Nine Bronze Tripods

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A bronze ding from the Shang Dynasty (11th c. BCE). Santa Barbara Museum of Art
  • Chinese/Japanese: 九鼎 (jiǔ dǐng / kyuu tei)

The Nine Bronze Tripods, or Nine Ding, are a legendary Chinese symbol of imperial legitimacy. The legend of their creation might also be interpreted as a legend of the invention/discovery of the production of bronze. As ritual objects allowing access to the ancestors, as objects made of precious materials (bronze being quite rare at that time) and representative of expensive and new technologies (again, the bronze, requiring command of considerable natural resources and manpower), and as representing tributary gifts from the provinces, the Nine Ding represented Imperial power, authority, and legitimacy in multiple ways.

The Nine Ding first appear in the Zuo Zhuan ("Chronicle of Zuo" or "Commentary of Zuo"), according to which, at some time during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2200-1750 BCE), each of the nine provinces produced a bronze vessel emblazoned with its representative animal spirits, and gave these to the center (the dynastic rulers). Corroborating with other sources, this is generally said to have occurred during the reign of Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty, or of his son & successor Qi. Though typically conceived as being literally nine vessels, scholars suggest there is also the possibility of the ancient texts using the number nine to simply mean a multitude; if such objects were not purely legendary and ever actually existed, it remains unclear whether there were indeed nine ding coming from nine provinces, or some larger number.

Today, scholars can interpret possession of these special gifts from each of the nine provinces, gifts which might be seen as a sort of tribute, as representing discursively the ruler's access to or control over the metals (and natural resources more broadly) of all the provinces, and to communications and trade with those provinces. The ancient documents describe their significance somewhat differently, writing that the construction of the vessels secured "a harmony ... between the high and the low, and all enjoyed the blessings of Heaven"[1]; in other words, the vessels embodied or enacted a similar function to the Emperor himself, as regulating the correct natural Order of all things. The vessels further served as an indication of the ruler's virtue and legitimacy, as they changed size and weight in accordance with the ruler's virtue - when rulers were virtuous, the vessels were small yet heavy, and when rulers were corrupt, they would become large but light. Inquiring as to the size or weight of the vessels was of course forbidden. The Zuo Zhuan goes on to relate that after the virtue of the rulers of Xia declined, the ding "were transferred"[2] to the rulers of the Shang Dynasty, and likewise as the virtue of the Shang declined, that the ding passed into the possession of the rulers of Zhou; as would become quite standard in later Chinese official histories, the last ruler of the dynasty is portrayed as corrupt or lacking in virtue, and the first ruler of the new dynasty as a great model of virtue, a righteous successor.

The great philosopher Mozi (Mo Tzu, c. 468-376 BCE) elaborated on the powers of the Nine Ding, saying that they were able to move themselves, to hide themselves, and to cook things without fire; he also wrote that at the time of their casting, during the reign of Qi of Xia, oracles prophesied that they would be controlled by three empires (i.e. the Xia, Shang, and Zhou).

Beyond these particular Nine Ding, or perhaps in reference to and emulation of their legendary example, it was common up until the Imperial era (c. 250s BCE) for bronze ritual vessels to be produced by rulers as symbols of victory, power, and wealth. As one entry in the Zuo Zhuan indicates, "when the powerful have conquered the weak, they use their bounty to make ritual vessels and to cast inscriptions to record the deed, to show to their descendants, to publicize the bright and the virtuous..."[3] Though certainly symbols of wealth, these vessels, like the legendary Nine Ding, also represented, importantly, the ability to perform certain rites and to access the spirit world, or to communicate with Heaven. Without the proper types of ritual vessels, inscribed with the images of animal spirits (taotie), one could not perform the rites, and could not communicate with Heaven. In this, then, we see the beginnings of an association of the ruler as possessing unique spiritual powers or Heavenly access; in later periods, a complex discourse would emerge in which the Emperor of China was regarded as the Son of Heaven, the pivot point at which Heaven and Earth intersected, and around which all was organized and ordered. During this earlier period, alongside the ding as symbols of ritual/spiritual authority, axes and flags were prominent symbols of a ruler's secular and martial authority.


  • K.C. Chang, Art, Myth, and Ritual, Harvard University Press (1983), 95-101.
  1. Chang, 95.
  2. Chang, 96.
  3. Chang, 100.
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