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The Pure Joys of Life
The origin of trays with petal-barbed rim can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618-916) and coincided with the popularity of lobed bronze mirrors. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), trays and boxes with four to twelve lobes were crafted from a range of materials such as silver, ceramics, and lacquer. A 12th-century Ding ware white porcelain dish with molded relief designs, similar in shape to the current silver dish with shallow lobed sides and foliated rim, is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Fig. 1). This type of barbed white porcelain dish is known as copied from silver ware of the same period due to the high demand for fine silver vessels and the shortage of the material. This led to the development of ceramic-making techniques to mimic the tactility of silverware.
Chased images of narrative scenes on silverware appeared during the Tang dynasty, a flourishing period in the growth of gold and silver ware skills. Advanced techniques such as hammering, annealing and plastic forming were introduced to China from Central Asia. The epitome is exemplified by the pair of parcel-gilt silver lid perfume stem jars (xiangbaozi, 香寶子), excavated from the Famen Monastery 法門寺 in Shaanxi Province, boasting eight elaborately chased cartouches rendering legends of sages. (Qi 2010, 173) Unlike simple decorative figures, each cartouche creates its own unique visual world by incorporating compositional elements and motifs reminiscent of those found in paintings. The Northern Song (960-1127) silver panels unearthed from Youlanting Village 遊覽亭村, Yiwu County, Zhejiang Province in 1986, featuring intricate incised narrative scenes such as Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (179-117 BCE) inscribing calligraphy on a bridge, embody explicit pictoriality. (Yang 2004, 112-113) The beautifully chased figures create a seamlessly convincing visual effect, comparable to the delicate plain-line drawings (baimiao, 白描) of the same era.
A silver tray in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), which depicts Su Shi's (1037-1101) Chibi Fu 赤壁賦 (Odes to the Red Cliffs) shares similar form, incising style, and even the roughness on the rim with the present tray. (Fig. 2) Liu Yang speculates in "Cadence of a Timeless Poem: A Southern Song Silver Plate Decorated with a Chased 'Red Cliff' Scene" (Orientations, Vol. 47, No. 1, January/February 2016, pp. 28-33) that the silver tray originally had a flatten rim that have been damaged and subsequently cut off. However, it is also possible that the silver tray was designed as an insert for a wood or lacquer dish, as the thinly hammered silver alone may have been too fragile for practical use. The design and knifework of multiple motifs on the Minneapolis tray and the present lot are remarkably similar, including the continuous mushroom-shaped clouds in the sky, birds with small circles representing their chest and back fur, feather-like willow branches, a cascading waterfall, and water waves depicted with alternating straight and curved lines. Prior to entering the MIA's collection, the tray with the Red Cliffs scene was with J.J. Lally as well, who purchased both trays at the same time. This suggests that the two trays had previously been preserved together, and it is possible that they were made in the same workshop or even for the same commission. (J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art 2002 and 2012)
While it may be tempting to believe that the present tray illustrates another episode in Su Shi's odes and that the two trays could be considered a pair (or two individual pieces of a lost set), the scene depicted on the present tray is only loosely related to Su Shi's prose-poems. The closest connection is to the passage "......歩自雪堂，将歸於臨皋。二客從予過黄泥之坂......歸而謀諸婦。婦曰："我有斗酒，藏之久矣，以待子不時之需," in which Su Shi departs the Snow Hall, passes the Yellow Mud Slope, returns to his residence, the Lingao Pavilion, and asks for wine from his wife. Albeit the pictorial representations of Su Shi's odes can vary and deviate from the original text, the scene rendered on the tray lacks resemblance to paintings or other decorative designs that depict the same theme.1
The scene exquisitely incised in the well of the tray depicts an "elegant gathering" on a summer's day. On such an occasion, like-minded and cultivated friends gather in nature or a garden for literary activities such as composing poetry, playing musical instruments, examining artworks and antiquities, and indulging in food and drink. The gathering fosters interaction among scholars and strengthens the identity of the literary circle through the exchange of knowledge. The earliest "elegant gathering" recorded in history is the one hosted by Wang Xizhi (303-361) at the "Orchid Pavilion" on the Double Third Festival in 353 CE. Other noteworthy historical events include the gathering of Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846) and his eight literati friends at Mount Xiang, Luoyang, in 849, known as Xiangshan/Huichang Jiu Lao 香山/會昌九老) and the assembly of Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086) and his twelve retired colleagues in Luoyang in 1082, referred to as Luoyang Qiying Hui 洛陽耆英會. Paintings, calligraphy pieces, and poems commemorate these legendary gatherings and contribute to their discourse and legacy. Eventually, the elegant gatherings of the past become models of inspiration that artists and literati from subsequent generations revere and reenact.
