hearing the news, Shanghai Museum and Poly Art Museum jointly raised large sum of money for the auction in America. However, the antique was finally bought by a French buyer with 9.24 million US dollars. 

A History of Chinese Art published in 1931

A book About Chinese Bronze Culture written by Japanese scholar Umehara Sueji, published in 1933. 


Having known that the Min Fanglei will be auctioned at the Christie’s, Hunan Provincial Government assigned delegates from museums, enterprises and collection fields to negotiate the purchase in New York City. On March 15th, the Hunan Museum officially addressed to president of the Christie’s office in Asia, expressing its strong willingness to bring back the antique. After strenuous efforts, a purchase agreement was eventually reached on March, 19th, 2014, ushering the reunion of two separated parts of the Min Fanglei. 


Reflections and Explorations: the Value and Significance of the Reunion

Unearthed in 1919 when China was stricken by wars and disasters, the Min Fanglei’ was soon separated from its body, resulting in several rounds of auctions overseas and being passed down through the hands of several foreign antique dealers, wandering in the foreign lands including Asia, American and Europe. Now, the return of its body announced the end of a century’s separation as well as the sad story, revealing profound vitality of Chinese culture and great determination of Chinese people in protecting their cultural heritage. 

Besides, the return of the antique has evoked reflections and explorations in many fields such as museum, collection and art. It witnessed a new mode of bringing back those national treasures from foreign countries that different instittions of society take back an antique through cooperation and then put it in certain national organization for permanent collection and public-sharing. The new mode provides valuable experience for such issues as public collection in museums, social involvement of museum career and the return of overseas cultural relics. 

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