Think back to ancient bronze vessels. Shang kings used them in rituals of communication with his all-powerful ancestors, and were buried with them. Zhou kings and feudal lords used bronze vessels to worship their shared ancestors, and rewarded their generals the copper to make vessels telling their own ancestors about the king’s recognition of their merit. Later, feudal lords distancing themselves from their lower-ranked relatives used bronze vessels in more public rituals to assert their superiority. Finally, bronze miniatures and imitations of bronze were used in graves, to save the real thing for living rituals.
Like bronze mirrors and weapons in the peninsula+ and archipelago, bronze vessels displayed inherited power and rank. And the artisans and resources for the bronze were more or less directly controlled by the elite who used and displayed the vessels.
Now let’s turn far ahead to the Song period. Li Qingzhao (1084-1155)’s autobiographical “Afterword to Catalogue of a Collection of Bronze and Stone Inscriptions,” describes how she and her husband shared a mania for collecting books and art objects, among them antique bronzes. When Li and her husband saw a bronze vessel they could not buy, they made a rubbing of the inscription. They catalogued over 2,000 volumes of such inscriptions from bronze and stone. Knowing that the dire conditions of war and disorder would force Li to sell or abandon the collection, her husband ordered her to keep the bronzes until the very last. Their collection was not unique in Song, nor was the pair’s habit of cataloguing and studying their objects.
In a catalogue of art objects in private collections, gentryman Zhou Mi listed, along with 800 paintings, books, and other objects, nineteen bronze vessels. Some of the bronzes were genuinely old, having been discovered when farmers accidentally dug up Shang and Zhou graves. Others had been made recently for the art and antiques trade. The mania for antique bronzes led, in the Southern Song, to an industry that created “old” bronze goblets, horse trappings, vases, candlesticks, statues, cymbals and bells and gongs. Copper was also used for weapons, cooking pots, Buddhist and Daoist statues and incense burners, mirrors, and ornaments. By about 1050, copper mines were depleted, since Song did not control Yunnan where more mines opened in Yuan and Ming.2 Artisans melted down copper cash for the raw material to make “ancient bronzes."3 Certain places, such as Jurong county outside Nanjing, were particularly well-known for their production of ancient-style bronzes – places that had not even been part of the Shang culture area.
Zhou Mi’s catalogue was the work of a lifetime. When he was fourteen, he was traveling with his office-holding father (the family had produced officials for six generations) from the family estate north of Hangzhou (near Huzhou) to Quzhou in southern Zhejiang. There the father and son had met a circle of men who loved poetry and painting, but also studied ancient inscriptions on stone and bronze. As he hovered on the edges of the men’s conversations in their family gardens, Zhou conceived a passion for studying, collecting, and authenticating bronze vessels. He eventually obtained rubbings of the inscriptions of such vessels, and perhaps even the bronzes themselves, from one of these men, who became his father-in-law. Zhou Mi and his father arduously built up their own art collection while they served in office. They also carefully recorded the events of their time: another sort of collection.
Li Qingzhao lost her books, bronzes, and paintings when the Northern Song fell in 1127. Likewise, when the Mongol army took the Southern Song capital in 1276, Zhou Mi’s whole ancestral estate, with its library, residences, studios, and gardens, was destroyed; the entire collection was looted, and all the written records kept by Zhou and his father were lost. Zhou Mi became deeply depressed, and slowly emerged only by obsessively writing poetry. He would not serve the new dynasty, but he socialized with many who did, including former Song subjects as well as men from Mongolia and Central Asia. Zhou turned his knowledge, talent, and social connections to writing history, and to evaluating and recording collections. In his catalogue, Zhou Mi recorded the history of ownership of the finest bronze vessel he had seen, one now lost. This fine vessel had belonged to Prime Minister Jia Sidao (1213-1275).
Jia Sidao was a typical gentryman of his time. The son of a middle-ranking military administrator, he had come into office not by taking the prestigious jinshi examination, but through the less-esteemed shadow privilege: he won his first job because of his grandfather’s official posts. His sister had been an imperial concubine, but Jia rose through the ranks not because of any special favor from the court, but because personnel officials recognized his competence. Like most gentrymen, he enjoyed all the entertainments of the capital, and loved to drink and pass time with the talented and beautiful courtesans of Hangzhou. As well as producing art himself, he was a great collector. He became Prime Minister from 1259. He had the responsibility of running the government during the period when the Mongols’ intention and ability to conquer the Southern Song became very clear. Jia had some success in redistributing land to fund the army on the Legalist model.
