Proud her­itage forged in gold

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­

As sur­pris­ing as it may seem, Hong Kong and the prov­ince of Shaanxi, 1,500 kilo­me­ters to the north­west, have a com­mon her­itage: The two places were at the cross­roads of in­ter­na­tional ex­changes, cul­tural and com­mer­cial.

Of course there have been dif­fer­ences, too. Shaanxi’s hey­day was be­tween the sev­enth and 10th cen­turies when a pow­er­ful Tang Em­pire ruled China and many of its cur­rent sur­round­ing re­gions from the prov­ince. Hong Kong, a speck in the South China Sea, would not bur­nish its cre­den­tials as a fi­nan­cial pow­er­house un­til more than a mil­len­nium later, a cen­tury af­ter the Bri­tish col­o­nized it in the mid-19th cen­tury.

Yet the unique cul­tural iden­tity of both was minted as a re­sult of a wind from the west — in the Tang’s case — and waves of in­flu­ence that con­stantly broke on its shore — in Hong Kong’s case. While Hong Kong has re­mained vi­brant, its cul­ture con­tin­u­ally forged and shaped by mul­ti­ple forces, Shaanxi has set­tled down over the cen­turies, as an in­ner Chi­nese prov­ince that is rel­a­tively se­cluded, mu­se­ums be­ing one of the most ob­vi­ous repos­i­to­ries of its glo­ri­ous past.

And now that glo­ri­ous past burns brightly in Hong Kong as the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion cel­e­brates the 20th an­niver­sary of its re­turn to China. Among the items be­ing ex­hib­ited at the Art Mu­seum of the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong are nearly 60 pieces or sets of gold­ware and sil­ver-

ware, whose shim­mer­ing sur­faces re­flect not only the ar­ti­sanal de­vel­op­ment of China, but also the coun­try’s his­tory in gen­eral. All ex­hibits are from Shaanxi.

“What sets this ex­hi­bi­tion apart from ev­ery­thing I have or­ga­nized be­fore is that this one tells a story, first and fore­most, about a par­tic­u­lar hand­i­craft — met­al­work, and more specif­i­cally gold­work,” says Bai Lisha, of the Shaanxi Cul­tural Her­itage Pro­mo­tion Cen­ter. A vet­eran project man­ager, Bai is re­spon­si­ble for many ex­hi­bi­tions out­side the Chi­nese main­land show­cas­ing Shaanxi’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage.

“Be­fore, the nar­ra­tive of a show was al­ways spun around ei­ther a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure or pe­riod.”

The met­al­work high­lighted here is split into nine cat­e­gories, in­clud­ing forg­ing, cast­ing, gild­ing and fil­i­gree, and a very spe­cial one in­volves the use of blue king­fisher feather.

“In choos­ing ex­hibits for the show, I needed to en­sure all of these dif­fer­ent crafts were rep­re­sented,” Bai says.

“An­other cri­te­rion is beauty: What meets the eye and in­spires the mind is in­fin­itely more im­por­tant than a par­tic­u­lar ob­ject’s his­tor­i­cal value.”

One of the high­lights of the ex­hi­bi­tion is an iron sword with a turquoise-em­bed­ded gold hilt. The sword, un­earthed from a tomb dat­ing back to the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC), is held in the high­est re­gard by ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­cause of its beau­ti­fully wrought and mag­nif­i­cently mounted han­dle. The S-shaped turquoise was meant to sym­bol­ize the curve of a dragon, Chi­nese civ­i­liza­tion’s most pow­er­ful totem.

As a pre­lude to the War­ring States Pe­riod, which ended when Em­peror Qin Shi Huang united the coun­try in 221 BC, the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod brought the ris­ing of one power af­ter an­other, all but­tressed by mil­i­tary might. The sword seems an apt metaphor for a time in Chi­nese his­tory best re­mem­bered for end­less ma­neu­ver­ing, mil­i­tary and diplo­matic.