Even though the scene depicted on the present tray does not depict the Odes to the Red Cliff, it may still be relevant to the versatile scholar. The picture of the scholar depicted with a tall hat on the current plate is evocative of the image of Su Shi as portrayed on the Minneapolis tray and the two Southern Song (1127-1279) carved lacquer dishes rendering Su Shi's odes in Japanese collections.2 A revival of enthusiasm for Su Shi emerged during the Southern Song period as his literature resumed being published in 1173 and circulated after it was prohibited during the late Northern Song. (I 2001, 7) The impact of his legacy can be seen in numerous artistic creations. Besides the lacquer dishes in Japanese collections, Southern Song paintings depicting his odes or inspired by his poems are widespread.3 The event of literary gathering related to Su Shi that has been vigorously represented since the Southern Song is Xiyuan Yaji 西園雅集 (Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden), a semi-fictional utopian fantasy of Su Shi's life.4 Due to the scarcity of reliable textual and visual records, I refrained from making a literal connection between the scene depicted on the tray and the Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden. The scene may simply be a generalized portrayal, mediated by the imagination of the silver artisan, of a traditional social gathering of the poet and his friends, a moment when they savor the taste of life, a little dose of happiness amidst the ups and downs of officialdom.
The rendition of certain motifs in the tray is reminiscent of paintings and designs on objects from the Song dynasty. The compound motif of a waterfront pavilion featuring a lotus-shaped finial and dragon-headed gargoyles, populated by scholars and accompanied by a willow tree (Fig. 3), is likely to be modeled after a painterly prototype such as the one in Shi Yong Tu (Ten Songs), a Northern Song painting attributed to the poet Zhang Xian (990-1078) (Fig. 4), an elderly friend of Su Shi. However, some details of the pavilion depicted on the tray are not as precise as those in Zhang Xian's painting. For example, the dragon heads should be placed slightly upwards along the sloping ridges (chuiji 垂脊) to leave sufficient space for the seated sacred beasts on the eaves. The three upturned tiles (Fig. 5) above the dragon heads might be intended as simplified depictions of the beasts. If this is the case, they should have been positioned at the end of the eaves, as demonstrated in the Palace Banquet (Fig. 6), a Northern Song copy of an earlier composition.
In both Ten Songs and Palace Banquet, the pavilion is meticulously limned with layered brackets (dougong 枓栱), which are not present on the current tray. Instead, it is adorned with gridded bands featuring double-lozenge patterns (fangsheng wen 方勝紋) against a ground of diagonal lines. It may be perceived by some that the silverware artisan was unable to articulate the complex architectural structures. In fact, the band was part of a removable architectural attachment that gained popularity during the Southern Song period, when the capital was relocated from Bianliang 汴梁 in the North to Lin'an 臨安 in the Jiangnan region. As noted by Li Ruoshui in "Decorative Architectural Elements Represented in Song Paintings" (Journal of Architecture History, No. 3, 2021: 92-106), this type of architectural attachment, which can cover the brackets completely or partially, is known as ta 䈋 (cover), fengta 風䈋 (wind cover), guata 掛䈋 (hanging cover), or zhouhui bifengta 周回避風䈋 (all-around windshield cover). It is not mentioned in the Northern Song technical treatise on architecture, Yingzao Fashi (Building Standards), written by Li Jie 李誡 (?-1110). However, it is documented in Southern Song archives and frequently depicted in Southern Song paintings. For instance, the handscroll Autumn from the set Four Seasons by the court artist Liu Songnian (1174-1224) represents a building in the courtyard with similar sectioned and gridded bands below its eaves (Fig. 7). The short band depicted on the present tray is the uppermost part of an all-around windshield cover. A complete cover has long gridded modular screen panels below the bands, as shown in the handscroll Winter from the same set by Liu Songnian. According to Li Ruoshui, the gridded windshield cover was more often used in upper-class residential and viewing premises.
