Cast Iron Ox

Vanderven Oriental Art

Period Antiquity

Origin China

Medium Iron

Dimension 27 x 37 cm (10⁵/₈ x 14⁵/₈ inches)

China, Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

Two cast iron figures of a pig and an ox. Both animals, which were cast using piece-moulds, have hollow bodies. The bellies are closed and have two holes, probably for spacer pegs used during casting. Along the back, head and underside are distinct mould-seams. Both animals stand on all four legs and the tail, on a high narrow frame. The pig has a short wrinkled snout with large nostrils. The almond shaped eyes are clearly defined with a line in relief; the ears are unusually long and floppy. The ox, which is smaller and lighter, has long curved horns and small ears. It has decorative halter, embellished with beading on its forehead. The stylistic features show many similarities to pottery and bronze figures of the same period.

Domesticated animals, such as the pig (zhu) and the ox (niu), were important to agriculture and welfare in China. Their importance to everyday life, is testified by the recurrence of these animal representations, excavated from tombs. Even though pottery animals are the more common, cast iron animals have also been found from the Han up to the 14th century. Perhaps being made from metal, they were considered to be more luxurious and sturdy than ceramic versions, but more economical than bronze objects.

The pig, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, was a popular farm animal for consumption. It was also vital to the Chinese economy, where ownership of a pig was a sign of wealth. The ox, also a zodiac animal, is emblematic of springtime, fertility and agriculture in general. Cattle was highly valued, as a beast of burden and draught animal used for wet-rice cultivation. The ox was also the symbol of gentle strength and an ideal and simple country life. They are particularly associated with warding floods, and as such often placed by rivers or lakes .

Amongst the well-known inventions in China - such as paper, gun powder, porcelain and the compass – iron-casting is a less publicized one. Cast iron played an important role in Chinese industry, long before it was produced in Europe. In about 300 BC, Chinese ironworkers discovered that when burning iron-ore mixed with charcoal, it produced a thick metallic liquid instead of a bloom. We now know, that the carbon from the charcoal, mixes with the iron-ore to produce an alloy with a low melting point (1130°C). This hot liquid can be poured into moulds, where it cools into hard and durable (but brittle) cast iron. The Chinese quickly appreciated the advantages of cast iron over wrought iron. The ability to cast it, meant that all of the techniques previously developed for casting bronze or gold could be adapted. They could easily and cost-effectively, mass-produce strong and durable artefacts at a lower cost than with bronze. The casting technique also allowed for the addition of intricate ornamentations and complex shapes. Practical and utilitarian objects were produced such as ploughshares, swords, bells, scissors, knives, needles and cooking pots. But also artefacts for the decoration of the home and temples.

The British Museum, London, holds two cast-iron oxen - both from a later date (nr. 1993.0804.1 & 1994.0129.5)

Period: Antiquity

Origin: China

Medium: Iron

Dimension: 27 x 37 cm (10⁵/₈ x 14⁵/₈ inches)

Provenance: Private Collection, The Netherlands

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