Artifacts provide a glimpse into prosperous Song Dynasty

Wu Huixin
From the largest, best-preserved and most significant Southern Song Dynasty imperial mausoleum ever found, they are considered the epitome of politics and culture of that period.
Wu Huixin


The Song Dynasty (960-1279) is divided into two distinct periods, Northern and Southern. During the Northern Song (960-1127), the royal court built its capital in present-day Kaifeng City, Henan Province. It then retreated to the south of the Yangtze River and established the Southern Song (1127-1279), founding its capital at modern-day Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province.

Zhejiang government initiated the Song Dynasty Cultural Legacy Project in August 2021, aiming to build Song culture into a paramount icon of Zhejiang Province, featuring Zhejiang elements and distinguishing it from other dynasties by its booming economy and invigorated art.

This year, Hangzhou will host a series of Southern Song-themed activities and exhibitions to help residents explore citywide cultural heritages and popularize historic knowledge among young generations.

Artifacts provide a glimpse into prosperous Song Dynasty
Ti Gong

A large number of engraved tiles and carved bricks discovered at the imperial mausoleum site in Shaoxing are on display.

After 10 years of digging, 159 antiques evacuated from a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) imperial mausoleum are on display at the Southern Song Imperial Kiln Museum in Hangzhou through October 15.

The Southern Song Dynasty made Hangzhou its capital and established a royal mausoleum in Shaoxing City for its emperors.

In 2012, the central government gave approval for the Zhejiang Archeology Institute to excavate the graves. So far, over 350,000 square meters have been unearthed with a myriad of relics.

As the largest, best-preserved and most significant Southern Song Dynasty imperial mausoleum ever found in south China, it is considered the epitome of politics, culture and garden design of that period.

The exhibition showcases porcelain vessels, tiles, stone figurines and architecture as well as replicated models to give visitors a well-rounded picture of this thriving dynasty.

The Southern Song Dynasty had a rigid ritual system named "Wu Yin Xing Li (五音姓利)", covering music, fengshui, astronomy and burial etiquette.

Traditionally, ancient Chinese music used a pentatonic scale, the notes of which were called gong (宫), shang (商), jue (角), zhi (徵) and yu (羽). The Song royal family believed each name corresponded to a scale while their family name Zhao matched the scale of jue.

That music and surname system designated specific fengshui layout.

The location of the imperial graves strictly adhered to the fengshui concept corresponding to jue.

Ancient Chinese used astronomy and the compass to set up four directions, which were a bit different from modern north, south, east and west.

"That 'Wu Yin Xing Li' system was carried out through the whole dynasty. It was a distinct feature of the imperial court in the fields of culture and politics," said Li Huida from the Zhejiang Archeology Institute, who excavated the mausoleum for years.

"The royal mausoleum was in the southeast in a fengshui treasure land and faced toward the northwest according to the ritual system."

Southern Song Dynasty mausoleums in Zhejiang Province also share a similar feature: They switched focus from underground palaces to external buildings. The owner's social status was reflected by the pavilions, temples and archways on the ground. That is called cuangong (攒宫).

Cuangong refers to temporary external buildings that covered the real burying spot of the coffin.

"When the funeral was over, the royal court destroyed the cuangong to protect the real grave. That's why no intact cuangong remained," said Li.

Artifacts provide a glimpse into prosperous Song Dynasty
Ti Gong

Ceramic fragments unearthed from the site showcase the aesthetic taste of the royal families during the Southern Song Dynasty.

Engraved tiles, porcelains, carved bricks and painted structures were discovered. The main job for the archaeologists is to replicate the models of the cuangong and comb through the remaining architecture structures, foundations and tiles.

The exhibition shows floral patterned tiles found in the mausoleum. Richly decorated, they are among the most valuable surviving relics of the architecture of that period.

The Southern Song Dynasty is considered the heyday of Chinese art. The royal court favored the humanities, appealing to people's inner emotions with a minimalist art style that is evident in tiles and porcelains.

Ceramic fragments from Longquan, Jingdezhen, Jizhou and Jian kilns, covering whitish, bluish, greenish and yellowish incense burners, bowls, plates and vases, have been found at the mausoleum.

Ancient craftsmen in Zhejiang Province integrated the techniques of China's different varieties of ceramics to develop multiple shades of green glaze and named them "celadon."

Zhejiang became the center of celadon art and has produced a large number of renowned artworks throughout history.

Celadon dominated the unearthed porcelains from the mausoleum. Muted shades and quiet simplicity are the main features of the exhibited ceramics made during that period.

Song Dynasty artists created several classic designs, which persisted in art nationwide for centuries.

Today, some of these are still the most common celadon types, as the exhibits show.

When building the mausoleum, the East Zhejiang Canal actually played a vital role in transporting resources. Since the ritual system required the mausoleum must be completed within five to six months, the cannal accelerated the building process.

"That to some degree reflected the booming economy and transport system of the dynasty," said Li.

Southern Song Imperial Mausoleum Relics Exhibition

Date: Through October 15, closed on Mondays
Admission: Free
Address: 60 Nanfu Rd

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