Last weekend, I went to an exhibition entitled “The Multiplicity of Simplicity: Monochrome Wares from the Song to the Yuan Dynasties,” which took place at the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong.
The old Chinese saying “excessive preoccupation with trivia saps the will (玩物丧志)” applies perfectly to me. Since I “play with tea (玩茶),” it was natural for me to gravitate toward “playing with teaware.” In fact, while it might be possible for me to buy tea for “play,” it is impossible for me to buy beautiful teaware for “play” because of its often expensive price tag and my inability to distinguish between what is genuine and what is fake. Thus, for me, the best solution is to go to the museum to enjoy and study teaware.
Although it is sometimes difficult to tell what is antique, everyone has the ability to appreciate beauty. Of all the Chinese teaware, Song porcelain is my favorite. Song porcelain does not come in gorgeous colors, but its simple green, white, brown, blue, and even black glazes are much more charming. After seeing its so-called “sky blue,” “green blue,” and “sky blue after raining” colors, you begin to understand what is “simple, but elegant.”
The Song dynasty (960-1279) saw a breakthrough in Chinese ceramics production. In China, the development of ancient ceramics can be divided into five periods: Neolithic time, Shang dynasty to Han dynasty, Six dynasties to Tang dynasty, Song and Yuan dynasties, and Ming and Qing dynasties. It was in the Tang dynasty that the art of Chinese porcelain established its solid foundation and in the Song dynasty that this art matured with fruitful results. It was during this time that a number of famous kilns were established in different parts of China. The products from each kiln demonstrated a style of their own. Some of their innovative traditions were passed on to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), but many of the famous kilns started to decline after the Song dynasty. It is indisputable that Song porcelain is the peak of the development of Chinese ceramics. The elegant beauty of Song porcelain is unprecedented and has never been transcended. In English, our nation was named after “China.” In my opinion, Song porcelain really represents “China.”
However, most Chinese would not have liked living in the Song dynasty. I used to be the same, preferring to live in the Tang or Han dynasty because both dynasties were strong, or in the Six dynasties because of their romantic culture. I would even have considered the Spring and Autumn Period for the diversity of culture. But I would never have thought of the Song dynasty since it was a weak dynasty because it was defeated by Mongolia.
Nevertheless, when I began to study Song porcelain, I found that the Song dynasty was actually a dynasty during which people were the happiest. Of all the ancient Chinese dynasties, Song seemed to be the dynasty most suitable for common people to live in. Although Tang and Han were strong, they controlled people strictly and always prepared for war. What did common people expect? My guess is a common life with happiness and peacefulness. Because Song provided such a society, the people living in it excelled at creating Chinese ceramics. However, there were other reasons as well:
- The Song dynasty is the only dynasty that discarded the policy of “suppressing merchants.” During the Song dynasty, 70% of government revenue came from commercial and industrial taxes. Thus, the merchants of the Song dynasty were much happier than those of other dynasties. You can understand it when you realize that the Song people’s night life was very colorful. The common people in Bianjing (the capital of the Song dynasty) lived a night life just as in today’s New York.
- Because most government revenue came from commercial and industrial taxes, the taxes on peasants were lower, meaning that there were not as many burdens on peasants relatively.
- The Song dynasty is the heaven of intelligentsia comparatively. If you read Song history, novels, or stories, you would find that a chancellor or an educated person was sometimes exiled, but they were never killed because of a law forbidding the murder of an educated person regardless of the extent to which he offended the emperor. The result was that the Song dynasty might have had the most freedom of speech among the ancient Chinese dynasties.
- The Song dynasty actually began to enter into capitalism, some scholars believe, and would have continued in that direction if they had not been defeated by Mongolia. Actually, it seems that there were some signs of the beginning of democracy. For example, one of the Song emperors wanted to expand his palace, but it would have caused some residents to move. The result was the emperor had to give up because those residents refused to move.
Another reason why the Song dynasty created the most superior Chinese ceramics is that the emperor himself was a great artist, having good taste when it came to beauty. It is said that the color of “the blue of sky after rain” was the desired result of the emperor Song Hui Zong.
Seeing the beauty of “simple, but elegant” and understanding where “China” came from, I began to restudy the history of the Song dynasty and appreciate more fully its porcelain.
It’s a good point, the Song dynasty is often remembered for its weaknesses, a time of indulgent Emperors and pathetic military strength, subjected to the frequent invasions of northern nomads. Han and Tang dynasty would be by far remembered more fondly for the numerous military expansions and economic strength.
Yet the Song dynasty was a time when literature and the arts flourished with numerous scholars such as Su Dongpo and Ouyang Xiu making significant cultural contributions and leaving footnotes that survive today.
Perhaps now I will look at the Song Dynasty in a different light!
I agree with Derek. You’ve given me lots to think about. So when military strength is not the most important component of governement, people and the arts thrive. I’d love to get that message to the citizens of the U.S. as we welcome President Obama for a second term.
I live by the philosophy of simplicity myself. Less is more. Interesting that it’s such an ancient belief.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC has a beautiful collection of porcelain..teaware included!
An interesting post – a comparative study of Chinese history with a touch of tea and its culture…Lisa is a good team member in Tching arsenal to give us an overview of China and its teas…