Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize
  • Communicate

Across the World

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Explain and compare cultural celebrations in local communities with others
  • Interpret oral, visual, and print material by identifying main idea, compare and contrast

  • Express ideas orally based on knowledge and experience

  • Identify characteristics of different communities

  • Write imaginative stories and brief compositions that conveymeaning to an audience




  1. Write a one-page story about a ritual you would attend using this vessel from the perspective of someone who was there in ancient China.

  2. Think about a tradition you have in your home or with your family. What is the purpose of the tradition and why does your family celebrate such a tradition? Write a one-page story and share your traditions with a partner or group.

  3. Get into a group of 3. Think about a celebration where this vessel would be needed. Think about some other items you may need to use in this ritual. Write a half-page story about this specific ritual and its purpose. Draw a sketch of the other vessels you would need in order to make the ritual complete and show how they would be used.

  4. Make up your own tradition that you would like to share with your family and/or friends. What kinds of objects or things would you need in order to make your tradition or ritual complete? What would be the relevance or why is each piece important to the tradition/ritual? Draw a sketch of each item you would need to use.

In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.

  • Describe this vessel as though you were talking to someone who has never seen it. What is it made of? How is it decorated?

  • What does the form of this vessel suggest about its possible uses? Note the vessel’s size, shape, handles, feet, and decoration.

  • Look very carefully. Do you see the dragon heads and tails? Describe what they look like.

  • This ding had been buried for thousands of years. It was unearthed by a rainstorm with a large group of similar objects in the northern Shanxi province of China.After being buried, the vessel has acquired a rich patina, or surface color of pink and green that is derived from exposure to copper beneath the ground. How do you think the ding looked when it was made compared to its current appearance?

  • The artists decorated the legs with the terrifying, mask-like face of the tao tie. The tao tie is a symbolic creature which does not have a body. Its face is a mixture of animal and pattern forms with bulging eyes and horns. The eye brows are filled with a pattern symbolizing thunder. The tao tie represented gluttony and its presence is thought to be a warning against greed. Why do you think this symbol is included on the ding?

  • The ding was used in banquet rituals. Imagine the ding in use. How do you think it fits in the ceremony?

  • This vessel would have been owned by someone of great wealth. What tells us that it was an object of prestige?

  • Consider the holidays that your family celebrates. Are there any special objects, such as, china or serving dishes that your family uses for such occasions?

  • What is a ritual? What is its significance? Why are they important to a culture?

  • What do you think something like this would be used for? After some discussion, mention the vessel’s size and how the lid can become a dish.

  • Build on the previous question: Might this have been used at home or at war? What could that look like in both scenarios? How would this vessel be used in those situations?

  • What kinds of traditions or things do you celebrate at home with your family? Do you show respect of your ancestors? If so, in what ways? Is there something in your family that is a tradition that has been passed down throughout the years?

  • How do you think something like this would be used during the ritual? What objects or large vessels are used today in celebrations?

Chinese bronze vessels were the result of a coordinated effort of several specialists, each of whom was responsible for a standardized part of the process. For example, some workers prepared the bronze, while others carved the molds.

Rounded, three-legged bronze containers decorated with abstract and animal designs are called ding in Chinese. This unusually large example is elaborately decorated with a repeating design of stylized dragons and finely carved scroll patterns. Horned monster heads adorn the knees of the stout legs. Two large loop handles rise from below the rim. The three loops on top also serve as feet when the cover is removed, inverted, and used as a dish. After being buried, the vessel has acquired a rich patina of cuprite red and malachite green. This ding is decorated in the Liyu style, which was named after the archaeological site in Northern Shansi province where this distinctive form of bronze vessel was discovered in 1923.

The Chinese cast their bronzes in m olds constructed from several pieces of c lay. After placing a core into this negative mantle, they poured bronze into the space between the mantle and the core. This method of bronze casting was possible only because the bronze-makers could avail themselves of a highly developed ceramic technology. For making molds, they favored fine-grained, low-lime, and low-clay loess (a buff or yellow-brown loamy deposit) because of its high porosity and its dimensional stability in drying and firing. Seams still visible on the body of the ding show that it was cast in a three-section mold. The legs and handles were cast in two-section molds, then inserted into apertures cut into the body molds. These appendages were permanently attached to the vessel when the molten bronze was poured into the mold.

The pre-cast legs represent an advance over earlier foundry methods, which usually cast legs in the same pour as the vessel. Because bronze was an expensive material, ding were symbols of prestige. They were originally used in ancestor-worship ceremonies to hold ritual sacrifices of meat. During the period when this example was made, ding were also used at home and at war. Historical texts record that the emperor used nine ding in his sacrifices, while the upper classes used only three.

The purpose of the ceremonial family banquets was to ensure the goodwill of the ancestors and to invoke their aid in the struggle to survive in this world. Such rituals were performed in special ancestor halls. The inclusion of ritual vessels in tombs indicates that the owner of the tomb was expected to continue making offerings to his ancestors after his death.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider