Preserved arts reveal wisdom
Some calligraphy lovers quit their former jobs and come to look for work at the museum, just to be able to see the stone steles everyday
In Xi’an, Shaanxi province, the city that served as the capital for thirty dynasties in Chinese history, locals regard the Forest of Stele Museum as a source of their city’s spiritual aura.
The museum was built by the central authority in the early Song Dynasty (960-1279) in a Confucian temple. It houses more than 11,000 pieces of cultural relics dating from the HanDynasty (205 BC-AD 220) to the Qing Dynasty (16441911), contributed by imperial courts since the Song Dynasty.
About 3,000 pieces are stone steles, inscribed with ancient calligraphy masters’ works, as well as stone sculptures, making the museum China’s largest stone carving work museum and a paradise for calligraphy lovers.
Today, all of the stone steles are placed in protective glass covers. Yet, local residents cherish the old dayswhenthey could directly touch the stone tablets. “The devout looks of a blind man feeling about the steles is still fresh inmy memory today,” said a local traveler surnamed Huo. “I visited it in the 1980s. At that time, when the entry ticket was only 0.2 yuan ($0.03), the children regarded it as summer retreat, as there are many old trees in the shady temple, and the stone steles also feel cool. We did not realize many of the stone tablets are national treasures.”
The museum covers an area of 31,000 square meters and has seven exhibition halls. The first hall mainly displays the text of 12 Confucian classics carved on 14 steles. The stones were engraved more than 2,000 years ago, when printing was not yet invented. The second hall exhibits calligraphy steles written by the prominent calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a golden age for calligraphy.
The third hall also exhibits works of calligraphy. These steles were inscribed with five varieties of calligraphy, seal characters, official script, regular script, running hand and cursive hand, which demonstrate the development of Chinese calligraphy over 2,000 years.
The fourth hall contains various kinds of stone sculptures from theHanDynasty to the Tang Dynasty. The fifth, sixth and seventh halls display stele engravings from the Song Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.
The most famous stone sculptures are six embossed horses found in Tang Emperor Li Shimin’s tomb, which represent the highest level of stone carving in Chinese history.
A cultural relic dealer broke the stone horses and tried to smuggle them abroad piece by piece in the 1940s. At least two horses were smuggled to the United States and stored in the museum of the University of Pennsylvania. The other four horses were intercepted by Chinese customs and are displayed Zhao Haitian, in the SteleMuseum.
Somecalligraphy lovers quit their former jobs and come to look for work at the museum. Bai Xuesong is one of them, who studies biology and comes to work as a tour guide in the museum, seeing the stone day.
“It is a wonder that the museum is so well preserved,” said Bai.
A former curator of the museum shut it for three years at the peak of the “cultural revolution” steles every (1966-76), and thought of many ways to protect the relics from being sabotaged, according to his testimony.
Bai’s favorite cultural relic is the Jingyun Bell, which was cast in the Tang Dynasty with an inscription by a Tang emperor. The China National Radio recorded the ringing of the bell and has broadcast it for decades as a New Year bell ring nationwide, he added.
Screen printer Li Xiaofeng came to work in the museum after visiting it. He served in the army for three years before coming to Xi’an. “I fell in love with the calligraphy art at first sight of the stone steles and learned screen printing for two years,” Li said. “When I screen print, I feel that I amtalking with the calligraphers. They have their souls and wisdom planted in the strokes.”
A doctor, surnamed Zhang from Luoyang, Henan province, uses his mobile phone to take photos of the details of some steles. “I do not practice calligraphy. But I appreciate the beauty of the ancient calligraphers. I will show these photos to my friends,” said Zhang.
“The visit to the museum is like a pilgrimage. It looks more magnificent than expected,” said ZhaoHaitian, a traveler from Hebei province, who has been practicing the calligraphy of Ouyang Xun, a Tang Dynasty calligraphy master, for two years. “I major in Japanese at university and I learn calligraphy frommy Japanese-language teacher. But it is very difficult for me to acquire the soul of Ou’s style.”
Zhou Yun, a Chinese Australian from Xi’an, visits the museum with her Israeli Australian boyfriend. “My father always inspires me to practice calligraphy. He gifts me writing tools, and strongly suggests that I visit the museum in Xi’an, my hometown,” Zhou said.
The visit to the museum is like a pilgrimage. It looks more magnificent than expected.”
a traveler from Hebei province, who has been practicing the calligraphy of Ouyang Xun, a Tang Dynasty calligraphy master, for two years
A pavilion at the Stele Museum.
Works by Zhao Mengfu, a calligrapher in the Song Dynasty.
2 1: A worker at the Stele Museum cleans a stone stele for screen printing. 2: Bai Xuesong introduces Jingyun Bell of the Tang Dynasty in the Stele Museum.