Scholarship, Discovery and the Arthur M. Sackler Collections of Chinese Art
Jenny F. So
No other Twentieth Century collection of Chinese art can rival the encyclopedic nature of the Arthur M. Sackler Collections. The impressive variety in the collections illustrates Dr. Arthur M. Sackler's all-encompassing approach to collecting, and his acute appreciation of the height and breadth of China's artistic achievements over the ages. In the Foreword to Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (1987), Dr. Sackler explains what he saw in these different types of Chinese art that form his vast collection:
"China's aesthetics in different media peaked in different epochs. As I explored the arts of China, I found that the thrill I experienced viewing Shang bronze vessels was matched by the pleasures derived from the exquisite jade carvings of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, from the masterpieces of sculptures in clay, stone and wood from the Han dynasty on, from Tang dynasty ceramics and metalwork, from the furniture of the Ming dynasty, and from the beautiful and powerful paintings and calligraphy of the Ming and Qing dynasties."
The Arthur M. Sackler Collections are more than just a vast treasure trove of Chinese art. The promotion of in-depth, interdisciplinary studies using the most up-to-date art-historical, archaeological, and technical methods was envisioned and realized by Dr. Arthur M. Sackler. Some of the most important publications in Chinese art over almost half a century are owed to this sponsorship, including the symposium on the Chu Silk Manuscript at Columbia University in 1967; the exhibition and ground-breaking catalogue on the paintings of the late Ming monk-painter Shitao at Princeton in 1973; and the landmark, three-volume catalogue of the ancient ritual bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections published between 1987 and 1995. These research and publication projects were all based on the contents of the Arthur M. Sackler Collections.
My association with the collections began in the mid-1970s while I was still a graduate student at Harvard. In 1975, Dr. Sackler commissioned Harvard University to produce a three-volume catalogue of the ancient Chinese bronzes in his collections. For the key contributors to this monumental project, the experience was an invaluable learning experience, and the resulting publications were major milestones in their early scholarly careers. Dr. Sackler had the foresight to realize that knowledge gained from first-hand, in-depth study of a large corpus of material was vital to the training of young scholars as an academic and professional in the field. By entrusting these important projects to young research fellows or Ph.D. students, and encouraging them to be daring and innovative in their methodologies, or to work in close collaboration with experts across disciplines, Dr. Sackler made lasting contributions to scholarship on Chinese art in the West, and launched distinguished careers in America, Asia, and Europe.
On this unusual occasion when selections from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections of ancient Chinese bronze, jade, sculpture, ceramics, furniture and painting will be offered to like-minded collectors and institutions, it would be most apposite to highlight how the Collections have enhanced our understanding of the society that produced them. The ding-tripod (lot 205) may appear on first encounter, to be rather common in both shape and decoration. But Robert Bagley demonstrated through similar examples recovered from archaeological excavations that it was a popular late Shang Dynasty type which, when appropriated by the succeeding Zhou Dynasty, was a favored gift to loyal supporters who then transported it to their home temples far and wide. This bronze ritual vessel thus becomes a concrete illustration of the complex feudal system practiced by the Zhou kings. On the other hand, the he-wine container (lot 202) was rare during late Shang, but popular during the early Western Zhou period. Analysis reveals that the deceptively simple design around the neck on this he and also on two ding-tripods (lots 209 and 217) - named "triple band" - might be understood as an attempt to evoke older designs of the Shang era, like the ones on the bronze gu (lot 201). Artistic decisions like these came to be called "archaism" in the later ages of the Song, Ming, and Qing periods (12th-18th century). We should perhaps start looking earlier for such an awareness of and deliberate allusions to the past.
Archaeological excavations in Shandong province reveal that the unassuming bronze hu (lot 214) with its complex system of loops on the belly, neck, and lid connected to a linked chain handle, might be indicative of a shared way of life between ancient communities in modern Shandong province and the migratory tribes farther north. The clever embellisher who added the inscription inside the lid of this vessel clearly did not understand this connection.
Other bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections are simply astonishingly beautiful - the almost baroque exuberance of the phoenix design on an utilitarian axle fitting (lot 212), which might exemplify Dr. Sackler's comment that "ritual Chinese bronzes are among the most exquisite expressions of what man can create out of dead mineral and intense fire"; or the exceptionally well preserved and animated painting of a peacock inside the cover of the Han-dynasty lian (lot 219), an eloquent reminder cue that by the early centuries AD, the art of bronze-casting is destined to be displaced by the emerging art of brush painting. There are also pieces that remind us that there is still much we do not know about ancient Chinese bronzes - the fascinating but bizarre bronze fitting or finial (lot 225), whose function, provenance, or even date of manufacture remain unclear in spite of the wealth of archaeological discoveries made over the past decades.
