In the Song dynasty (960-1279), probably more than in any other period of China’s history, culture and education were considered the most important prerequisites of the elite and valued higher than office and rank. Advancement in society was certainly desired and sought, but at the same time spurned, and the state’s most outspoken critics were often celebrated as sages. Even if the post of a high official in the service of the Emperor was considered the ultimate achievement, a modest and humble existence far away from it all, in harmony with nature, was at the same time one of society’s fundamental ideals.
The cow herd with his water buffalo, the fisherman in his boat, the brush wood gatherer under gnarled pine trees are idyllic scenes endlessly repeated in paintings and evoked in poetry and prose. In the First Prose Poem on the Red Cliff Su Dongpo (Su Shi, 1037-1101), for example, writes, referring to himself and his friends (in the translation of A.C. Graham, in Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature, New York, 1965, p. 382):
Fishermen and woodcutters on the river’s isles, with fish and shrimps and deer for mates, riding a boat as shallow as a leaf, pouring each other drinks from bottlegourds; mayflies visiting between heaven and earth, infinitesimal grains in the vast sea, mourning the passing of our instant of life, envying the long river which never ends! Let me cling to a flying immortal and roam far off, and live for ever with the full moon in my arms! But knowing that this art is not easily learned, I commit the fading echoes to the sad wind.”
Yet not only the recluse, who lived indeed as a farmer in forced exile, as Su Dongpo did at the time he wrote these lines, expressed such thoughts. We hear similar eulogies of the secluded realm uncorrupted by civilization from the scholar-official, who held a high government post at the Song court, like Fan Chengda (1126-1193), who in many poems revelled in the joys of the country-dweller, for example in Late Spring (in the rhymed translation of Gerald Bullett, ibid., p. 387):
Few come this way, and if a stranger should,
See how the birds dart off, into the wood!
Shadows of dove-grey dusk the hills obscure,
And gathering reach my fagot-builded door.
In a boat light as a leaf, still visible,
My lad-of-all-work plies his single scull.
Alone, I weave my fence, of lithe bamboo,
And ducks go primly homewards, two by two.
If the bureaucrat may still have been able to live this dream at least at some point in his life, this was certainly impossible for the Emperor; and yet, the same ideals prevailed even at the imperial palace. The handscroll Awakening under a Thatched Awning, attributed to Emperor Gaozong (1107-1187, r. 1127-1162), the first emperor of the Southern Song in Hangzhou, for example, depicts a calm morning on a deserted lake, where a lonely fisherman is seen stretching his limbs after a night spent on his narrow, reed-covered boat, moored at a deserted rocky outcrop with nothing but shrubs and a willow tree nearby and a distant skyline of hills seen across the misty lake (Qianxi nian Songdai wenwu dazhan/China at the Inception of the Second Millennium: Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2000, pl. IV-8; fig. 1).
Such blissful, picturesque scenes of life in tune with nature have a strong and universal attraction, and similar ideas flourished in the West since antiquity. The pastoral verses of the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), the Eclogues, inspired by earlier (3rd century BC) bucolic poems by the Greek poet Theocritus, depict idyllic paradisiacal tableaux of Arcadia (or Arcady), a remote and secluded highland region of ancient Greece, in the centre of the Peloponnese. He postulated the basic harmony of man with nature there, as summed up by E.V. Rieu (ed., Virgil. The Pastoral Poems, Harmandsworth, Middlesex, 1967 , p. 14):
It was in his Arcady, the pastoral world of his memories and of his fancy, that Virgil found the window which gave him this vision of the truth, and sensed the spirit that pulsates in everything that is, and makes a harmony of man, tree, beast, and rock. Nature is fundamentally at one with man, though towns and politics and war make him a refugee from her and from the truth. It is the shepherd and his sheep that are her nurslings and her confidants. It is they who comprehend, when the ‘woods … make music and the pine-trees speak’.
In the Renaissance, Virgil’s notion of Arcadia was adapted and romanticised by Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) in a pastoral romance of that title, which suddenly made this utopia so popular, that visions of an unspoiled idyllic landscape where herdsmen live the simple life close to nature, in unison with each other and their surroundings, sprang up everywhere, in poetry, prose, theatre and painting. Unlike in China, however, they remained pastoral phantasies and had few repercussions directly into everyday life.
