Wu Yun (1811-1883, literary name Pingzhai and Tuilou) was a native of Anhui, but his family moved to Gui’an in Zhejiang. Having passed the Provincial Examination, he was appointed to several official positions including Magistrate of Suzhou Prefecture, however, his official career was not a smooth ride. Eventually, he retired to Suzhou, following the example of many other retired officials, where he built a private garden, which he named Ting Feng Yuan or Garden Where One Listens to Maple Trees (fig. 26). 

Fig. 25

During his life time, Wu Yun built a remarkable collection of archaic bronzes, seals, paintings and calligraphy. Two bronze lei-vessels, known as the Qi Hou lei, were his most treasured pieces, and Wu named his study the Liang Lei Xuan or Hall of Two Lei. In his Liangleixuan yiqi tushi (An illustrated study of the ritual vessels in the Liangleixuan Studio), printed in 1873, he published the present bronze hu, and named it as ‘Zhou Ai Hu’; and in the accompanying note he wrote that this vessel came from another retired scholar-official Li Meisheng (1831-1885). Li Meisheng was a native of Sichuan, and a follower of Zeng Guofan (1811-1872). He was well known for his military prowess, and held very senior government positions including the Director of the Board of War. Like Wu Yun, he had retired to Suzhou, and purchased one of the best gardens Wan Shi Yuan or Garden of the Master of Nets for his private residence. Li also had a sizable collection of antiques, and was a friend of Wu Yun, Pan Zuyin and Wu Dacheng. Among his collection of archaic bronzes, the famous pieces included the ‘Song Ding’, ‘Shi Mao Hu’ (cover) and ‘Guo Ji Shi Zi Zu Hu’. Wu Yun and Li Meisheng had a close friendship.  In Wu’s numerous letters, he mentioned how he shared Chen Jieqi’s letters with Li and other friends, and that he also tried to introduce Li to Chen and asked, on Li’s behalf, to buy some of Chen’s rubbings.  It is in one of the letters addressed to Chen that Wu told the story (fig. 27): 

Fig. 26

“In the winter of xinyou year (1861), Jin Lansheng found this bronze at a metal recycling store in Shanghai. Later he sold it to Li Meisheng (Li Hongyi); I acquired it by exchanging some other pieces with Li. At that time many collections belonging to old families in Jiangsu were seized by the rebels, and sold on, using Shanghai as the outlet port. As to whether this bronze was once in the collection of Gu Xiangzhou, I simply don’t have enough evidence to say.”23

Gu Xiangzhou was the literary name of Gu Yuan (1799-1851), another well-known collector from Suzhou. His library and collections were regarded at the time as the best in Jiangnan, and he also built a private garden in Suzhou, called Pi Jiang Xiao Zhu or The small construction of Pin Jiang. 

Fig. 27

In the nineteenth century, Suzhou, known as the Oriental Venice, was a prosperous metropolitan city in the south. With its easy communications and pleasant environment, Suzhou was an ideal place for retired rich and powerful scholar-officials. Many of them were keen collectors who devoted time and other resources to studying art and antiques, and  Wu Yun was one of the most distinguished of them all. He exchanged letters almost daily with other collectors such as Che Jieqi, Pan Zuyin and Wu Dacheng, discussing questions of epigraphy, authenticity, and techniques of producing rubbings. In his letters to Pan Zuyin, Wu Yun wrote with excitement when he leant that Pan had obtained the famous Western Zhou bronze tripod, the “Yu Ding”, in Shaanxi24; and on many occasions he mentioned Wu Dacheng’s visits to his house25. The prominent collector and connoisseur Chen Jieqi also featured in Wu’s letters26

The intellectual environment of Suzhou and lively gatherings of this elite group were described by Du Wenlan (1815-1887) in his book Qiyuan Cihua (Tales of the ci-writing from Qiyuan), and in which he admired the literary talents of Wu Yun and Li Meisheng27. Also, one of the most popular pieces of fiction at the time was Niehaihua (Flower in the Sea of Evil), by Zeng Pu (1871-1935), which captured the social dramas and changes of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century life in Beijing and Suzhou.  A number of real life characters were portrayed in this fictional world, such as Weng Tonghe (1830-1904), Gong Zizhen (1792-1841) and Pan Zuyin (1830-1890).  

Fig. 28

The famous scholar Yu Yue (1821-1906) (fig. 28) was also Wu Yun’s neighbor and a close friend, and it was Yu who inscribed the title page and wrote a preface for Wu’s book Liangleixuan yiqi tushi; Yu also wrote a couplet for Wu’s seventieth birthday to commemorate their friendship:

“Our fellow shares his birthday with ancient things, forever looked after, forever used and enjoyed, a ding here, an yi there, sitting in the Hall of the Two Lei, already above the Xia-Shang-Zhou dynasties; 

You are ten years older than I, I am 60 and you are 70, together we face our parallel universes, separated by an alley, we are two happy men”

Wu Yun’s residence, the Hall of the Two Lei, was always full of guests. In his later years, Wu Yun also became the patron of a number of artists, including Ren Yu (1850-1901), and the famous artist Wu Changshuo (1844-1927).  From 1880 till his death in 1883, Wu Yun provided lodgings for Wu Changshuo in his house, and shared with him his private collection of ancient bronzes, classical paintings and calligraphy. All of these factors contributed to the success of Wu Changshuo’s career, and were duly acknowledged in Wu Changshuo’s own writings28.

Wu Yun was very pleased to have this bronze hu in his collection of over one hundred ancient bronze vessels. It was, he said, “wondrous and ancient in form and manufacture, a rare treasure among ritual vessels.”  But, as he once said, “there are times things come together, but also times when things disperse”. Soon after Wu Yun’s death, this bronze entered the collection of Wan Zhongli (literary name Meiyan), another well-known collector from Hanyang (today’s Wuhan)29.  In the early 20th  century, it left China to become a highly valued piece in several distinguished European collections. This is perhaps another story waiting to be told30.

Bronze rubbing with painted Flowers made by Lin Fuchang (d. after 1877), now in the Wen Cheng collection © Hsing Ching Weng Trust and Wan-go Weng

23 Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Chidu (Letters from Liangleixuan), 1886, Taipei reprint, p. 661.

24 Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Chidu (Letters from Liangleixuan) , p. 582.

25 Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Chidu (Letters from Liangleixuan),  pp. 582 & 600.

26 Wu Yun, Liangleixuan Chidu (Letters from Liangleixuan),  pp. 554, 565, 571, 574, 580, 608.

27 Du Wenlan, Qiyuan Cihua (Tales of the ci-writing from Qiyuan), vol.6.

28 Wu Changshuo, Shijiaoji [ Wu Yun Zhuanlue ] (Friendship of stones) [ Biography of Wu Yun], Shanghai, 1992. 

29 See Zou An, Zhou Jinwen Cun (Surviving bronze inscriptions of the Zhou dynasty), Shanghai,1916. 

30 The bronze hu entered the collection of Lionel Edwards in the 1930s, and was subsequently auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 1945, where John Sparks bought it and sold immediately to Baron Paul Hatvany.   An interesting account in A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World Through the Eye of Giuseppe Eskenazi tells the story of how he acquired this piece from Baron Paul Hatvany and sold to British Rail Pension Fund in 1978 (pp.51-2).