Exhibition reveals past and present of West Lake

Shi Jia
Research team's discoveries, including rubbings of some rarely known inscriptions, field work photos and a documentary video, are on show in Hangzhou.
Shi Jia

A university research team has spent six years traveling through the mountains near West Lake to uncover secrets behind long-forgotten inscriptions left on precipices.

An exhibition in Hangzhou displays some of their discoveries, including rubbings of rarely known inscriptions, field work photos and a documentary video.

“The project started out as supporting research for studies of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) during which Hangzhou was taken as the capital,” said Xu Li, a professor from the Central Academy of Fine Arts who led in the project. “I think these inscriptions offer a brand-new vision for understanding that period.”

Their search was based on inscriptions recorded in two books published in the 18th and 19th century, which faithfully described the size, location and content of each engraving.

The key search area included Baoshi Hill, Lingyin Hill, the Southern and Northern Peaks, Jiuyao Hill, Nanping Hill and Fenghuang Hill where the Southern Song emperors built their palace.

Exhibition reveals past and present of West Lake

A visitor takes a look at one of the artworks at the ongoing exhibition in Hangzhou displaying rubbings of rarely known inscriptions, field work photos and a documentary video of the mountains near West Lake.

Exhibition reveals past and present of West Lake

A Central Academy of Fine Arts staffer rubs on an inscription.

Around 90 inscriptions were found still in existence, some found for the first time and not seen in any previous recordings.

“We were very lucky to find the same inscriptions that people a few hundred years ago had found in the same place,” said Xu.

The dates of the inscriptions extend over a period of 1,000 years from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in the 9th century to the early 20th century.

A great many are accounts by scholars, officials and even the emperor concerning a trip, a certain event or expressions of personal mood, varying from a few words to full passages.

A 77-centimeter-high inscription written by the first and founding king of the Wuyue Kingdom Qian Liu was thought to have been lost, but was rediscovered in 1995. It was made to record the date when Qian built an altar there. Interestingly, the title he was given in it, as the “King of Wuyue,” appeared even earlier than what was officially conferred to him.

“I think that showed his ambition and assertiveness,” said Xu.

Another notable inscription is from Zhao Gou, first emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty.

The gigantic two characters zhongshi (忠实, loyalty) were said to be written on his 40th birthday, five years after he made an order to imprison and execute General Yue Fei, who defeated the invading Jin people on the northern border of the empire.

General Yue, who was buried in Hangzhou, was probably the best known and loved historical figure for local people since his death. A temple was built for him, and a local street food was created to express their resentment of his persecutor. But rarely known or discussed was the sentiment of the emperor himself, since it was never an issue in official accounts.

“When we visited the inscription that day, we got a bit sentimental, as we tried to figure out his sentiments when he wrote this down,” said Xu. “As people living here now, we have never been so close to history.”

If Xu’s display reveals the rich historical past of West Lake, photographs from Guo Xiqi, Shao Dalang and his family at the exhibition are evidence of the lake’s eternal beauty.

Exhibition reveals past and present of West Lake

Shao Dalang’s “One thousand years of West Lake” series

Guo was an early Chinese photographer whose images of the lake were gathered and published in a 1947 book.

In it you can find most of the landscapes and cultural scenes of West Lake we know today — the snow-laden Bai Causeway, General Yue’s tomb, Longjing Village and the quiet and a bit barren Huxin Pavilion Island.

Some have faded into the mists of time. Zhaoqing Temple, once a major temple in Hangzhou, is now a name that youngsters have barely heard of. It was destroyed in a fire and later demolished gradually along with the modern development of the city. What has remained unchanged is the lake itself.

“Although the works of Shao and Guo are not actually in the same period of time, I take them not in a chronological order but as apposition,” Jiao Jian, one of the exhibition’s curators.

“A prose about West Lake scenery still fits well today. Likewise the scenes depicted behind these cameras are not the history, but art of the moment.

“In that sense, the lake is never just a geographical location, but a concept copied in our genes and growing in our blood,” said Jiao.

Date: Through February 17

Address: Art Museum of China Academy of Art, 218 Nanshan Rd

Admission: Free

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