An­other item of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is a holder for an um­brella. The cat­a­log calls it a cou­pling for con­nect­ing two parts of the long han­dle. With gold and sil­ver pat­terns set against cop­per, it serves to re­mind gob­s­macked view­ers of the lengths their an­ces­tors went to in or­der to em­bel­lish their lives.

But of course this was just a priv­i­leged few, those who sat at the apex of the so­cial pyra­mid, breathed its rar­efied air and sur­rounded them­selves with aes­thetic beauty, not only in life but in death as well.

The um­brella is be­lieved to be part of a cop­per char­iot un­earthed from the grand burial ground of Em­peror Qin Shi Huang, who united China for the first time be­fore go­ing on to build the

Great Wall.

“In choos­ing ex­hibits for the show, I needed to en­sure all of these dif­fer­ent crafts were rep­re­sented.” BAI LISHA project man­ager of Shaanxi Cul­tural Her­itage Pro­mo­tion Cen­ter

Yang Jun­chang, a con­ser­va­tion­ist and ex­pert in an­cient Chi­nese metal craft, says the ques­tion of how the del­i­cate, swirling pat­terns were pro­duced re­mains open. The thread of gold, as if out­lined on the cop­per sur­face by the finest Chi­nese paint­brush, is in fact the prod­uct of a mys­te­ri­ous and long lost art.

“We be­lieve there are two main pos­si­bil­i­ties, the first be­ing that gold was ham­mered into the pre-carved groove on the cop­per­ware,” Yang says. “The sec­ond is that the groove was filled in with a semi-molten amal­gam of gold and mercury be­fore be­ing heated. The re­sult: the mercury evap­o­rated and the gold re­mained. The first method would have left traces of pound­ing on the metal, and the sec­ond one would have left pores pro­duced by the mercury as it es­caped.

“We re­gard the sec­ond method as the more so­phis­ti­cated, but even with the help of a mi­cro­scope we have yet to dis­cover a sin­gle piece that re­veals a por­ous tex­ture.

Yang says the lack of progress is the re­sult of the very few re­search ob­jects that are avail­able to his team.

“It’s ex­tremely hard for us to bor­row from mu­se­ums. For ex­am­ple, I’ve never had a chance to

closely in­spect that cou­pling piece I’ve just been talk­ing about.”

On the other hand, mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has trans­formed the work of ar­chae­ol­o­gists and ser­va­tion­ists such as Yang, whose de­duc­tions used to be drawn largely from field­work. Be­tween 2014 and 2016, Yang’s team worked closely with re­searchers at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong in an ef­fort to un­lock the se­crets of the an­cient gold-smiths. The project was funded by Chow Tai Fook, the Hong Kong-based gold jew­eler long as­so­ci­ated with the re­vival of an­cient Chi­nese metal craft. In­deed, the ex­hi­bi­tion is mainly the re­sult of that col­lab­o­ra­tion.

With their lan­guage ad­van­tage, our Hong Kong part­ners con­trib­uted partly through their re­search of English-lan­guage doc­u­men­ta­tion,” Yang says. “They were look­ing for ev­i­dence that might point us in a cer­tain di­rec­tion or help re-es­tab­lish a long-lost link.”

That link could prove cru­cial for the likes of Yang and Bai, who are try­ing to re­po­si­tion their re­search and weave it into a broader nar­ra­tive. Bai is be­hind an­other ex­hi­bi­tion in Hong Kong, on a ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings and sites along the an­cient Silk Road, due to open in Novem­ber.

The Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) rep­re­sented the height of that ex­change, an ex­change that China is seek­ing to re­vive now. In the sev­enth and eighth cen­turies, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), as the cap­i­tal of the Mid­dle King­dom, en­joyed a pros­per­ity ri­valed only by a few cities on Earth in­clud­ing Bagh­dad and Con­stantino­ple of the great Byzan­tine Em­pire.

Chang’an be­came a fo­cal point on that nexus of trade, which took Chi­nese mer­chan­dise, in­clud­ing tea, silk and porce­lain, to other parts of the world while bring­ing other sought-af­ter prod­ucts, for ex­am­ple in­cense, to the rich and pow­er­ful in China who rev­eled in their im­mense stand­ing, ma­te­rial and so­cial.

