The Art of Song Dynasty
Asian Art Hong Kong

The Art of Song Dynasty

The strategy of demilitarizing and retiring the powerful generals adopted by Emperor Taizu (Zhao Kuangyin) (reigning from 960 to 976), founding monarch of the Song dynasty, led to an emphasis on art and literature, and negligence of national defense. In addition to this, state affairs were controlled by crafty and fawning ministers. These factors finally brought about the invasions of the Khitan (Liao), Jurchen (Jin) and Mongol (Yuan) tribes. Although the Song dynasty (960-1279) failed completely in political and military affairs, its achievements in art and literature, science and technology, and overseas trade were unprecedented.

Discussion about Song art is never complete without mentioning Emperor Huizong (Zhao Ji) (reigning from 1101 to 1125) of the Northern Song (960-1127) dynasty. This multi-talented emperor was an ardent art lover, an eminent poet, a great painter and calligrapher. He invented a unique and exceptional style of calligraphy known as shoujinti (slender-gold style). His devotion to the arts and sciences was highly influential with his ministers and subjects. Art and literature thus thrived during Song times and remained radiant for the rest of Chinese history.

People of the Song dynasty pursued a high quality lifestyle. Material pleasure was even more pursued after the southward migration of the Song court. The everyday utensils used by the royalty and dignitaries were extremely sophisticated. Production of gold and silver ware, bronzes, jades, lacquers and ceramics significantly outgrew the previous dynasties in quality and quantity. The artifacts displayed in the present exhibition were the result of the promotion of art and culture, and the products of an affluent society. The parcel-gilt silver covered meiping shaped vase carved with phoenix and peony design (Exhibit 1) is noted for its graceful shape and intricate decoration. The six-lobed silver mirror box with female immortals (Exhibit 2) is applauded for its lavish floral motifs and exquisite carving. The brown lacquer which lines the underside of the lid and the interior of the box further enhances the overall beauty of the object. The plain bronze mirror of similar shape placed inside the box has what looks like a rectangular mark on its back. This mirror is similar in style to the Huzhou (in Zhejiang) bronze mirrors in vogue during Song times. However, the mark is now partially obscured by dirt and may show up after cleaning. It had probably taken months or even years to produce such an exquisite silver mirror box. Apart from a similar box in the collection of the British Museum, there seem to be no mirror boxes of this style known in public or private collections.

The black-lacquered bamboo fan (Exhibit 3) is also not found in private collections. The only known similar examples are the two bamboo fans in the Fujian Provincial Museum and Zhenjiang Museum in Jiangsu province respectively. It is reported that Exhibits 4a-c were found together with the fan. If this was the case, the “guiyou” mark inscribed on the base of the red lacquer bowl (Exhibit 4a) could be used to date these four artifacts. According to the Chinese sexagenarian cycle, the guiyou year corresponds to AD1213 or 1273.

Substantial quantities of lacquer ware were produced in the Song dynasty. Early Song examples, predominantly household utensils, were usually monochrome with a plain surface. Due to the absence of decorative motifs, the focus was placed on the shape of the vessel and the quality of the lacquer. Some mouth rims were mounted with gold to enhance the splendour of the vessels and to indicate the superior status of their owners. The rare lacquer dish with gold rim (Exhibit 5) is similar in shape to Ding ware of the Five Dynasties (907-960) and Northern Song period, as well as Liao dynasty (916-1125) porcelains, suggesting that it was from the early Northern Song period.

Monochrome lacquers are occasionally found with cinnabar red inscriptions usually denoting the year and place of production, the shop name or the craftsman’s name. The inscriptions usually end with the two characters of shanglao. “Shang” means “superior” while “lao” refers to animal sacrifice in ancient ritual. Shanglao thus means “superior sacrificial meat” (such as beef, mutton and pork). When inscribed on lacquer ware, this mark probably is meant to indicate “high quality ritual ware”. The last two characters of the cinnabar inscription on the lacquer deep bowl (Exhibit 6) appear to be shanglao.

