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A royal token of love

OF all the ancient bronzes on display at Shanghai Museum, a wine vessel deserves particular attention. Made about 2,500 years ago, the wine kettle was custom-made for Fu Chai, the king of Wu (territory in today's Jiangsu and Anhui provinces), as a gift to his concubine Xi Shi, the fabled beauty of ancient times.

The kettle, 27.8 centimeters high and 24.9 centimeters in diameter, features an ornate handle composed of tiny dragons. An inscription says "This auspicious ware is commissioned by King Fu Chai for a lady."

It's a well-known story that Xi Shi was offered to Fu Chai as a tribute by his former captive, Gou Jian, the king of Yue (territory in today's Zhejiang Province).

The woman was actually a "beauty trap" set by Gou Jian to corrupt his enemy and avenge his defeat - a mission he accomplished a few years later.

The name of Xi Shi is a Chinese synonym for beauty, and the scenic West Lake in Hangzhou was named after her. The kettle is probably the first artifact linked to Xi Shi.

Shanghai Museum acquired this rare piece with the help of Eric Hotung, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist.

Back in 1995, Ma Chenyuan, the late curator of Shanghai Museum, came across the kettle in a Hong Kong antique street. He was wild with joy but kept his cool.

The dealer set a price of HK$1.2 million (US$154,838) and a deadline of two weeks for the transaction to take place. Since the museum had used up its funds on a new building, Ma could not get enough money to buy it.

Just as Ma grew restless, he got a phone call from his friend Hotung, who had heard about Ma's problem.

Ma suggested that Hotung buy the kettle and then loan it to the museum where it would be placed in good care and shown to the public. In fact, Hotung had already decided to make a donation to the museum.

At a donation ceremony held in the brand-new museum months later, Hotung said: "Such an important treasure couldn't find a better home than Shanghai. Now, the soul of the king of Wu can rest here."


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