The pattern on the gridded bands incised on the tray, on the other hand, does reflect more of the silver craftsman's artistic lexicon; similar geometric designs can be found on Southern Song silver pieces (Fig. 8 & 9). The inclusion of surface patterning enriches the decorative appeal of a motif originally from painting. The same method was adopted by lacquer artisans at the time. Similarly, the exquisitely chased lotus bonsai (Fig. 10), found in contemporary paintings depicting courtyards of affluent households (Fig. 11), was inspired by silverware designs. The jardiniere is a faithful copy of lotus-shaped silver stem cups similar to those unearthed in Mianyang, Sichuan Province (Fig. 12). The slightly flared rim and foot, the ring band and radiant lines below the rim, the layered-petal decoration and even the vein on the central axis of the petals are all replicated in the chased image (Fig. 13 & Fig. 14). When the tray is placed beside the stem cup, one can't help but imagine the flat design on the tray transformed into miniature forms.
Upon shifting our focus to the left side of the silver tray, we are transported to a natural environment as opposed to the man-made garden. A scholar in a tall hat is portrayed viewing a waterfall. The sleek and vigorous "S-shaped" knife stroke rendering his spine effectively conveys his unyielding character. While the viewer might ponder the reason of juxtaposing a courtyard with a countryside scene in a single composition, the outpouring waterfall, towering cliffs and rippling lake may actually be artificially created landscapes within an opulent garden. In the Song dynasty, techniques for recreating waterfalls and water systems in gardens were already developed.5 "Scholar gazing at a waterfall" is another constantly represented motif in Song dynasty paintings. The two surviving Song copies of Caotang Shi Zhi Tu (Ten Views from a Thatched Hut), once attributed to the Tang dynasty artist Lu Hong (fl. ca. 7th-8th century), both include compositions of scholars seated and watching a waterfall (Fig. 15). More recent references to the silverware artisan would be paintings by the Southern Song court artist Ma Yuan (1160-1225), whose works are characterized by depictions of solitary scholars contemplating in thought while gazing into the distant or at a waterfall against a vast expanse of empty space. (Fig. 16)
Krystal Liu 劉琨華
1 For discussions of the different pictorial representational modes of Su Shi's odes and extant Southern Song designs of the subject, see Masaaki Itakura, "Images of the Red Cliff in Southern Song Painting and Decorative Arts" in Silver and Gold in Ancient China: M arch 16 to April 14, 2012. New York: J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art, 2012.
2 One is a 13th-century carved black and red lacquer dish, diam 11 5/8in (29.4cm) in the collection of Seishuji, Nagoya, Japan, illustrated in Liu, "Cadence of a Timeless Poem," 2016, fig. 4, p. 32. Another is a 13th-century carved red lacquer dish, diam 13 1/2in (34.2cm), in the collection of Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu, H152.
3 For more, see I Lo-fen's series speech "Finding Su Dongpo in the paintings of Southern Song Dynasty" released on the National Palace Museum's Youtube channel on 31 March 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSHSO24f8jM.
4 For more about Xiyuan Yaji, see I Lo-fen, "Yizhuang Lishi de Gong'an—Xiyuan Yaji," in Chibi Manyou yu Xiyuan Yaji (Beijing: Thread-binding Books Publishing House, 2001), 49-95.
