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Title: Life Aesthetics

Painting and Calligraphy Section

Southern Song culture tended toward refinement and elegance as court painters excelled at rendering the palace banquets, activities of the seasons, and ceremonial celebrations in and around the capital of Hangzhou. Whether records of real events or flights of the imagination, they all reflect the prosperous and sumptuous spirit of actual life among members of the upper classes and the imperial family in the Southern Song. The elegance of scholar life, private gardens of recluses, viewing of paintings and chanting of poems, tasting of tea and unrolling of scrolls, and appreciation of curios are all found in the works of art done at this time, becoming specialized subjects in painting.

The subject of figures and genre had appeared in painting starting from the Five Dynasties and Northern Song period, also including artists who specialized in them. Along with the commoners mentioned in poems and songs, they all reveal and relate to the tradition of folk life. A rich variety of works in this subject also appear in the Southern Song, and with consummate perfection of skill in rendering, they further express the feeling and appearance of everyday life among ordinary folk.

Imperial Banquet by Lantern Light (New window)

Imperial Banquet by Lantern Light

Ma Yuan (fl. 1190-1224), Song dynasty
Hanging scroll, ink and light colors on silk, 111.9 x 53.5 cm

The branches of pine and plum trees in this work seem to appear and disappear in the light mist of an early spring day. The interior of the hall is brightly lit and set up with a red curtain, standing screen, and long table. Several officials clasp their hands making salutations, and to the side are female attendants holding gilt pots as well as cups and plates. Outside the building, in the courtyard, female palace musicians and dancers put on a show. Judging from the form of architecture, this appears to describe a palace hall in the Southern Song imperial city.

Ma Yuan was a court master of painting in the reigns of Emperors Guangzong and Ningzong, often illustrating the poetry of Ningzong's empress, surnamed Yang (also known as Yang Meizi). Based on the contents of the poem at the top of this painting, we learn it is a festive banquet scene on the evening of the Lantern Festival in the first lunar month. The calligraphy of Empress Yang's inscription at the top is full and dignified, belonging to her late style.

Watching the Tide on a Moonlit Night (New window)

Watching the Tide on a Moonlit Night

Li Song (ca. 1170-1255), Song dynasty
Album leaf, ink and colors on silk, 22.3 x 22 cm

This painting depicts a scene of watching the tide enter the mouth of the Qiantang River on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. A splendid two-story pavilion with a single hip-and-gable roof stands majestically at the right, with no walls on the four sides of the upper level, making it ideal for appreciating the distant view. The wooden elements to protect the hip-and-gable siding, such as the weatherboard and gable-side pendants and ornaments, are all finely painted with gold outlining. In front of the building by the river is a large moon-viewing terrace with a winding corridor; rockeries and palm trees also dot the courtyard inside.

The beautiful scenery of the Qiantang River and West Lake around the capital of Lin'an (Hangzhou) were chosen as sites for constructing palace buildings and gardens, the natural views there often playing an important role. On this painting is an inscription by Empress Yang, quoting from the poetry of Su Shi in his "Watching the Tide on the Mid-Autumn Festival," and her square "Kungua" seal.

Knick-knack Peddler and Children Playing (New window)

Knick-knack Peddler and Children Playing

Li Song (ca. 1170-1255), Song dynasty
Album leaf, ink and light colors on silk, 25.8 x 27.6 cm

This painting describes an old knick-knack peddler with his vast assortment of goods as a matron with a group of young children approaches him in excitement. The carriers on either side of the peddler's shoulder pole are divided into six levels holding an array of items, foods, and toys. Some even have labels to identify them, including "Immortal Scripture," "Writing," "Shandong Yellow Rice Wine," and "Sour Vinegar." Among the branches on the left is the artist's signature that reads, "Painted by Li Song in the gengwu year of the Jiading reign (1201)," and on the trunk of the tree is another inscription in small characters for "300 items."

Using children from a village family as the main characters, Li Song has here portrayed an interesting scene from life that is full of emotion. As a result, this work is indispensable in the study of genre painting and folk life in the Southern Song period.