Exhibits Nos.7-11 comprise a rare group of fine and rare Ding ware. The Song dynasty was a peak period in Chinese ceramic history. Ru, Ding, Guan, Ge, Jun, Yaozhou and Qingbai wares, each noted for its unique beauty, are among the most famous wares of the Song dynasty. A number of significant and representative examples of Ding ware have been included in this exhibition. The vigorous, fluent and spontaneous carving style typical of Ding ware of the Song dynasty is well exemplified in the porcelain dish with lotus design (Exhibit 7). The four dishes with molded floral design datable to Jin dynasty bespeak the achievement of molded Ding ware. It is reported also that they were found together. If that is true, it indicates that the guan marked and the Shangshiju marked wares are related in a certain way. The Song dynasty established the Bureau of Imperial Dining which took charge of the imperial food service. The Jin dynasty (1115-1234) established a similar department. Due to their scarcity, porcelains inscribed with Shangshiju and Guan mark are particularly precious.

Tea ware and wine vessels often appear on murals of the contemporary Jin dynasty, which shows that they were very popular drinks in that period. The Song people’s love for them is also evident because they were often mentioned together in the history of that period. “Half-boiled wine from the wine jar; freshly brewed tea from tea cakes”, are two lines from a poem written by the Song scholar Feng Shixing. The porcelain jar with bowl shaped mouth (Exhibit 11) from the Ding kiln was among the popular tea wares of the Song dynasty.

With or without tea, people of the Song dynasty also loved wine by itself. Jiumingji (Names of Wine), a book written by a Song scholar Zhang Nengchen, records the elegant names of over one hundred famous wines of the Song dynasty, showing the popularity of wine drinking. Apart from the silver meiping shaped vase (Exhibit 1), the black-glazed yuhuchun shaped vase with floral design (Exhibit 12) was also used as a wine vessel.

The ceramics industry thrived during Song times. Many kilns made superb products. The Southern Song (1127-1279) celadon washer with twin fish design (Exhibit 13) is noted for its rich and lustrous green glaze. It is among the finest examples of Longquan celadon. The dated Qingbai glazed porcelain covered jar with four lugs is from the Jingdezhen kiln (Exhibit 14), and records the 6th year of the Yuanyou period (AD1091) of the Northern Song dynasty as its date of manufacture. It provides valuable information for the study of the history of Qingbai ware of the Song period. The large tortoiseshell glazed bowl from the Jizhou kiln (Exhibit 15) is noted for its stately size and beautiful glaze. The painted clay figure of a seated boy (Exhibit 16) is a rarity. It may well be a Song product as this type of doll was especially popular at that time.


We have added in last minute three exhibits. One of them is a good and rare stone brush-rest carved in the shape of a monkey sitting on a pine branch (Exhibit 17). At the first glance, this piece does not look carved with intricate details. However, if we look at it closely, we will find that it is vividly carved showing the liveliness of the animal. It is a very good and rare Song dynasty scholar’s object.

The second exhibit that we have added is a group of four Ruyao shards (Exhibits 18a-d). Ruyao is a world famous ware and is almost a household name even for people who are not familiar with Chinese ceramics. The Emperor Huizhong of the Northern Song dynasty strived at all costs to attain near perfection in its production. The four good and rare shards here are chosen from among a group of shards from various famous kilns of the Song dynasty in our collection.

The last exhibit that we have added is an important and excellent Ru-type green glazed dish with finely carved peony design (Exhibit 19). In Song dynasty, the kilns in Henan province produced a series of high quality green wares with spur marks on the fully glazed base, of which Ru ware is one of the better known categories. Our dish is one among those wares. Its quality is so superb that it even surpasses some of the high-grade products in the above-mentioned group of wares. We are proud to show this marvellous piece in this exhibition.

K. Y. Ng

The Art of Song Dynasty
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