Hymns of Wu
G Hall , 2nd Floor in WuZhong Museum
The “elegant and orthodox” (yazheng) represents the finest of Wu Culture. Not slanted or excessive, the target is refinement and simplicity. The quality means being strong in the continuance of tradition, exquisite in the pursuit of detail. The pre-Qin “elegant and orthodox” was embodied in the adherence to and inheritance of Central Plains Culture. Along with the economic development of Wu and the southern shift of China’s economic heartland in the Han and Tang, Wuzhong itself, in the center of the Three Wu (Jiangnan) region, slowly emerged as the cultural orthodoxy. The region directed the mainstream cultural current to an even greater degree during the Ming and Qing, when Wuzhong, from its garden construction through daily appliances, featured the best pickings of the time. Cultural relics are the expression of a period’s culture, thought and means of living, and the “elegant and proper” texture inhering in Wu cultural relics grants them their own estimable qualities.
Metallurgical processing standards and range of applications represent a major indicator of the developmental level of civilization. Bronze is particularly representative among metals.
As the Art of War wrote, “The great affairs of state are ceremony and war” – bronze was the propitious metal of the pre-Qin period, and bronzes participated in advancing the construction of royal and spiritual authority in the early formative period of the Chinese.
From “sporting Wu halberd, clad in rhinoceros armor” (Songs of Chu, Warring States) through “the grand mirror hanging high, sitting and inspecting all neighbors” (Liu An, Western Han), that is, from the Qin-Han period onward, the superior weaponry of Wu transformed to exquisite bronze mirrors. The period saw a transition in Wu culture, shifting from veneration for the military to reverence for the civil.
The marks of the unified Imperial authority of a central Empire, the manifestation of state strength, and indeed even the shifting of dynasties, rise and decline, honor, and disgrace, may also be peeked at, like a candle in the dark, through dynasties of coinage where bronze was the primary material.
The ancient name for jing (mirror) was jian, and coinage was also referred to as quan or huo. “Mirrors (jian-jian) and Quanhuo Coins) examines ancient intellectual history through mirrors, and dynastic economic history through coinage, from the perspective of the Wu lands.
The achievement of ancient ceramic arts was the pride of China, a pride to which Wu contributed in great quantity. In Wu, the enormous volume and profuse variety of ceramics passing down to the present or archaeologically excavated offer the most exemplary reading of the impressive developmental history of Wu cultural transmission.
From the view of Wu culture, whether Neolithic Liangzhu pottery, Six Dynasties green porcelain, Five Dynasties secret-color porcelain, through the acme of ceramic history under the Southern Song official kilns, the appearance of blue-and-white pottery in the Yuan or the mighty prospect of the various categories of Ming and Qing ceramic, some were produced in the Wu cultural realm and thus created through the customs and cultural aesthetic of the area, others relied on the developed commercial-foods economy and open-minded and inclusive thinking for their transmission and circulation, others took Wu as one of their main markets, and others moreover were treasured as heirlooms by Wu gentry and layman alike. Amongst all this these ‘superfluous objects’ have been able to reach from ancient times to the present.
As was written in the Ming, “Though fine craftsman pool in the capital, for brilliance in craft one pushes forward Su Commandery (Suzhou)”: such brilliance emerged generation upon generation from the initial stages at Wu.
Particularly with the major economic development of Jiangnan from the Six Dynasties, the special geographical position and the successive southward shift of Central Plains officials, Wu became a rich haven for the humanities, for which it crowned all of China during the Ming and Qing. “Lu Zigang’s work with jade and Bao Tiancheng’s work with horn… were both assuredly unrivaled for a century before and after.” Taking the Wu perspective to examine the glorious achievements of ancient Chinese craft, we witness both the thriving commercial economy of Jiangnan and the outstanding humanistic achievement of the Wu region.