When an expedition against the Mongols failed in 1275, another high official memorialized the Empress Dowager Xie, who was ruling for her husband’s son, that Jia should be executed as the person to blame for the defeat. The Empress Dowager objected that Jia had served honestly and untiringly through the reigns of three emperors, but his fellow officials insisted that he be banished. On the road to exile he was assassinated. In 1276, Mongol forces captured Hangzhou, and historians, at first gentrymen whose land-holdings Jia had threatened, reviled Jia as the man who lost the dynasty.
Jia Sidao’s very best piece was the antique bronze vessel. The Empress Dowager had tried to protect Jia, but this bronze vessel entered her own art collection somehow. She too was a great collector of antiquities and art objects. Imagine the opportunities she had as empress for half-a-century, the power behind the throne for ten years, -- and the one who actually had to order the surrender of the Song capital to the Yuan armies. Jia had given her at least one other bronze vessel, inlaid with gold filigree.4 It is suspected that when he was exiled and the state confiscated his collection, she appropriated much of the collection.
The antique bronze must have been surprised to find itself moving up from a minister to an empress. But what happened next was perhaps even more surprising. After the fall of the Song, the imperial collections were dispersed in various ways. Some pieces were stolen in the chaos that followed the occupation of the capital; others the Yuan invaders carefully stored away in several large ware-houses, and slowly sold off to raise cash. Zhou Mi saw many former imperial treasures in private hands: objects with imperial seals and inscriptions, decrees written in emperors’ own handwriting. A similar thing had happened, of course, in the earlier fall of the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng to the Jin dynasty in 1126. That time, 150 years earlier, an art and antique dealer named Bi Liangshi, having fled south with the court, managed to return north on an official mission to the Jin. In the markets of Kaifeng he purchased many treasures from the former imperial collection. When he returned to the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, he presented the items to the emperor and was rewarded with an official position.
Somehow, in the transition from Song to Yuan, the Empress lost Jia Sidao’s fine bronze vessel. As the moment of surrender approached, she gave part of her collection to her relatives for safe-keeping, but she took many objects with her when she was marched in captivity to the Yuan capital. One official, Hu Yong, captured with the court, so ingratiated himself with the Empress Dowager Xie that she sold him several imperial jade vessels.5 Hu Yong was generous and hospitable, and a responsible official, but he was also an avid collector, and as an ambitious career man he pursued official advancement partly by making handsome gifts of paintings to men in high places.6 Whether or not it passed through Hu Yong’s hands, Jia Sidao’s bronze vessel went from the Empress Dowager to a wealthy merchant, a dealer in pearls known only as Mr. Chen; and he in turn sold it to a monk called Youdeyuan. Nothing further is known of either.7 The gold-inlaid vessel that Jia Sidao had given to Empress Xie, was held first by a scion of the Song royal family, the very famous painter Zhao Mengfu; and later fell into the hands of a Korean merchant who sold it for forty liang (ounces) of silver to Hu Yong.8
The fact that a vessel made for Shang royal use, another made for some Zhou feudal lords, and imperial jade vessels made for the Song imperial family, could pass from hand to hand for sale, up the social scale from minister to empress and back down to officials, merchants and monks, is eloquent testimony to the great changes in the Song period. It was a time when the things that had set the Tang aristocracy at the top of society and in the dominant position in the state – land, books, scholarship and poetry, dignified mien and proper etiquette, old and beautiful objects, family ritual, an illustrious genealogy, and extensive networks of connections – could all, if a family enjoyed several generations of prosperity and imitated upper-class modes of behavior, be bought.
1 This section draws mainly on Ankeney Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes.”
2 Shiba, Commerce and Society in Sung China, 124.
3 Shiba, Commerce and Society in Sung China, 125.
4 Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes,” 180.
5 Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes,” 154.
6 Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes,” 153.
7 Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes,” 199.
8 Weitz, Zhou Mi’s “Record of Clouds and Mist Passing Before One’s Eyes,” 180-1.