5 As discussed by Guo Daiheng in "Chapter Three: Garden 第三章：園林," in Zhongguo Gudai Jianzhu Shi Di San Juan: Song, Liao, Jin, Xixia Jianzhu (Beijing: China Architecture Publishing & Media Co. Ltd., 2009), 554-593, the Northern Song imperial garden Gen Yue 艮嶽 (The Northeastern Marchmount), built between 1117-1122 in Bianliang, featured two artificial waterfalls, one located at the Wansui Shan 萬歲山 (Ten Thousand Years Mountain) to the north and the other at the Shou Shan 壽山 (Longevity Mountain) to the south: 山陰置木櫃，絕頂開深池。車駕臨幸，則驅水工登其頂，開閘注水而為瀑布，曰紫石壁，又名瀑布屏。(Dongdu Shi Lue 東都事略, Vol. 106); 其南則壽山嵯峨，兩峯並峙，列嶂如屏，瀑布下入雁池。(Hui Chen Lu 揮塵錄, Vol. 2). In the Southern Song imperial garden Hou Yuan 後苑 (Rear Garden), an artificial cascading waterfall was constructed upon the lotus pond: 寒瀑飛空，下注大池可十畝。池中紅白菡萏萬柄，蓋園丁以瓦盎別種，分列水底 ( Wulin Jiushi 武林舊事, Vol. 3). In addition to imperial gardens, sumptuous private residences, like Gui Yin Yuan 桂隱園 (Osmanthus Retreat) owned by the Southern Song poet Zhang Zi 張鎡 (1153-ca. 1221) also had a waterfall Zhuliu Pu 珠旒瀑 (ibid., Vol. 10).
Fig. 1 Dish with foliated rim, Song dynasty, 12th century; Ding ware white porcelain, diam 8 1/2in (21.59cm); gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton, 2000.209.2, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis.
Fig. 2 Plate decorated with chased Red Cliff scene, Southern Song, 13th century; silver, diam 10.5in (26.5cm); gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton, 2012.34, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis.
Fig. 3 detail of lot 39
Fig. 4 Zhang Xian 張先 (990-1078), Shi Yong Tu 十詠圖 (Ten Songs) (detail), Northern Song, 1072; handscroll, ink and color on silk, 49 3/8 x 20 1/2in (125.4 x 52cm); the Palace Museum, Beijing. Image: https://www.dpm.org.cn/collection/paint/228297.html
Fig. 5 detail of lot 39
Fig. 6 Unidentified artist, Palace Banquet 乞巧圖 (detail), Northern Song; screen panel mounted as a hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 63 5/8 × 43 5/8 in. (161.6 × 110.8 cm); the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Fig. 7 Liu Songnian 劉松年 (1174-1224), Autumn 秋景 (detail), from Four Seasons 四景山水, Southern Song; handscroll, ink and color on silk, approx. 16 x 27 1/4in (41 x 69.2cm); the Palace Museum, Beijing. Image: Song Hua Quanji, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press, 2010), no. 53.
Fig. 8 detail of lot 39
Fig. 9 A silver warming bowl with archaic dragon decoration (detail), Southern Song; diam 7in (17.7cm), 5 1/8in (13cm) high; excavated from Xida Street, Pengzhou, Sichuan Province in 1993; Pengzhou Museum, Pengzhou. Image: Yang, Boda ed., Zhongguo Meishu Fenlei Quanji – Zhongguo Jinyin Boli Falang Qi Quanji, Er (Shijiazhuang: Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House, 2004), no. 275, p. 153.
Fig. 10 detail of the silver tray
Fig. 11 Unidentified artist, Enjoying the Moon in the Shade of Phoenix Trees 桐蔭玩月圖, Southern Song; round fan, ink and color on silk, 9.5 x 7in (24 x 17.8cm); the Palace Museum, Beijing. Image: Song Hua Quanji, Vol. 1, No. 7 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press, 2010), no. 128.