Antiquities Section

The Southern Song enjoyed great economic prosperity. Their bustling, flourishing towns provided comfort and convenience; their everyday life was full of elegant delights. Incense burning, flower arranging, tea brewing, and paintings hanging--the so-called Four Arts of Life were practiced by all walks of life. A Southern Song lady's vanity cases, wardrobe, and jewelry spoke of ultimate fashion and fine workmanship. Either large banquets or family gatherings were served in fine table services of gold and silver with exquisite carvings and elaborate motifs. Articles at once utilitarian and creative graced gentlemen's studies and appealed to their aesthetic taste. As jade was scarce, miniature carvings made of smallest available pieces as thin as fingertips exhibited marvelous form and innate essence. The Southern Song connoisseur did not seek conspicuous exaggeration; rather he appreciated sudden realization, after attentive contemplation, of subtle beauty that was in the details.

Refined clay inkstone for copying Buddist texts. Use attribute to Zhang Chih, Southern Song dynasty (New window)

Refined clay inkstone, Use attribute to Zhang Chih

Southern Song dynasty, 12th-13th C.
Collection of National Palace Museum

Sedimented mud ink stones, tuan ink stones, xi ink stones and yaohe ink stones are referred to as the "Four Famous Ink Stones". The sedimented mud ink stone is special in that it is not polished from an entire piece of natureal rock, but is instead baked from fine mud. One would throw a silk pouch into the river, and the fine mud washed down in the river would gradually sediment in the pouch. The pouch is then removed two or three years later, hung to air-dry, and the tightly packed fine mud in the pouch is then carved into an ink stone. Its fine, exquisite texture enables ink to be ground out easily, the ink would not dry quickly, nor would the stone hurt the brush. It is therefore well loved by the literati.

The coloring of this ink stone is light yellow, referred to as "eel mud yellow", and is the best kind amongst sedimented mud ink stones. Light and exquisite, it is made from excellent sedimented mud. The fore of the stone is slightly concave, while the sides open out gently from the fore to the back, resembling the Chinese character for "wind"; it is therefore a product of the "wind-character ink stone" tradition from Northern Song Period. The underside of the ink stone is dug out to enable the hand to reach in and pick up the stone; therefore it is also referred to as a "hand-reach ink stone", the most classical type of ink stone from the Song Dynasty.

On the right side of the ink stone is carved the phrase "Writing Ink Stone of Old Man Nan-Xuan". "Old Man Nan-Xuan" is the alias of the Southern Song neo-Confucianist, Zhang Chih, in his later years; therefore this ink stone was probably a part of the stationery set on his writing desk in his later years. Politically Zhang Chih had strongly opposed the Jin invasion, refused to befriend Qin Kuai, and had also taught at the Yue Lu College and Chen Nan College. He was respectfully referred to as one of "Three Wise Men of South East", along with Lui Zu-Qian and Zhu Xi.

Stone brush rest, Southern Song dynasty (New window)

Stone brush rest

Southern Song dynasty, 1201
Excavated from the tomb of Dong Kangsi
Collection of Zhuji City Museum, Zhejiang

The stone brush mountain is designed to resemble small and large mountain ranges that rise and fall gradually. Unevenly arranged from front to back, with the tallest mountains in the center and lower mountains on the sides, one sees a rhythmic beauty in the well-defined layers, connecting mountains and composition of gentle, resounding continuity. The concave valleys between the mountains are just right for placement of writing brushes, the design natural yet ingenuous.

This brush mountain was unearthed from an ancient burial site from Southern Song Period (1201) in the Zhejiang region. Also unearthed from the site are the stone carved rhinoceros paperweight, the turtle-shaped water vessel and an ink stone, which are unusually shaped and delicately carved, fully demonstrating the refined tastes of the Southern Song literati. The Southern Song literati enjoyed appreciation of ancient calligraphy, renowned paintings, collected ancient zithers and ink stones, and might light up incense sticks in a tidy, brightly lit study and try out some excellent tea with a couple of close friends. Stationery on writing desks that accompanied the literati everyday was naturally also an essential element of the whole atmosphere of elegance and leisure. While we cannot see with our own eyes the Southern Song literati in their study environment, nonetheless we can imagine the free and natural attitude of these literati through the design and craftsmanship of this stationery set – the brush mountain, paperweight and water vessel.

