Wang Lianming - Wang Lianming: Chinese Fountain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties–From a Western zoetrope picture from a collection in Kobe

As one of a series of activities of the School of Humanities celebrating the centennial of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the lecture, Chinese Fountain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties: From a Western zoetrope picture from a collection in Kobe, was held in a lecture hall in the CAFA Library. It was led by Dr. Wang Lianming, the Associate Professor of Chinese Art History at the University of Heidelberg and hosted by Professor Huang Xiaofeng, the Assistant Dean of the School of Humanities. Dr. Wang studied under the renowned German professor Loather Ledderose and his research primarily focuses on the Catholic churches and icons in Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties. He initiated this lecture by introducing an exquisite Western zoetrope picture in a collection in Kobe, then gradually led to the discussion of the metaphors of water and “fountain”(shuifa) in the context of traditional culture, the adoption and advancement of Western fountains in China, as well as the transformation of water from being a simple “view” in the garden to an independent element in a “landscape”.

The zoetrope picture as a starter, which is dated back to around 1790, is in Dr. Wang’s words, a signature of the visual culture in the eighteenth-century Beijing suburbs. Western zoetrope frequently appeared in the eighteenth century. Because they united both visual and auditory experiences, they were popular in temple fairs and weekend markets in the suburbs of Beijing. Zoetrope pictures are known as a branch of Suzhou printmaking but some of them proved to be made in Beijing. Most of the existing occidental zoetrope pictures are now stored in Japan, in addition to showcasing the scenic places or historical landmarks in Beijing and the interior perspective renderings, European cityscapes are often of the same thematic interest. In an attempt to clarify the immediacy and representation of his model, Dr. Wang argued that its creation, in fact, is based on what was actually happening in Beijing at the end of the eighteenth century. Notably, the core of this picture—a central fountain—largely resembles the shuifa (fountain) stage portrayed in the Illustration of the Grand Ceremony of Emperor Qianlong’s Eightieth Birthday (1792). According to Dr. Wang, the artist(s) who created this fascinating zoetrope picture might have it finished after attending the royal birthday celebration, aiming to remind audiences of its glory.

In the first part of the lecture, Dr. Wang contextualized the metaphors of water and shuifa (fountain) in the traditional cultural setting from the perspectives of the royal family and literati. He pointed out that shuifa (fountain) examined here, in a broader sense, refers to the controlling facilities of water. Regarding the presence of three dragons in this facility as depicted in the zoetrope picture, he explained that these mythical creatures have intertwining relationships with the water culture of the royalty, with a remarkable legacy that spans from as early as the period when Emperor Yu tamed the water to the more recent usage in the Western zoetrope pictures in Qing Dynasty. Moreover, seen from the romantic iconography rendered in the famed silk painting Taiyi jiangxing Tu (Drawing of the Procession before the Departure of Taiyi), which is excavated from the Mawangdui tomb No.3 in Changsha province, it is evident that as far back in the Han Dynasty, yellow dragons were already credited as zoomorphic rain gods. From the “heavenly spring pool” constructed during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han to the “dragon pool” included in the “Xingqing Palace Rubbings” of the Tang Empire, from the “copper dragon pouring water”, the “golden-mirror ribbon belt and dewdrop purse or sac” to the “self-raining pavilion”, water had long been closely associated with historical affairs as well as recorded in written texts and classical literature. Had formerly been attributed to Wang Zhenpeng, the Handscroll of Daming Palace, in fact, was produced sometime close to the late Ming period. After detailed analysis of the shuifa (fountain) machinery in the handscroll, Dr. Wang surmised that it was the introduction of occidental shuifa (fountain) technique at the end of the Ming Dynasty that sheds light on the hydraulic technology illustrated in the aforementioned Tang “self-raining pavilion”. Hence, all of the instances he provided go along with a conclusion that the notion of water control and management originated fairly early in China, with a traceable ancestry that even goes back to the time of Emperor Yu. So, mastering water, theoretically speaking, runs parallel to the acquisition of the right to rule over nature and people. By incorporating water into their gardens, the Han royals further displayed their paramount power. This kind of water control, as Dr. Wang stated, had two significances: sovereignty and fortune, in which the latter one is derived from Daoism.