Among the over one thousand Chinese jades remaining in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections after the inaugural gift to the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, is a wide-ranging variety of ritual and ornamental types, from monumental and mysterious ritual blades, to small animal-shaped carvings (hares, tigers, deer, buffalo, etc.). From these ritual shapes, we have learned a great deal about regional differences in mineral sources, shapes, and working techniques since the late Neolithic period (4th or 3rd millennium BC). Archaeological excavations have allowed us to associate exceptionally large ritual objects in jade - such as the disc (lot 278) and the exceptionally thin knife blade (lot 271) - with late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Qijia communities in the middle and upper Yellow River valleys in modern-day Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The exquisite fine polish of the almost paper-thin knife blade (only 2 mm thick), associated with the Qijia communities in northwest China, is text-book perfection in its extraordinary thinness and near-pristine condition. Made around 2000 BC, before metal tools were in widespread use, this blade is the product of a perfect marriage of superior material (a fine-grained nephrite) and masterful technique that typifies the late Neolithic in the northwest. Blades like these have been recently recovered from a pit, arranged in parallel formations and stood on their edges, at a Qijia period site in Shenmu, northern Shaanxi province (illus. 1). Exactly what this unusual arrangement means remains a mystery, although its ritual or ceremonial nature seems very likely.
The Qijia communities in northwest China were also home to the largest number of forked blades (also traditionally called "zhang") like lot 288, made from a distinctive dark green, almost black, nephrite. Our only clue to how such blades were used appeared in another peripheral community, at Sanxingdui outside Chengdu, Sichuan province, in southwest China, where comparably large numbers of this type have been recovered. However, we cannot be certain if these blades were similarly deployed in both these regions, i.e. held vertically with forked end up in rituals associated with mountains (illus. 2). There is also no consensus on the inspiration behind this unusual shape.
Although ge-halberd blades represent a classic Shang ritual jade made after a functional bronze counterpart, exceptionally long versions, like lot 286, are more common in communities far away from the Shang capital at Anyang, Henan province. One of the longest ge-halberd blades (93 cm.) came from the mid-second millennium BC site at Panlongcheng, Hubei province, in the middle Yangzi valley. The ge-halberd blade seems to have undergone significant changes in ritual meaning because blades like lot 258 have been buried placed vertically, pointed tip up, on the chest of the deceased in the late Western Zhou burials of the noble Jin and Guo states, often also thickly sprinkled with cinnabar before the tomb was closed (illus. 3). In the case of these ritual blades, we may have learned a great deal more about them with the help of archaeological excavations, but we are still far from understanding their changing functions or meanings in ancient China's rituals.
A distinguishing feature of the Arthur M. Sackler Collections of archaic Chinese jades, vividly illustrated by the current selection, is the large numbers and immense variety of small, ornamental items. Some are classic text-book types, like the C-dragon pendant (lot 282), the impressive bird finial-insignia (lot 260), or the disarmingly naturalistic turtle (part of lot 293). They have been recovered from Shang-dynasty royal tombs at Anyang and in nearby burials. There is also the rare example of "twins", like the enigmatic two-bird composition (part of lot 254), which is paralleled only by an equally rare three-dimensional version in the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, Florida, or the "twin" jade dancers in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, from almost a thousand years later.
There are also exciting new revelations brought by controlled archaeological excavations. A group of small jade pendants, all different in shape but all pierced by a small hole in the center (lots 272, 273, 294, 298) can now be understood as performing a very special function within a pendant assembly. Where they have been recovered in situ, a necklace assembled from a variety of jades usually has one piece like these acting as a closing device (illus. 4). The type was produced throughout the late Shang and Western Zhou periods, in a wide range and variety of shapes and sizes. That so much attention was given to a minor functional component illustrates the remarkable creativity and infinite richness of ancient Chinese jades.
Another well-known type (lot 259), often called "pendant," may now be reinterpreted as the top of a staff or handle, ie. a finial. Typically, they have a projection at one end for insertion into the top of a handle, and usually display some combination of man and animal motifs, or man, bird, and animal motifs. The complex iconography of these finials suggests that they might have been magical instruments of shamanism or a shaman's insignia. The earliest jade example with this imagery was recovered from a late Neolithic (ca. 3rd millennium BC) context at Kunshan, Jiangsu province, showing the typical three-part iconography of man, bird, and animal (illus. 5). This iconography must have had profound spiritual meaning among ancient Chinese because it survived over two thousand years, well into the first millennium BC, when the current example was made.
