Telling History with Objects: The Mengdiexuan Collection

This article is brought to you by L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts.

Hidden from public view for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Art of Gold: 3,000 Years of Chinese Treasures exhibition breaks down barriers both in its subject matter and presentation. It is a visual feast, a blaze of gold set in the sumptuous, elegant gallery designed by Sou Fujimoto for the Hong Kong headquarters of L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts. The space overlooks Victoria Harbour, with light filtering through patterned white glass and etching each object with delicate intensity.

Despite its scale, the exhibition is in many ways revolutionary, offering breakthroughs in both its curatorial approach and in the revelations of the Mengdiexuan collection it showcases. It was assembled by third-generation collectors, Betty Lo and Kenneth Chu, who are married as well as partners in business and collecting. China is “a bronze and jade culture, not a gold culture,” says Lo. But they found through their collecting journey that China was open to—and sometimes transformed by—influences from outside the geographic centre of China. It’s a history that sheds light on the true diversity of Chinese civilisation.

The Mengdiexuan collection began with a wedding gift of a bronze mirror from Lo’s father, Lo Wai, in the early 1980s, which set them on their journey of discovery in Chinese metalworking and gold. According to Chu, they were attracted by the creativity of gold objects, sparked by the fact that gold was used in Chinese culture primarily as smaller objects and personal ornaments. “We did not go for a treasure chest,” he says, as their collecting interests evolved from bronze objects to gold and precious metal.  “It was natural and logical.” But it was also a step into the unknown, compared with the more familiar genres of bronze, jade and porcelain. There are countless books and deep scholarship on each of those collecting verticals. The former are considered among China’s noblest fine arts. Gold jewelry and gold ornaments, however, were disregarded by most experts as craft. That failed to stop Lo and Chu, and they became intense students as they worked with dealers and scholars, visited museums, and over 30 years themselves have become the leading world experts in the field of Chinese gold ornamentation.

While there have been six previous Mengdiexuan solo exhibitions, this one is the first to have a curatorial framework based on categories of goldsmithing—hammering and chasing, casting, wire and filigree and granulation—embracing the perspective of gold objects as an embodiment of craftsmanship.

This approach also reveals the history of how gold metalwork was introduced to Chinese culture, since each of these techniques reached China at different times and were taken up in different parts of the country’s cultural and geographic landscape. Gold metalwork was initially an import that reflected early China’s lively engagement with foreign cultures. By the later dynasties, however, it had become integrated into Chinese design and bore little resemblance to the gold of medieval or Renaissance Europe. The iconography originally shared features with early European gold such as wild beasts and hunting scenes, but by the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), it featured details common to Chinese paintings, jade and porcelain, such as flowers, bats and dragons.

Lo and Chu have built their collection around the influences of the diverse cultures that influenced China over the millennia, from Mongolia and Tibet to the ancient Xiongnu nomads. The collection’s name, Mengdiexuan, which translates to “Butterfly Pavilion” in English, making direct reference to an anecdote by Chuang Tzu. The sage, a mystic and contemporary of Confucius, dreamed he was a butterfly but asked if just possibly the butterfly might be dreaming him. While the exhibition of 55 objects represents only a small part of their total collection, it reflects both the scholarship and unconventional thinking of the collectors, in focusing on objects that tell a story, in this case about the diversity of early Chinese civilization, some of whose kings mandated the wearing of nomadic dress and wore gold jewels in designs that spoke of the wild steppes of Central Asia, not the settled agricultural plains of China.

The introduction of gold craftsmanship to China came one to two thousand years after its first appearance in Asia Minor, Egypt and Mesopotamia in the fourth and fifth millennia BC. In its earliest uses in China, in the Xia and Shang dynasties, a period of almost 1,000 years from 2079 to 1122 BC, gold was hammered into leaf and used largely as decorative inlay in bronze ritual vessels that were among the chief symbols of status and power. Prior to China’s bronze age, objects of jade held paramount status in Chinese society, and despite its popularity gold remained a perpetual second to jade as a symbol of status or luxury. As Chinese culture spiralled out beyond the central plains of northern China, it encountered people to its north and west who were linked with the distant cultures of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, pastoral nomads who exploded out of Central Asia in the first millennium BC and began to shape Chinese culture as well as integrate with it.