It must be noted that unlike the ruling class, the literati community had a different attitude toward shuifa (fountain). Even though water is of great importance, it rarely appears in Chinese paintings, and is normally manifested in various forms of waves. However, this phenomenon shifted hugely in the Song Dynasty, a period when water began to fascinate literati. Based on Sima Guang’s Duleyuan Ji (Record in the Garden of Solitary Pleasure), literati gardens at that time were characterized as having nothing but the naturally formed installations for observing water. Stepping into the Ming Dynasty, roaming over celebrated mountains and waters and visiting steles were quite prevalent in the literati circles. In order to improve their observation, Ming literati built the Guanlan Pavilion over the Baotu Spring in the city of Jinan. This construction, as Dr. Wang mentioned, offers a fixed-point angle of view and thus denotes a breakthrough in the course of observing water. Similarly, Shao Mi’s Nigu Shanshui Ce (Quasi-historical Landscape Book) and Wen Zhengming’s works also recounted this revolutionary progress in viewing water. Ji Cheng, a literati horticulturalist in the late Ming period, described water in a lovely naturalistic way: critiquing the gaudiness of Emperor Wu of Han’s “copper dragon pouring water”, he instead, termed his water as creek, waterfall or cascade, winding stream, and so forth. Therefore, as Dr. Wang reported that it is clear that there is a strong political message embedded in the inclusion of flamboyant shuifa (fountain) in royal gardens during Wudi’s reign which was rejected by the literati community beginning in the Song Dynasty and was then replaced by a more down-to-earth beautifying of the garden, which highlighted the natural and playful aspects of water.

Dr. Wang in the second part of his presentation, lectured on the spread of Western shuifa (fountain) from the late Ming Dynasty to the early Qing Dynasty. During the reign of the Wanli Emperor, the appearance of a spouting fountain in the Huancuitang Yuanjingtu (Scenery of Huancuitang Garden) was delineated under the influence of Western shuifa (fountain). Referring to the Qing Dynasty, the historian Tan Qian’s Beiyoulu (Record of Traveling in the North), which was finished after his visit to the Jesuit missionary Tang Ruowang in Beijing in 1654, it documented Tan’s tour to the Southern Hall in great detail: “In the afternoon, together with my companion, I entered the end of a garden along the flowing stream. At the center of the garden stands a square pond, one part fully covered with gilded copper rises up from the hole of a well. If the iron wheels swirl on the well, a huge column of water will surge up like a spout, reaching to a height of four to five feet.” This selected content, in Dr. Wang’s words, perfectly epitomizes the typical usage of fountain mechanics in fountains and can be further exemplified in Huang Biao’s 1680 and Li Qi’s 1721 publications. Issued in 1627, the Qiqi Tushuo (Diagrams and Explanations of the Wonderful Machines), was circulated among the middle- to high-tier literati and paved the technical feasibilities for the actual creation of shuifa (fountain). From the late Ming Dynasty onwards, the democratization of knowledge did not merely enhance Chinese people’s understanding of Western hydraulics in the literal or textual level, but also enriched the practical application of this discipline for courtyards churches and peoples’ lives.

In the end, Dr. Wang Lianming explained the transformation of water from “view” to “landscape” in garden culture, which was based on a large amount of documentary and visual materials. Dr. Wang Lianming expressed that shuifa (fountain) in the early Qing Dynasty was introduced to the court during Kangxi Dynasty, and lots of construction took place thereafter. Documents recorded that there are seven or eight “Shuifa temples” owned by Yongzhen who has literati interest, and western techniques have satisfied the technical requirements of Chinese gardens; they have been completely transformed into “western buildings” with the function of receptions and storage while Western shuifa (fountain) could be simultaneously watched during Qianlong Dynasty. The extensive use of Western shuifa (fountain) far exceeds the imagination of today, which is unlike the literary landscape as water in the loyal court was not just controlled by technology but it was also the symbol of rights, it’s the visualization of rights. From the Western fountain to the water scene set in the Longevity Celebrations of Eighty, to the pictures of Western zoetrope, the transformation was realized from “view” to “landscape”. The metaphor about water since the Western Han Dynasty, the right and auspicious feelings have continued. Tracing back to the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Wang Lianming believed that white elephants representing the distant tribute, bronze dragons representing the royal rights, cranes and fountains representing auspicious ideals, all of them stood for the auspicious atmosphere during the celebrations for Qianlong’s eighty. After the celebrations people used dioramas to review the grand occasion.

Dr. Wang Lianming started from case studies and elicited the issues such as the visualization of power, exchanges in art history, which has aroused strong interest from the audience. At the end of the lecture, the speaker conducted active discussions on further details and concepts.

Text by Wu Lan, translated by Paris Yang and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo by Hu Sichen/CAFA ART INFO

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