The earliest surviving pictorial images in China are found engraved on the surfaces of two types of thin-walled Eastern Zhou Dynasty bronze water vessels which were cast during the late Spring and Autumn period and the early Warring States period, circa 500 B.C.E. One is a flat-bottomed ewer called a yi, which resembles our modern gravy boat, and the other is a ring-handled shallow basin called a pan (fig. 10).
Figure 10. Warring States bronze vessels yi and pan
Mary H. Fong has argued convincingly that these particular vessels were not made for sacred ritual purposes, but were, instead, the prized personal possessions of the aristocrats of Eastern Zhou, who used them as elegant hand washing sets on ceremonial occasions. As a result, their decoration was not limited by ancient tradition, but free to express contemporary concerns (Fong, 1988/9, 6). This was a time of enormous political and social upheaval in China, and these designs reflect the paramount importance of li, meaning “ritual” or “rites,” in the conduct of relations among the warring states of the late Eastern Zhou Dynasty.
Figure 11. Earliest surviving image of a unicorn zhi on a bronze yi from Changzhi, Shaanxi Province. Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.)
As with every two-dimensional image of a unicorn, one could argue that only one horn is visible because this is a profile view. However, as we have seen in the ancient ob pictographs for the zhi, the Chinese were perfectly capable of depicting two horns when necessary. It is also valid to protest that we do not know the artist’s original intention in depicting this beast. Yet, whether it was the artist’s intention or not, what has been created is undoubtedly an image of a unicorn.
Depicted in the form of a goat-ox charging forward to butt or repel something, its head is lowered, its single horn levelled and its tail raised. The rounded shape of its head, its dainty feet, and the distinctive patternings on its body are all remarkably similar to the Saola. It is also intriguing to note that there is a little tuft of grass near the unicorn’s front leg. Of course, this may be simply an Eastern Zhou artistic device—a space-filling motif used to enrich the design—and evidence for this interpretation can be found in the panel of decoration above the unicorn, where an almost identical tuft is placed between two fish. However, it is equally valid to argue that the tuft of grass, plus the zhi, form a visual pun for the graph jian, a mat for welcoming guests, thus expressing the idea of “laying out a welcome mat” for important visitors.
But the question is, where did this image come from, if by this time the wild goat-ox Saola had not been seen in north China for hundreds of years? It is possible that a tradition of making pictorial images of zhi had been preserved from earlier times and been transmitted down through the ages. It is also possible that this animal simply represents the artist’s own conception of what a unicorn should look like. But it is much more likely that it was derived from the pictograph of the zhi, thus reversing the process used to create the ancient oracle bone pictographs. The artists of late Eastern Zhou times did not create pictographs to express their reality, but looked back instead to the existing written characters as sources of inspiration for their pictorial images. It has long been accepted that writing and painting with brush and ink grew out of the same tradition in China, so this reversal in inspiration probably occurred quite naturally. Moreover, this development from the pictographic to the pictorial is even more likely in the case of the mythic unicorn zhi, which no one had ever seen.
When this late Eastern Zhou image of a unicorn is compared with the bronze script graph for the zhi which was current in Western Zhou times (fig. 5 C), the correlation between the two immediately becomes apparent. Thus, if we take this vertical pictograph for the zhi and turn it on its side (fig. 12) it immediately becomes recognizable as a charging beast with a single three-pronged horn.
Figure 12. Pictograph of the zhi turned on its side.
Then, if we place it above the image of the unicorn on the bronze yi, the origin of the unicorn zhi‘s classic charging stance is revealed (fig. 13).
Figure 13. Comparison between the pictograph zhi and the earliest surviving image of a unicorn in China.
Yet is there any evidence which might confirm that this particular image of a charging unicorn, engraved on a late Eastern Zhou bronze yi, is meant to represent the ancient female goat-unicorn zhi? In other words, is it possible to discover any clues as to the identity of this one-horned beast from its archaeological context, its location on the vessel, or its function within the design as a whole?
The Changzhi bronze ewer was unearthed in the Chinese province of Shanxi, the ancient home of the Zhou tribe, who, as we have seen, were closely allied with the Qiang “goat people” who practised animal judgements. During the Western Zhou Dynasty this territory was controlled by the state of Jin, whose rulers were descended from the Zhou royal house. By the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E., the Jin state had become powerful enough to overcome the great southern state of Chu, and the Jin leader was awarded the title of First Lord among the lords of Eastern Zhou. This clearly indicates that Shanxi province at that time was by no means off the beaten track artistically. Thus the decoration engraved on the bronze yi found at Changzhi must embody important ideas and concerns current among the nobility of late Eastern Zhou times.
The fact that the image of the unicorn is engraved on the inner surface of the spout of the ewer ensures its prominence within the decorative scheme as a whole. Fong has compared the decoration on the Changzhi yi with that on another yi of the same period and style (fig. 14) from Heren, near Liuhe, Jiangsu Province (Fong, 1988/9).
Figure 14. Image of a split-bodied human-faced beast on a bronze yi from Heren, Jiangsu Province.
At the base of the spout of the Heren ewer, in the same position as the unicorn on the Changzhi ewer, is a mythic split-bodied, frontally oriented human-faced beast which she interprets as an awe-inspiring image, the subject of worship by the kneeling figures below. If this is so, then the corresponding image of the unicorn on the Changzhi yi must also be of great symbolic importance within the context of the design as a whole, and not simply a decorative motif.
According to Fong’s analysis, the ritual scene engraved on the Changzhi yi shows “a ceremony of greeting or welcome in a state visit” taking place in and near a building (Fong, 1988/9, 13). Apparently this is the first time in the history of ancient Chinese pictorial art that an architectural setting is introduced into a design. If this is true, then it is singularly appropriate that the goat-unicorn zhi should appear in this context, since according to tradition it served as the door guardian of the law courts and other government buildings, where state receptions for foreign ambassadors and dignitaries would have been held. According to ancient Chinese rules of etiquette, visiting heads of state and diplomats would have been greeted by high-ranking officials at the main entrance to the building compound, which would have been guarded by an image of the zhi, and then led into the interior rooms for refreshment and discussion. Thus, in the same way that the mythic split-bodied creature is the focal point of the worship ritual on the Heren yi, the mythic unicorn zhi occupies the pivotal position in the diplomatic ritual shown on the Changzhi yi.