Jade water dish in the shape of a lotus leaf with turtle décor, Southern Song to Yuan dynasties (New window)

Jade water dish in the shape of a lotus leaf with turtle décor

Southern Song to Yuan dynasties, 12th-14th C.
Collection of National Palace Museum

The texture of this water dish vessel is clear and transparent, and an entire piece of jade is used to carve out a large lotus leaf and the small lotus leaf by it. The edge of the lotus leaves curl up slightly, and the veins are finely carved out in intaglio. At center of each lotus leaf stands a turtle, gazing at each other. Legend has it that thousand-year-old turtles would stand on lotus leaves, and therefore symbolize longevity of life. The interlinked water plants under the lotus leaf are not only delicately carved decorations but also serve the functions of supporting and enabling lifting of the vessel, further enriching and enlivening the overall design.

Another jade brush wash vessel with a lotus leaf theme that is unearthed from the Southern Song ancestral grave of Shi Sheng in Quzhou, and that is also displayed in this exhibition; closely resemble this piece whether in terms of theme, design or decorative concepts. The viewer might wish to compare the two.

Water dish vessels are used by the literati to hold water for dampening or washing of writing brushes. These vessels are usually placed by the ink stone and are a necessary piece of desk stationery. Intellectual pursuits being so popular during the Song Dynasty, brush wash vessels were naturally fashionable items at the time, not only a practical writing implement but also a work of art for appreciation. Just imagine: as the literati fill this vessel with water, the two turtles would appear as if swimming in the water, playing amongst the lotus leaves; when the brush is washed in the vessel, the ink would flow between the lotus leaves, the black ink perfectly counter-balancing the delicate, green-white jade leaves, adding to the natural interest of the piece.
Silver-gilt cup and saucer with a story scence, Southern Song (New window)

Silver-gilt cup and saucer with a story scene

Southern Song dynasty, 1127-1279
Excavated from the cache of Gu County
Collection of Shaowu Museum, Fujian

This octagonal cup has a matching tray. The silver cup is gold-plated, the combination of silver and gold giving the impression of extravagance. Silver and gold wine-drinking vessels were important to the Southern Song people, whether in large banquets or just a couple of friends having a drink.

On the inner base of this silver cup is etched the lyrics to "Ta Sha Xing", which mentioned that being awarded top position in an imperial examination is like climbing a long ladder or a magical cinnamon tree, taking one right to the clouds; not only would one gain the admiration of others, one might also win an excellent marriage. The lyrics to this song vividly portray the scene and joyous atmosphere of a person receiving the top position in an imperial examination.

The spaces separated by the eight sides of the cup also depict in turn the examination results notice, the messenger, climbing the long ladder, climbing the cinnamon branches, and riding a horse across town – all scenes from the song. The tray depicts well-dressed characters in a garden; there is a pond in the center, and a dragon and phoenix soar in the sky, earnestly depicting the longing of the Southern Song people to win an official position and begin a governmental career through the imperial examination system.

Books Section

The Song Dynasty was a culturally rich period in Chinese history, and after the politically turbulent and passionate years of the two Song empires, the Southern Song was a time for merging the northern and southern cultures, and absorption of new ideas from all sources. The theme of this unit is "people", and the everyday lives of people from the Southern Song Period are depicted here in three sections.
The first section portrays leisurely activities of the literati. In the manner of the Northern Song, literati from the Southern Song also placed great emphasis on cultural heritage from earlier dynasties, and were particularly diligent in writing treatises on all subjects, including daily affairs, tools and dictionaries. Five types of writings are exhibited here, including The Diamond Sutra hand-transcribed by Zhang Jizhi. These works not only demonstrate the Southern Song literati's accumulation of knowledge from the ancients, they are also records of lives of the literati during this period.

The second section portrays snippets from the lives of everyday people. During the economically prosperous period of Southern Song, people's lives were full of variety. The seven types of writings exhibited here, including Zhou Mi's Recollections: the Southern Song Capital Linan, are the most important sources for research on the social life and urban style of the common people during the Southern Song Period.
The final section describes the literary influences of the period. Eight types of writings including The Ci Poetry Collection of Li Qingzhao are exhibited here, in which the Southern Song literati enounce their ambitions by commemorating historical events or express their emotions by admiring certain objects. These all demonstrate the pluralistic literary creativity of the Southern Song literati.

