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Masterpiece of Man Stone Carving

Year:1958 Issue:1



Release Date:1958-03-04

Page: 16

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A considerable number of stone carvings of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) have been discovered in Shantung, Honan, Anhwei, Kiangsu, Szechuan and other provinces. All, in one way or another, throw light on the life of that time - the costumes worn, its arts and entertainments, weapons of war, and architecture. Some are masterpieces. One of the finest pieces, discovered at Yinan in Shantung, is a lively depiction in low relief of dancers and acrobats. It is 231 by 49 cm. and appears to have been carved towards the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. Fifty-two performers and attendants are depicted with their "props" for various dances and acrobatic feats: the dance of the seven plates, juggling with swords, tight-rope walking, acrobatics on poles, horseback and carts, and various masks: dragons, a fish, a leopard, a phoenix.

We know from other literary records that these entertainments were popular in Han times and later. The representation of the plate dance shows seven plates placed on the ground upside down and in two rows, four in the first and three in the second. To the left of the plates is the dancer dressed in a long-sleeved gown. He holds two sinuous ribbons in his hands and there is a drum at his feet. Fu Yi, a poet of the Eastern Han, describes just such a dancer
Now bowing low, now looking upward,
Now advancing, now retiring....
To the right of the plates is the orchestra of seventeen musicians. Fourteen, in three rows, are playing various small instruments, the three in the back row, larger instruments.

The right-hand section of the carving shows an acrobat performing on a cart. Two tall poles rise up from the floor of the cart with small square stages atop them. A boy in a swallow-tailed coat is tumbling on one platform. Pennants and ribbons fly from the poles. Inside the cart sit three flute players and a drummer. The driver in front urges on a team of three horses disguised as dragons. This spectacle, with its daring acrobat above the chariot, racing by to the music and with pennants flying, must have been a gay one.

Acrobatics originated very early in Chinese history. The period of the Spring and Autumn Annals (722-481 B.C.) has records of such entertainments. The Han dynasty in its heyday saw a great flourishing of the arts of peace. There was a lively cultural exchange with foreign lands. Acrobatic displays were a feature of imperial court life, and in this time many brilliant performances were contrived. The Yinan carving is probably typical of such shows. The unknown craftsman who made it put into it his own zest for life and gave it a certain grandeur. The carving shows a rare skill; the composition is surely handled.

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