On dis­play at the art mu­seum in Hong Kong is a per­fume sa­chet. The in­ge­niously con­structed gilt sil­ver ball with flower and bird pat­tern is a mar­vel of en­gi­neer­ing. What is known to­day as the sys­tem of Car­dan sus­pen­sion was set in­side the ball, keep­ing it con­stantly hor­i­zon­tal and pre­vent­ing the per­fume pow­der from spilling when the sa­chet moved with the wearer.

“Here, aes­thet­ics are by no means sac­ri­ficed to me­chan­ics,” says Jiang Jie, di­rec­tor of Shaanxi’s Fa­men Tem­ple Mu­seum, from whose un­der­ground stor­age the sa­chet was dis­cov­ered. “Only three such balls have been found. Two are housed in our Fa­men Tem­ple Mu­seum and one in the Shosoin in Nara, Ja­pan.

“Tang was when the very essence of Chi­nese cul­ture, such as tea and in­cense burn­ing, was formed.”

As Jiang says this, he points to a four-legged re­cep­ta­cle wo­ven exquisitely with gold and sil­ver wire. It is a tea leaves holder, and it un­der­scores the cer­e­mo­nial as­pect of tea cul­ture.

“Most rulers of the Tang Dy­nasty were de­vout Bud­dhists. And Fa­men Tem­ple, hous­ing what was be­lieved to be the tiny bone pieces be­long­ing to Sakya­muni, the founder of Bud­dhism, was in ef­fect the royal tem­ple of wor­ship. What was dis­cov­ered in its stor­age — many were items of gold and sil­ver — of­fers a tan­ta­liz­ing glimpse of a time when imag­i­na­tion was cel­e­brated by a lib­eral so­ci­ety.”

Bai says that the ex­hibits, as minute as some are, hold up a mir­ror to what was hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety at large as well as in the minds of those who crafted the pieces.

“If you look at how metal art de­vel­oped in China down the cen­turies, there is a clear tra­jec­tory of change: per­sonal whimsy grad­u­ally be­ing re­placed by well-guided en­deavor, un­corseted imag­i­na­tion by aus­pi­cious im­ages, and un­tamed beauty by a more stun­ning — or stu­pen­dous, de­pend­ing on how it af­fects you — aes­thetic.”

Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), China’s last feu­dal dy­nasty, a tech­nique called dian cui, or dip­ping of blue, be­came pop­u­lar whereby the sur­face of gilt sil­ver — mostly hair ac­ces­sories — was cov­ered with blue king­fisher feath­ers. The tech­nique is ex­tremely time-con­sum­ing, and the re­sult is of­ten a riot of colors as the re­splen­dent blue clashes with gems of dif­fer­ent hues.

“It is a vis­ual feast, and one is con­stantly be­ing re­minded of the amount of time put into its mak­ing,” Bai says.

“But some­thing is lack­ing, and that, I be­lieve, is the free spirit. Tang is not unique in its pros­per­ity — the pe­riod start­ing with the Qing em­peror Kangxi (1654-1722) and end­ing with his grand­son Em­peror Qian­long (1711-1799) was also marked by so­cial sta­bil­ity and na­tional power. How­ever, the dif­fer­ence is that in the lat­ter pe­riod, China’s door was closed. It is only with crosspol­li­na­tion that the flower of art can bloom in true splen­dor.”


Yang Jun­chang, a con­ser­va­tion­ist and ex­pert in an­cient Chi­nese metal craft.


Clock­wise from above: A cage wo­ven with gold and sil­ver wire, Tang Dy­nasty (618-907); gold and sil­ver in­laid cou­pling, Qin Dy­nasty (221-206 BC); a pair of gold Leisi ear­rings in the shape of a lantern, Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644).

Gilt sil­ver sa­chet with flower and bird pat­terns (left above), Tang Dy­nasty (618-907); king­fisher blue crown (left bot­tom) with dragon and phoenix de­sign, Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911).

An iron sword with gold hilt dec­o­rated with pan­hui pat­terns and turquoise, Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC).

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