Roughly two millennia after the first known events in Chinese history, China reached a period of unprecedented tranquility and cultivation during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) It was a golden age. The Great Wall was finished. The tenacity of Confucian philosophy and ethics was demonstrated. Art, poetry, and music flourished at the emperor’s court. The invention of paper, ink, and brushes made possible the development of calligraphy. Astronomical instruments, the sundial, and the seismograph were invented. Trade and diplomacy flourished.
By the 11th century, knowledge of the Han period, eight centuries earlier, was somewhat elusive. Suddently a burial site in northeast China, known as the Wu Family Shrines, promised to provide a key to the Han epoch. Rubbings made from carved stone monuments at the site revealed Han practices and objects. For scholars the Wu shrines became a benchmark for understanding Han civilization. Because flooding of the Yellow River covered the Han stones with silt, the rubbings commanded special importance. The burial chamber itself was rediscovered by an amateur archeologist in 1786. Since the 1980s two new chambers have been discovered. Cary Liu, curator of Asian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, was team leader for investigations into the newly-found structures during the past five years.
For the first time in 1,000 years, scholars looked at the stones, not merely at the rubbings. Some of the stones seem to have been recut and questions arose. It is no longer certain that the site can be attributed to the Wu family. Furthermore, it is no longer clear that the chambers were used as ancestral shrines. In scholarship there is no such thing as certainty.
Curator Liu has organized the findings into an exhibition at the Art Museum called “Recarving China’s Past: Art, Archeology, and Architecture of the ‘Wu Family Shrines,’” which runs until June 26. The name of the site has now been demoted to appearing in quotation marks. “Elegant Orchids,” a concert of music inspired by the Han Dynasty, takes place at the museum on Saturday, March 26.
In an interview from his Princeton office Liu says that the word “recarving” has several layers of meaning. “There’s the physical recarving: when you recarve the stories into the stone you recarve history.” Then there is the metaphorical meaning. “Any time you tell a story you are recarving history,” says Liu, adding a third meaning: “There is 1,000 years of history here. Each generation has a new recarving, a new interpretation.”
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the museum’s set of 19th century ink-on-paper rubbings made at the “Wu shrines.” The show includes 70 objects from the Han dynasty. Liu says: “Several of the objects match things in the rubbings — dancers, animals, and utensils. We wanted to bring what happened in the Han period to life with real objects from the period.”
Viewers can take a virtual tour of the archeological site at the exhibition through computer models constructed by researchers. Beginning in May an interactive version of the simulation will be available on the Art Museum’s website at www.princetonartmuseum.org.
The giant catalog for the exhibit — which, at more than eight pounds, is larger and heavier than a telephone book and includes essays by 20 scholars — is devoted to showing the scholarly questions that arose from the research team’s investigation, says Liu. In his preface to the catalog Liu writes, “Looking back over the past five years of research, dilemma, and toil, I must ask with trepidation, ‘What have we done?’”
Liu says the researchers’ original intention was to focus on the two chambers discovered since 1980. “We wanted to look at what the pictorial images described. When we tried to do background work, the more we did, the more confusing it got. It was a bit of a shock.” He calls the rethinking “exciting and frightening.”
Liu tells of a square rubbing that appeared in an early 20th century Japanese publication and was always associated with the Wu sites. “Nobody knew what it was,” he says. “The stone was not found, but the rubbing had to come from somewhere.” Liu noticed that there were crease lines in the rubbing. To him they suggested that the rubbing had been made from a column. Through a combination of luck and diligence Liu was able to track down the circular stone, which was located in the basement of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. “Once we found that stone column in Berlin, we realized that it matched the Japanese rubbings, and it all came together.” On loan from Berlin, the column is on display at the exhibit.
The scholarly nature of the exhibit is manifest. Liu considers a pivotal point to be a question about objects known as mingqa,“brilliant artifacts,” which are placed in graves. The question is whether the objects must be physically present or whether their depiction on the walls of the tombs is sufficient.
A battery of special events related to the “Wu Family Shrines” exhibition is open to the public (for more information visit www.princetonartmuseum.org). The museum has scheduled an international symposium, family activities, lectures, and a concert of music evocative of Han China.
The Saturday, March 26 concert is entitled “Elegant Orchids: Music Inspired by the Han Dynasty” and features the qin (chin) and the pipa, traditional Chinese instruments, along with a contemporary flute using modern techniques that make the instrument sound like a traditional bamboo flute.