The Diamond Sutra (New window)

The Diamond Sutra

Translated by Kumarajiva of Yao Qin dynasty
Handwritten edition by Zhang Jizhi of Southern Song Dynasty in 1253

Transcription of sutras is a method method of accumulating merits in Buddhism, and was a favorite pastime of ancient literati from all ages; Zhang Jizhi of Southern Song Dynasty was one of the best well known. Zhang Jizhi (1185~1263) was a renowned calligrapher from the Southern Song Dynasty; he learned from Mi Fu and referred to Ouyang Xun and Yen Zhang Jizhi in creating his own calligraphy style. His writing was careful in structure and was known for the strength in his strokes. This Diamond Sutra was transcribed on July 18th in the first year of Baoyo period of the Southern Song Dynasty (1253), the characters are elegant and flowing. Although he had written in regular script, one can still sense a touch of the running script.

Recollections: the Southern Song Capital Linan (New window)

Recollections: the Southern Song Capital Linan

Written by Zhou Mi of Song dynasty
From the Siku Quanshu Library of the Wenyuan Pavilion of Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing Dynasty

The Recollections of the Southern Song Capital of Linan is a book of informal historical records written by Zhou Mi of the late of Southern Song Dynasty and the early of Yuan Dynasty. Besides describing the urban sights of the Southern Song capital of Linan, it also describes aspects of palaces. In miscellaneous narratives, Zhou Mi describes in detail the Southern Song court ceremonies, landscapes, customs, seasonal products, schools and music, and it is an important reference for understanding the economics, culture and daily life of the Southern Song Dynasty. For example, volume six records: "There are entertainment houses, such as Bei Wa and Yang Peng Terrace, and there are also many golan.  The thirteen golan within Bei Wa are the most popular; there may also be some who do not enter the theaters, but simply put up performances at in the open amongst crowds; these are called ‘dayehe' and are second class performance groups." "Wazi" and "golan" referred to fixed performance locations in Song Dynasty, with professional art and culture performance groups of varied sizes. According to Zhou Mi, in addition to the many golan", there were also second-class performances called "dayehe" put up "in the open amongst crowds". One can see that there were a large number of performance groups in Linan City and their performance locations were not particularly restricted; they could perform in all weather, in summer or winter, come rain or shine.  The entertainment and cultural lives of the Linan people during the Southern Song Dynasty must have been extremely rich and colorful.

Collected Poetry of Lu You (New window)

Collected Poetry of Lu You

Written by Lu You of Song dynasty
From the Siku Quanshu Library of the Wenyuan Pavilion of Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing Dynasty

Lu You (1125~1210), style name "Wuguan" and sobriquet "Fang Weng", was a native of Shanyin, Yuezhou (now Shaoxing City, Zhejiang). He was a famous patriotic poet during the Southern Song Dynasty and is referred to as one of the Four Masters of Southern Song; more than 9,300 of his poems survive today. Born during the "Jingkang Incident" of late Northern Song Dynasty, the young Lu Yo had crossed the Yangtze River with his family to escape the invasion; as an adult, he saw how the imperial administration had continuously pacified and bowed down to the enemy, giving him no opportunity to give himself for the country. The majority of his poetry therefore elucidated his blighted ambitions, and many of these verses have resounded through the ages.  For example in "The Golden Sword" he wrote: "The Chu Kingdom had destroyed Qin even with only three houses remaining; how is it possible that no man remains in the great China?" The tone of this verse is magnificent and dignified, using the inspiration of the Golden Sword to sonorously expound upon his ambition and determination to recover the lost territories of his country.  Besides such powerful verses, Lu You had also written leisurely pieces in admiration of beautiful landscapes.

The verse exhibited here is a part of "The Golden Sword": "For my shame I am to remain unknown in a thousand years records of history, but I have a pure heart longing to serve my emperor" and "The Chu Kingdom had destroyed Qin even with only three houses remaining; how is it possible that no man remains in the great China?" These passionate verses have won him the place he deserves in history.