Finally, we learn from the encyclopedic Arthur M. Sackler Collections that beauty can exist in microscopic places - the exquisite material and workmanship lavished on a tiny fifth-century BC fitting - perhaps a handle for what must have been a very special object (lot 296); or the astonishing technical prowess responsible for the precision-cut, high-gloss polish of the third-century BC agate rings (lot 307). In spite of the hardness of agate (7 on Mohs scale, harder than nephrite-jade, and harder than steel), colorful agate was chosen for these beautiful ring-pendants to show off perfectly the mineral's natural qualities. They remind us that, since over two thousand years ago, ancient jade-workers had already mastered the techniques in working some of Nature's hardest minerals (jade and agate), and that this technical achievement was motivated and perfected by a profound veneration, respect, and love for these materials that began with the dawn of Chinese civilization more than five thousand years ago.
Early Chinese Art and its Possible Influence in the Pacific Basin, Noel Barnard, ed., New York: Intercultural Arts Press, 1972).
Marilyn and Shen Fu, Studies in Connoisseurship: Chinese Paintings from the Arthur M. Sackler Collection in New York and Princeton, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Cambridge & Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University & Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1987; Jessica Rawson, Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Cambridge & Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University & Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1990; Jenny F. So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections; New York & Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Foundation & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.
For example, Shen Fu was a research fellow at Princeton in 1973 when the Studies in Connoisseurship exhibition and catalogue were produced. Subsequently, he taught at Yale, then went on to be Senior Curator at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and is currently professor at Taiwan University. The authors of the three-volume catalogue of ancient Chinese bronzes also enjoyed successful careers: Robert Bagley was a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard when the bronze catalogues were commissioned; he became tenured professor at Princeton in 1988, a year after his catalogue of the Sackler Collections' ancient Chinese bronzes was published; Jessica Rawson was Deputy Keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum; in 1994, she became Keeper before her election as Warden of Merton College at Oxford; Jenny F. So was also a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard when work first began on the ritual bronze catalogues; she eventually became Senior Curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution before returning to The Chinese University of Hong Kong as Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department in 2001.
See Robert W. Bagley, Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, entry no. 93.
See Jessica Rawson, Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, vol. IIa, pp. 58-62, section 2.4.
For studies in archaism in early China, see Jenny F. So, "Antiques in Antiquity: Early Chinese Looks at the Past," in Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 48 (2008), pp. 373-406
See Jenny F. So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, entry nos. 47-48, 39; also Jenny F. So and Emma C. Bunker, Traders and Raiders on China's Northern Frontier (Washington, D.C. & Seattle: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution & University of Washington Press, 1995), chapter 3, and nos. 19-21.
Arthur M. Sackler, Preface to Art from Ritual, Cambridge: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1983.
For example, thirty-two jade knife, axe, and other blades recovered from a burial pit at Shenmu, northern Shaanxi province, where most of the blades are 0.2-0.3 centimeters thin, with the thinnest measuring only 0.12 centimeters. See Shenmu Xinhua, Beijing: Science Press, 2005, pp.114-15.
Jenny F. So, "Jade and Stone at Sanxingdui", Chapter 2 in Robert Bagley ed., Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a Lost Civilization (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, 2001), especially pp. 155-157.
For association with mountains, see incised motifs on a jade blade from Sanxingdui in Robert Bagley ed., Ancient Sichuan: Treasures from a Lost Civilization (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, 2001), no. 53.
Wen Fong ed., The Great Bronze Age of China (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980), no. 10.
For examples from the Guo state cemetery at Sanmenxia, Henan province, see Sanmenxia Guo guo mu (Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1999); For a report of similar practice at several Jin state burials at Tianma-Qucun, Shanxi province, see Wenwu 1994.1, p. 16, fig. 18; Wenwu 1994.8, p. 24, fig. 3; described but not illustrated in Wenwu 1995.7, 4-39.
For examples from the tomb of the Shang royal consort Fu Hao, see Yinxu Fu Hao mu (Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1980), pls. 104, 142-143; for examples recovered from other Anyang tombs, see Yinxi yuqi (Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1981), nos. 67-68.
John R. Finlay, The Chinese Collection: Selected Works from the Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida: Norton Museum of Art, 2003), no. 32.
Thomas Lawton, Chinese Art of the Warring States Period: Change and Continuity, 480-222 B.C. (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1982), no. 77.
For example, various necklaces from the 9th-8th Guo state cemetery burials at Sanmenxia, Henan province published in Sanmenxia Guo guo mu (Beijing: Wenwu Press, 1999), vol. II, colorplates 17, 18:1-2, 29:3-6.