The qin, a five-stringed instrument associated with Confucian scholars, has been in use since the Han dynasty for rituals and at court. It has little resonance of its own and is played on a wooden table in order to supply the missing volume. The pipa is traditionally used for popular entertainment. In an earlier form it was known in the Han period. Attracting attention at the present, the pipa has recently been the solo instrument in concertos with modern orchestras.
The most ancient piece on the concert program is “Elegant Orchids,” (“You Lan”), which dates from the Han period. It is the oldest known composition for the Chinese zither, the qin (chin). According to legend it derives from a poem composed by Confucius, who compared himself to orchids growing among weeds. The composition was already referred to in a Han poem as an ancient piece. The version performed dates from the eighth century.
Performers are Huo Hong, pipa; Jung-ping Yuan, qin; Thomas Buckner, baritone; and Judith Pearce, flute. Pearce teaches flute at Princeton and is a member of the Richardson Chamber Players. Three of the works on the program are the compositions of Taiwanese-born, Langhorne, Pennsylvania, resident May-Tchi Chen, who has exploited Han connections in her pieces.
Born in 1961, Chen was exposed early to traditional Chinese philosophy and civilization through her maternal grandfather. She started her training at Taipei’s Soochow University as a piano major. But her talent for composition became apparent and her composition teachers encouraged her to switch to composing. Her formal training included Western and Chinese musical technique. She learned erhu, the traditional Chinese fiddle, in college, but did not study chin or pipa.
After earning a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 1988, Chen studied in Paris and taught in Taiwan for three years, where she married. She returned to the United States with her civil engineer husband, Lung-Yang Lai, in the early 1990s. She began composing for Chinese instruments for the first time only after coming back to the United States.
Chen’s first piece for a Chinese instrument, “Striking,” is included in the program. The name is English. Interviewed from her Langhorne home, Chen links the piece for solo pipa to the Han dynasty since the instrument was used in the Han period. “Striking” aims to evoke the transition from winter to spring. “The thunder starts to strike, and the insects start to wake up,” Chen says. “The piece is picture-like and full of energy. The thunder has a martial character. The memories of winter are lyrical. It was like the snow early in March. It was almost spring, but there was a big blizzard. It’s yin and yang.” In Chinese philosophy yin and yang are the opposing principles whose balance leads to stability.
Also on the program is a piece inspired by an ancient Taiwanese traditional tune, “Bramble Rose Trellis.” Chen wrote “Roncier Rose Treillis a Novembre a Paris” in 1989, during her stay in France. The Han connection, she explains, is that the piece mimics the shakuhachi, an end-blown bamboo flute originally used by Buddhist monks. The piece was written for virtuoso flutist Pierre-Yves Artaud, who was able to make his modern metal instrument sound ancient. “I played a recording for a leading traditional Beijing flutist and fooled him,” Chen says. “There is more command with the western flute than with the shakuhachi. The modern flutist has a full range of sound.”
Another of Chen’s pieces featured on the program is “Rumi’s Vision,” which draws on the Han practice of using pipa to accompany a storytelling text. “In my mind,” she says, “there’s a timeline. I’m going back to the Han period as a 21st century person, and coming up with common ground.” The piece comes from Chen’s 1999 “Sonic Mandala,” a suite of spiritual music from all over the world.
A full-time composer, Chen is working on “The Firmiana Rain,” an opera based on a tragic love story of the eighth century. The work was showcased by the New York City Opera in 2002 and will be fully staged by the National Theater of Taiwan. Enthusiastic sponsors are hoping to bring it to the New York-New Jersey area, Chen says.
The difference between art and scholarship is emphasized by presenting a concert close to the exhibition. While it takes a heavy tome and years of research to attempt to set things straight about the art and archeology of the Han period, the concert needs no such anchor. Once it is over, it will become a memory, requiring no investigation. And as far as listeners’ pleasure is concerned, it won’t make the slightest difference exactly where the roots of those remembered sounds lie.
Music is the least lasting of the arts; stone endures. The concert is now; the exhibit focuses on then. The Princeton Art Museum has recarved a new layer of yin and yang.
“Elegant Orchids,” in conjunction with “Recarving China’s Past” exhibit, Princeton University Art Museum, Saturday, March 26, 6 p.m. 609-258-3788. Music inspired by the Han Dynasty, composed and produced by May-Tchi Chen, and performed by Hou Hong, pip; Jun-ping Yuan, qin; Thomas Buckner, baritone; and Judith Pearce, flute. Barbara White, associate professor of music, introduces. Reception follows. Free. For information on other programming in conjunction with the exhibit visit www.princetonartmuseum.org.