The censer has a deep rounded bowl rising from three conical legs to a flat rim and two upright bracket handles. It is decorated with a band of taotie masks with central flanges; followed by a band of archaistic dragons and downward blades. The legs are cast with vertical flanges above two raised bands and cold worked with taotie masks. The bronze has a deep dark brown patina. The censer is fitted with an elaborate wood stand carved with a dragon emerging from clouds, and a cover with further clouds and bats.
The form and design of this impressive bronze censer follow fairly closely an archaic prototype, a Shang dynasty tripod bronze ding, illustrated both in the Kaogu tu (fig. 25), compiled by Lü Dalin in 1092, and in Xuanhe Bogu Tu (fig. 24), compiled in 1123 by Wang Fu under the command of the Emperor Huizong. When it was illustrated in the Kaogu Tu, it was in a private collection (Wen family of Henan), and was reportedly excavated in Zhanjia of Pujun (at the border of Henan and Shandong provinces). It had a two-character inscription, but only the first character, yi, was deciphered, therefore it was called Yiding. The Emperor Huizong must have known this piece and thought it of sufficient importance, to acquire it for the Imperial collection. When it was illustrated again in the Xuanhe Bogu Tu, the author was able to read the second character of the inscription, mao, and it was given the name Yimaoding.
It is highly likely that the making of the current censer was influenced by the publication of these two works, and it was made to copy this important archaic bronze example. The shape and decoration of the two are very close, only that the current censer is much larger in size (the Yimaoding being around 15 cm. high). To commission such a large bronze would have been extremely expensive, and only possible by a very wealthy individual, a temple or by official command. Although the use of incense proliferated during the Song period, bronze censers, especially when of such large size, rarely survive, as the metal was often recycled for other uses. In the mid 12th century, for example, China experienced a metal shortage and high inflation, and many bronzes vessels were melted down to meet the high demand of coinage both domestic and abroad. Casting of copper and bronze was prohibited, and in 1154 the emperor himself sent 1,500 bronze objects from the Palace to the imperial mint to meet the demand. Only certain items were spared, including those for temple use.
Today, ceramic censers from the Song and Yuan period are held in higher regard than their bronze counterparts by collectors, but they were much cheaper to produce during their time, and were much more common. Bronze examples not only were more suitable for burning incense, a censer made after the design of an archaic example would have been more in keeping with a Confucian scholar’s ideal, satisfying his pursuit of antiquity.
The dating of the current censer is consistent with the thermoluminescence test, with two samples taken from the core material inside the legs, certificate no. C110j84.