The Song Dynasty’s Influences on Tiehua

While tiehua came into existence during the later 1600s, the early Qing dynasty, its influences can be traced far back into Chinese history, particularly during the Song dynasty (960-1276). Despite its distance from painted art, tiehua was still inherently based on the old practices and conventions of Chinese art and innovations lasting far back into Chinese history allowed its existence.

Innovation in the Song Dynasty

There’s no doubt that the Song dynasty oversaw one of the most prosperous empires in the world during its time, which helped the advent of art and metalworking. China during this time experienced a great economic boom, even revolution, causing the region’s first major population boom and resulting growth of cities (“Song Dynasty”). Here, we see the beginnings of situations from which groups of urban dwelling literati could come to be. This was aided by the upholding and popularization of civil service exams as the key to climbing the social ladder, for which literati would dedicate countless hours preparing for well into China’s future (“Song Dynasty”).

Part of the economic revolution seen in the Song dynasty had to do with ironwork—with great progress being made in the sector. Between 800 CE and 1078 CE, iron production increased six fold: by 1078 CE, 125,000 tons were produced annually (“Song Dynasty”). This growing presence would create a sufficient demand for blacksmiths in the Chinese economy, a role that Tang Peng so happened to fulfill. With demands for products such as nails, chains for bridges, and steel tips for weapons (“Song Dynasty”), skilled laborers (blacksmiths) were able to innovate and gain skills in their trade. With these skills, an artistic vision, and a desire to resist the constraints of his training, Tang Peng would create the very first tiehua pieces 600 years later.

Northern Song Landscapes

The earlier phase of the dynasty, known as the Northern Song dynasty, lasted from 960 CE to 1127 CE and saw great advances in art. In addition to Confucian texts, the literati during this time learned “the three perfections,” i.e. poetry writing, calligraphy, and painting (“Song Dynasty”). Surely a degree of popularization occurred, allowing scholars to work together and add to Chinese art. The landscape 619px-Guo_Xi_-_Early_Spring_(large)paintings of this time period became more and more advanced as artists gained skills and created effective techniques, and political messages even began to be integrated (“Northern Song”).

One specific artist, Guo Xi, was central in this development. One of his prime contributions is the “Angle of Totality,” which was a method of depicting multiple perspectives into one painting, since they didn’t need to be isolated visions like looking out of a window (“Northern Song”). This method is seen in Guo’s painting entitled Early Spring. Interestingly, it was also Guo Xi who added an element of anthropomorphism to trees in order to symbolize individual characteristics. The different styles are described as the following:

The lesser, bending trees Guo Xi described anthropomorphically as holding one’s creeds within oneself; the crouching, gnarled trees were seen analogous to an individual clinging to his own virtues; and the vertical trees were compared to those individuals who remain abreast of their environmental conditions (politics) and flourish. (“Northern Song”).

Nonetheless, it’s important to pay attention to the key characteristics of traditional Chinese landscapes: isolation in nature, man’s modest role as part of nature, etc. Guo Xi himself elaborated on this, prosing,

A virtuous man takes delight in
landscapes so that in a rustic
retreat he may nourish his nature,
amid the carefree play of streams
and rocks, he may take delight,
that he might constantly meet in
the country fishermen,
woodcutters, and hermits, and
see the soaring of cranes and
hear the crying of monkeys. The
din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what the human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find. (“Northern Song”).

One scholar, Su Shi (or Su Dongpo) (1036-1101), had the idea to combine multiple arts: he added poems written in elegant calligraphy to add meaning to visual depictions (“Song Dynasty”). An interesting side note on Su Shi, however, is his stances against the status quo: he experienced dark periods of isolation in his life due to multiple periods in political exile. His forced isolation contrasts greatly with the type so championed by Confucian thought. Su would solidify the foundations of what would become Southern Song art. He prosed:

Ravens carry the dead’s money in their bills,
the emperor sits behind nine doors,
and my ancestors’ tombs are ten thousand li away.
I want to cry at the forked road.
Dead ashes won’t blow alive again.
(Qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 249)

Southern Song Landscapes

While the Song dynasty was a period of economic prosperity, the empire’s military was another story. During this dynasty (which emphasized peace) the military was very weak, which could not compete with more militant northern neighbors, i.e. Mongols, Khitans, and Jurchens (“Song Dynasty”). Eventually, the Jurchens would absorb great tracts of Chinese land, causing the Song dynasty’s lands to be reduced and splitting many Han Chinese; Su Shi’s isolation from his relatives was just an early example of the sense of loss and fragmentation that permeated Southern Song society, including art.