Fig. 12 Lotus-shaped silver stem cup, Southern Song; diam 3 3/4in (9.6cm), 2 3/16in (5.5cm) high; excavated from Huangjia Lane, Fucheng District, Mianyang, Sichuan Province in 1991; Mianyang Museum, Mianyang. Image: Yang, Boda ed., Zhongguo Meishu Fenlei Quanji, no. 267, p. 148.
Fig. 13 detail of lot 39
Fig. 14 detail of Fig. 12
Fig. 15 After Lu Hong 廬鴻 (fl. ca. 7th-8th century), Caotang Shi Zhi Tu 草堂十志圖 (Ten Scenes of a Thatched Cottage) (detail), Song dynasty; handscroll, ink on paper, 11 5/8 x 236 3/16in (29.4 x 600cm); National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Fig. 16 Ma Yuan 馬遠 (1160-1225), Shanjing Chun Xing 山徑春行 (Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring) (detail), Southern Song; album leaf, ink and color on silk, 10 3/4 x 17in (27.4 x 43.1cm); National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Guo, Daiheng, ed. Zhongguo Gudai Jianzhu Shi Di San Juan: Song, Liao, Jin, Xixia Jianzhu 中國古代建築史第三卷：宋遼金西夏建築 (History of Chinese Ancient Architecture Vol. 3: Architecture from Song, Liao, Jin and West Xia Dynasties). Beijing: China Architecture Publishing & Media Co. Ltd., 2009.
I, Lo-fen. Chibi Manyou yu Xiyuan Yaji 赤壁漫遊與西園雅集 (Leisurely Cruising among the Red Cliffs and Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden). Beijing: Thread-binding Books Publishing House, 2001.
----. "Finding Su Dongpo in the paintings of Southern Song Dynasty 在南宋繪畫發現蘇東坡." Youtube, @NPMmedia, March 31, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSHSO24f8jM.
J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art. Chinese Porcelain and Silver in the Song Dynasty, March 18 – April 8, 2002. New York: J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art, 2002.
----. Silver and Gold in Ancient China, March 16 to April 14, 2012. New York: J.J. Lally & Co. Oriental Art, 2012.
Liu, Yang. "Cadence of a Timeless Poem: A Southern Song Silver Plate Decorated with a Chased 'Red Cliff' Scene." In Orientations, Vol. 47, No. 1 (January/February 2016): 28-32.
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Li, Jie. "Yingzao Fashi 營造法式 (Building Standards)." Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Wenyuan Ge edition), 1782, originally published in 1103. Erudition Database.
Li, Ruoshui. "Decorative Architectural Elements Represented in Song Paintings 繪畫資料中所見得宋代建築避風與遮陽裝修." Journal of Architecture History 建築史學刊, no. 3 (2021): 92-106.
Qi, Dongfang, ed. Zhongguo Meishu Quanji – Jinyin Qi Boli Qi, Yi 中國美術全集：金銀器玻璃器 1 (Compendium of Chinese Fine Arts – Gold, Silver and Glass, Vol. I). Hefei: Huangshan Publishing House, 2010.
Song Hua Quanji 宋畫全集 (Compendium of Song Paintings), Vol. 1, No. 4 & No. 7. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press, 2010.
Yang, Boda, ed. Zhongguo Meishu Fenlei Quanji – Zhongguo Jinyin Boli Falang Qi Quanji, Er 中國美術分類全集：中國金銀玻璃琺瑯器全集2 (Compendium of Classified Chinese Fine Arts – Chinese Gold, Silver, Glass and Cloissoné, Vol. II). Shijiazhuang: Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House, 2004.
Zhou, Mi ed. "Wulin Jiu Shi 武林舊事 (Old Stories of Wulin)," the first edition published before 1290. In Baoyan Tang Miji 寶顏堂秘笈, edited by Chen, Jiru. Republished by Shanghai: Wenming shuju, 1922. Erudition Database.