Bronze and Stone: The Cult of Antiquity in Song Dynasty China

Bryce Heatherly

Students of the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) have long been concerned with the events and individuals that generated the period’s unprecedented enthusiasm for antiquity. In Bronze & Stone, Yunchiahn Sena brings together a wide range of textual and material evidence to provide a comprehensive study of this movement and its significance for political, intellectual, and art histories. In reviving ideals, reinstituting rituals, and reconstructing the past, Sena shows how the Song antiquarian movement redefined the relation between artifacts and history.

The book is organized into three chapters, which proceed thematically through the key practices of collecting, writing, and appropriating. Sena’s focus on these practices allows for an interdisciplinary approach—one that spans the how and why, rather than the who and what of Song antiquarianism. At the same time, the book tracks the movement chronologically, from its origins in scholarly circles around the mid-11th century through its broader integration into visual culture during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The introduction to the book draws the contours of a distinctive, Song-dynasty idea of antiquity. Rather than approaching antiquity solely through textual evidence like their predecessors, Song antiquarians paid close attention to material artifacts. The artifacts taken up by Song antiquarians were valued for their inscriptions, which could be read against textual histories, and understood through two categories: jin (金, “metal”), comprising bronze ritual vessels from the Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) periods, and shi (石, “stone”), comprising commemorative and funerary stone carvings. This rigorous, twofold analysis of text and artifact, Sena notes, also distinguished Song antiquarians from their counterparts in Europe, where, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, history and antiquarianism were practiced separately.

In Chapter 1, the author argues that the Records of Collecting Antiquity, by Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072 CE), articulated practices of collecting and studying antiquity that would become fundamental to both the antiquarian movement and the identity of scholar-officials. Now almost entirely lost, Ouyang Xiu’s collection consisted of more than 1000 items. It was, in Sena’s terms, a “conceptual collection,” which assembled not artifacts, but ink impressions of their inscriptions. Through these ink impressions, Ouyang Xiu was able to collate inscriptions across vast stretches of space and time. More importantly, the mediation of impressions, which preserve the surface features of an artifact as ink patterns on paper, facilitated new interrogations of authenticity. For Ouyang Xiu, who was mindful of the erosion of stones over time, an ink impression was often understood as more authentic than the artifact from which it was taken.

Chapter 2 extends the scope of inquiry to look at a larger set of writings about antiquity from the 11th century. Often printed with illustrations, the period’s antiquarian writings developed conventions for discussing the nomenclature, form, ritual function, inscriptions, provenance, and periodization of artifacts. Sena sheds light, in particular, on the catalogs of Liu Chang (1019–1068 CE), Lü Dalin (1040–1092 CE), and Zhao Mingcheng (1081–1129 CE). Broadly, these writings approached ancient artifacts as sources of knowledge about the past, which could be deployed to rectify historical narratives or recover the proper practice of rituals. To this end, their authors established a common forum for the study of antiquity. But they also documented and interpreted artifacts in different ways—ranging from efforts to understand the past as separate from the present, on the one hand, to (somewhat unorthodox) attempts to incorporate antiquity into daily life, on the other.

Building on the events in the first two chapters, Chapter 3 considers how the antiquarian movement influenced the visual and material culture of the latter half of the Song dynasty. After the first quarter of the 12th century, shows Sena, the antiquarian movement split from scholarly practices of collecting and writing. The movement then generated interests in appropriating antiquity in a wide range of contexts, reshaping the production and use of funerary articles, paraphernalia for state rites, and other fanggu qi (仿古器, “objects imitating antiquity”). Sena divides the practices of appropriation along three lines. First, “emulation” closely followed the formal features and ritual functions of antique artifacts. Second, “semiotic borrowing” used recognizable forms to evoke an idea of ritual significance. And, third, “adaptation,” juxtaposed motifs reminiscent of antiquity with other visual motifs. 

A brief conclusion summarizes the distinctive attributes of the Song antiquarian movement, the processes through which the interest in antiquity spread throughout Song society, and the movement’s legacy in later times. Bronze & Stone contributes an accessible account in English of a topic that has attracted, and continues to attract, notable attention in Chinese-language scholarship. In addition to integrating of a complex set of sources, the book’s comprehensive and integrated approach to the antiquarian movement is particularly valuable for its focus on practice. A central feature of Sena’s work is, thus, its close look at not only the images, objects, and texts associated with the movement, but also the ways that these images, objects, and texts were circulated, organized, and reproduced to meet various needs. In this vein, students of the Song dynasty will find great value in Sena’s consideration of the roles of woodblock printing and ink impression in the production of knowledge. More broadly, the book’s discussion of the relations between things and history will undoubtedly inspire interest in the place of the Song dynasty in world histories of antiquarianism, art history, and archaeology.