In China, this glorification of simplicity, austerity and naturalness went further; it encompassed the arts as well as the crafts. In the visual arts, it found expression in various different ways, for example, in paintings in the intimate format of album leaves and fans depicting contemplative scenes, such as tranquil landscapes and close-up studies of birds or animals; and eventually in an extreme minimalism of form, as in the ascetic renderings of persimmons in different shades of black ink by the monk Muqi (c.1200-1270), or the seemingly spontaneous, rapid brush strokes of the one-time academy painter Liang Kai (c.1140-c.1210) in his rendering of the poet Li Taibo.
In the Song, the celebration of artlessness was more than a flight of fancy or a matter of taste, it was a reflection of an overarching world view. It therefore pervaded many aspects of everyday life and also filtered down to works of art. A ceramic pot, a tray of lacquered wood, a stone pebble, so obviously non-precious and humble, could become revered artefacts. Ceramics in particular were in use in a huge spectrum of society, from monks to drink their tea from, right up to imperial banquets. They could be basic mass-produced wares, but they equally lent themselves to extreme sophistication. Naturally, the hands of master artisans were crucially important in this elevation; yet, there always remained a pinch of unpredictability that was particularly cherished: the rare, fortuitous outcome of a firing, for example, that seemed more like a gift of nature than a man-made success. Song ceramics are among the few works of art, where differences between good but ordinary works and outstanding masterpieces can be very subtle and require connoisseurship to be fully grasped. This relative evaluation of desirability of two basically comparable pieces is as active today as it was in the Song, if not even more so (in the case of black Jian ware tea bowls of Fujian, for example, the price of an exceptional specimen today can be 100,000 times that of a basic piece).
As many Song vessels are deceptively plain, discernment of quality requires close study and some degree of knowledge, as quality can manifest itself in all aspects of a ceramic vessel, details of proportion, subtle notions of tactility, nuances of colour, random patterns of splashes or accidental webs of crazing, and so on. Master potters of guan, Jun or Longquan ware, for example, aimed to achieve results that amaze us like a stone that is coloured or veined in a unique, dazzling manner. Others, like those working in the Cizhou kilns, tried to appeal to our appreciation of a more rustic beauty, and sometimes of calligraphic brushwork.
The same simplicity of form can be detected in carvings of jade and other stones. Small carvings were often turned into fondling pieces, as smooth as pebbles worn down over millennia, and large boulders were only minimally shaped, both aiming to evoke a work created by nature.
The outstanding craftsmanship of the finest works of art paired with the severe minimalism that characterizes their designs gives Song artefacts a timeless, ‘contemporary’ feel that has an immediate appeal to any connoisseur of classic beauty. These works of art are anything but simple in their conception or their execution, but they try to reflect nature in a romanticised, an idealized – Arcadian – form.
Plain lacquer wares of the Song dynasty are amongst the most beautiful and delicate pieces known in this media. The present dish is striking for its deep red colour and simple yet elegant organic form. It is not only most pleasing to the eye but is also surprisingly light and thin when held in one's hand. This dish is the work of a highly skilled craftsman who has created a masterpiece that represents the refined taste of the Song elite literati.
A very similar eight-lobed red lacquer dish, from the Sedgwick collection, was sold in our London rooms, 15th October 1968, lot 56. Compare also a slightly smaller six-lobed dish of this type with a black lacquer base illustrated in Lee Yu-kuan, Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo, 1972, p. 118, pl. 52, where it is noted that the two characters on the base represent the alias of a man who apparently withdrew from society to study and meditate. A rare black eight-lobed lacquer dish, from a noble Japanese family collection formed prior to World War II, is offered in this sale, lot 3108; and a seven-lobed red lacquer dish (or perhaps a stand), from the Dubosc collection, was included in the Eskenazi exhibition Chinese Lacquer from the Jean-Pierre Dubosc Collection and Others, London, 1992, cat. no. 8.
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