The idea that objects have their own stories to tell is more closely associated with anthropology than with art history, where aesthetics, provenance and authentication take primacy over intuition and context. Anthropology unpacks objects to understand their form and function in society, and the approach is particularly apt for jewelry, one of the earliest forms of aesthetic invention, almost by definition worn not held or placed at a distance.

The first few objects in The Art of Gold are among the oldest in the exhibition and are examples of hammering and chasing technique, but also of a period when the nomadic, pastoral culture of the Xiongnu and other herders and horsemen captured Chinese imagination. Swirling gold plate earrings dated to the Shang Dynasty are similar to earrings from the Rong-Di people on China’s periphery. Although found in other tombs of the period, once the Confucian interregnum began, earrings fell out of fashion along with body piercings.

Another early object is a gold crown of a type associated with the Xiongnu nobility; crowns never really caught on in Confucian imperial China but migrated elsewhere in the Sinocentric world, particularly the Korean peninsula, where the Silla kingdom produced elaborate golden crowns that show a visual link with the Mengdiexuan banded, ornamental headwear.

But while these relatively simple uses of hammering and chasing technique were hallmarks of the early period of gold jewelry, by the Tang Dynasty (618–907) they had effloresced into complex ornaments of great delicacy and luxury. Roughly half of the objects in the exhibition are hammered and chased objects from later periods. By the Tang Dynasty, gold had come to represent virtue and divine splendor; the Buddhist paradise was seen as golden. And because of the way gold was mined, it was seen as a quality of intellect – the Emperor Tai Zong (598–649) praised his chief minister for being able to discern the “gold” in men and refine it. Many of these objects continue to tell a story of contact with foreign cultures, like a gilt-silver pouch shaped ornament horse torsos and saddles, a reference to the Ferghana horses from Central Asia that were one of China’s first major imports under the Tang.

A second craft technique featured in the exhibition, casting, where liquid metal is poured into a mould to form an object, was closely associated with bronze metallurgy that produced magnificent ritual vessels from the Shang to Han era, contemporary with ancient Rome. Early images, like a recumbent stag ornament, date to the sixth to fifth centuries BC, and refer directly to images of the steppes as well as using exotic designs associated with nomadic pastoralists.

But where Chinese goldsmithing reached its apogee was with gold wire and filigree, techniques that originated in the Mediterranean in around 2000 BC but became fashionable in China during the Tang Dynasty as well as the Song. There are twisted gold spiral ornaments in the exhibition that go back much earlier, but by the Ming Dynasty, openwork constructions of gold filigree were used to capture life and movement, like a delicate gold hairpin with a dragon chasing a pearl, or a cicada shaped gold ornament with tourmaline inlay.

The final technique featured in the exhibition, granulation, is a process of making gold granules that are used as decoration, together with inlays of other materials. Among the collectors’ favourite objects is a gold comb top, with gem, glass and shell inlays against a granulated background. A headdress plaque and another gold comb top feature elaborate raised designs using granulation. The technique was available to Chinese artisans as early as the Western Han period, and was fashionable from then well into Tang, with examples such as the gold comb top and headdress plaque. The technique of granulation itself was lost until the 20th century.

Organising the exhibition by craft technique encourages the viewer to look at the 55 objects in their cultural and technological context, inviting him or her to see themselves as “makers” not merely as bystanders to the past. This is a radical departure from the usual historical curatorial approach, and would be difficult to follow without an analytical guide. Luckily, this exists in a well organised catalogue as well as curatorial signage and organization of the exhibition itself, which begins with an exploration of the chemical signature and nature of gold. We discover that gold is a crystal in its original matrix, even though the crystals themselves are rare since once gold is outside its quartz bedrock, its softness means that it rapidly loses its form. There are examples of gold crystals in the exhibition to prove this point to the skeptical.

This degree of openness and accessibility is unusual in Hong Kong, which has some of the finest private collections of Chinese antiquities in the world, which are largely hidden from public sight. The exhibition represents a tiny proportion of the entire Mengdiexuan collection, and the exhibition itself is tiny as well, by blockbuster museum standards. But the intensity of the effort in assembling the exhibition is so overwhelming that it could do justice to a much larger exhibition or museum.

The Art of Gold runs until August 29, 2021 at L’ÉCOLE, School of Jewelry Arts, 510A, 5F, K11 MUSEA, Victoria Dockside, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, HONG KONG. For more information, please visit here.

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