At a very basic level, Chinese painters during this time “…favored small formats and more lyrical treatments;” by this time, the combination of painting and poetry was commonplace (“Southern Song”). Ma_Yuan_Walking_on_Path_in_SpringA prime example of landscapes during this time is Ma Yuan’s On a Mountain Path in Spring. Notice the single perspective: this depiction is an isolated viewpoint, not an “Angle of Totality.” In addition, there are clear elements of quietness, but also a very powerful reflection on the feeling of loss, distance, and fragmentation. Most of the right side of this piece is blank, possibly implying that the figure himself feels incomplete, with his own people separated by political divisions, some ruled by non-Hans.

The feelings of separation, loneliness, and sorrow brought forth by the poetry of Su Shi before the Southern Song era only became stronger after the division of the Chinese populace. Nonetheless, nature still took the center in many poems, though it provides no relief from the remorse and isolation of the empire’s fragmentation.

Li Qingzhao (c.1084-1151), a noted female poet, experienced great hardships as a result of the political shifts between the Northern and Southern Song. She prosed:

Blossoms drift and water flows where it will,
but my heart is still sick,
split between this place and where you are.
I can’t kill this desire.
Even when my eyebrows relax,
my heart flares up again.
(qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 266).

Perhaps one of the single most direct examples comes from Lu You (1125-1210), a military man and official noted for his dislike of Song bureaucracy and strong yearning for a Chinese reunification. On his deathbed, prosed to his sons:

I know the world’s ten thousand things end in emptiness after death,
and yet I still grieve the splintering of the Nine States of China.
When the royal troops regain the heartland in the north,
don’t forget to tell your old man when you perform rituals for the dead.
(qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 272).

The Southern Song’s Influence on Tiehua

While it might be hard to see the influences of the Southern Song landscape on tiehua, close analysis and contextualization establish a firm connection.

A very important factor to consider here is that the Qing dynasty was ruled by Manchus, not Han Chinese. This major factor created a similar foundation of hegemonic foreign rule that so heavily influenced artwork during Southern Song times. Moreover, there was a widespread desire among literati to preserve traditional Han Chinese culture with yet another loss of their country, which caused “…a period of extraordinary energy and creativity in the history of Chinese thought” (Idema, Li, and Widmer 8). In attempting to resist the new non-Han dynasty, the Chinese literati mobilized themselves to keep alive their tradition as much as possible, resulting in more creative energy than before.

A final major factor to consider is that it was highly dishonorable to serve both dynasties, as many Han literati felt marginalized by the new leadership, thus they were stuck with an existential question: to become a “remnant subject,” i.e. a Ming subject who remains in society, but separate from the new dynasty, or to retreat to the Chinese countryside and like an eremitic life (Idema, Li, and Widmer 7). While all literati looked deep into Chinese history like never before, others decided to do their best to retreat to it. At any rate, the Song Dynasty provided a perfect example when reflecting on the foreign Manchu’s rule: In literature, for example, as asserted by Idema, Li, and Widmer, “The favored historical analogy, however, was the fall of the Song dynasty, probably because both of its debacles involved foreign conquests” (40). Thus, among other eras of Chinese history, the literati looked back to the Song Dynasty, a prosperous time that had already influenced art, poetry, calligraphy, and thought before deeper looking into it.

Tiehua in the Forbidden City (mingqing jiaju 2) 3 With this backdrop, during the prosperous Kangxi Period no less, Tang Peng resisted the constraints of blacksmithing and created tiehua. An excellent example of Southern Song influences is seen in Tang Peng’s pictured work. This piece conforms to a traditional “river and mountains” theme and clearly exhibits the distant mountains seen in many Song dynasty works. Note the very empty background and foreground with limited detail. This reflects the type of fragmentation and incompleteness felt by so many during both the Southern Song dynasty and early Qing dynasty. An interesting detail is the trees—they easily remind one of those by Guo Xi—a Northern Song literati, though an individual who helped form eventual Southern Song work.

Works Cited

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Ebrey, Patricia B. “Southern Song Landscape Painting.” The University of Washington. Web. June 7, 2016.

Ebrey, Patricia B. “Northern Song Landscape Painting.” The University of Washington. Web. June 7, 2015.

Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature, edited by Wilt L. Idema, Wai-yee Li, and Ellen Widmer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

“The Song Dynasty in China.” Asia for Educators. The Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Web. May 25, 2016.