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Love, Metal and Stone

A precursor of modern archaeology, epigraphy rose during a literary movement in China similar to The Renaissance. A Song Dynasty scholar and his wife, lauded as among the most talented women in China’s history, risked their lives to develop it

By Song Yimin Updated Nov.1

The watershed moment for modern archaeology in China came in 1928 with the first official excavations of the oracle bone inscriptions in Anyang, Henan Province, the 3,000-year-old site of the Shang Dynasty capital. 
But digging deeper into archaeology’s origins reveals a more nuanced history – one that stretches back nearly a millennium to a group of scholars leading a cultural renewal. 
Among them was a woman who helped her husband pioneer a new field of study and wrote poetry that would immortalize her, all while on the run during the throes of war.  

Leaving Their Mark 
Epigraphy, the study of ancient inscriptions, first developed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Unlike archaeology, it aimed to verify and challenge interpretations of classical Confucian texts. 

Epigraphy is based on collections of antiques. In ancient society, only artists and senior officials had access to collected antiques and art masterpieces scattered around the country. As a result of the imperial examination system, officials were among the best educated class. Many were also artists and literati.  

A movement similar to the Renaissance blossomed in China during the 9th and 11th centuries that aimed to restore earlier literary and cultural traditions up to the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). These traditions feature a freer style of writing that expressed personal opinions and keen observations. This differed from the prevailing style, which since the late 4th century focused on rhythmic couplets and florid language. Expressing meaningful opinions was less important, and writers of the time showed little interest in realism.  

In the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was reeling from rebellions led by two warlords, An Lushan and Shi Siming. At that time, two Tang literati, Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan led the Ancient Prose Movement, which advocated the straightforward writing style of pre-Han Dynasty traditions, as well as a focus on ethics and politics through the lens of Confucian values. The movement peaked during the mid-Song Dynasty in the 11th century. At the helm were six literati led by essayist and poet Ouyang Xiu. They, along with Han and Liu, are known as the eight prose masters of the Tang and Song. They all held official positions. Four had passed the imperial exam in 1057, when Ouyang Xiu was the lead examiner.  

Seeking inspiration from ancient traditions, Ouyang Xiu turned to artifacts. His research into inscriptions on ancient metal and stone artifacts pioneered epigraphy research in China. He compared the inscriptions to classical Confucian texts as a way to provide greater context for Confucian interpretations. Ouyang wrote the first book on epigraphy, Records of Artifact Collections. His student, Zeng Gong, who was also among the “eight prose masters,” penned his own book, Records of Jinshi. In Chinese, jin means metal and shi means stone. This explains why epigraphy in Chinese is jinshixue – “studies of metals and stones.” The metal artifacts were most often bronze vessels.  

Power Couple 
The most remarkable achievement in Chinese epigraphy was by a husband-and-wife team at the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao were born into families of officials in the late 11th century. Both were highly educated and shared a passion for epigraphy. Zhao was also an official, but despite their status lived a very simple and sometimes impoverished life. Political shifts would further shake their social standing, and much of the couple’s money went to buying antiques for their collection and epigraphic research. Zhao, with the support of Li, wrote an epigraphic masterpiece, Records of Metals and Stones. In recognition of the contributions of Ouyang Xiu and Zhao Mingcheng, epigraphy was also later called “the studies of Ou and Zhao.”  

The couple’s story is as well-known as their achievements. When they married in the early 12th century, the Song Dynasty was mired in partisan politics. The fathers of Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao were in opposing political camps. Li Qingzhao’s father lost power first, then Zhao Mingcheng’s father. Both were demoted and expelled from the capital Kaifeng. The couple had to move to Zhao’s hometown of Qingzhou in what is today’s Shandong Province. It was during their 13 years in Qingzhou that they wrote the classic Records of Metals and Stones and amassed a collection of antiques that rivaled that of the royal family.  

Zhao Mingcheng later served as an official in different cities. But then the Northern Song was toppled by the Jurchens, a tribe from the northeastern steppes and former Song allies that founded the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The Song’s last two emperors were captured by the Jurchens. Five months later, Zhao Gou, a brother of the last Song emperor, assumed the throne in Shangqiu, about 150 kilometers to the southeast of Kaifeng, of what would later be declared the Southern Song (1127-1279).  

During the melee, Zhao Mingcheng was serving as the top official of Zizhou, modern day Zibo in Shandong Province, when his mother died in Jiangning (now Nanjing). Zhao went to Jiangning and his wife Li Qingzhao stayed behind. But the war continued, and the Jin army was advancing further south, threatening to take Shandong. To save their collections from being destroyed, Li traveled alone from Zizhou to their former home in Qingzhou and packed their antiques. She managed to transport 15 horsedrawn carriages to her husband in Jiangning. But she had to leave behind more than 10 rooms full of artifacts, which were burned by the invading Jin a few months later.  

Soon after Zhao Mingcheng arrived in Jiangning, he was appointed the city’s top official. Although he soon learned that a military officer in the city was planning a rebellion, he did not take action. In addition, he was about to be transferred to Huzhou in today’s Zhejiang Province so he was not concerned about the fate of Jiangning. Another official stepped up to crush the rebellion, and Zhao fled amid the chaos. He was stripped of his title for dereliction of duty.  

Zhao and Li were on the move again. On arrival at the Wujiang River area in today’s Anhui Province, Li penned a famous poem about Xiang Yu, a rebellion leader who overthrew China’s founding Qin Dynasty. Xiang Yu committed suicide on the banks of Wujiang River after his defeat to Liu Bang, his former ally. Li eulogized in the poem that a man should be a hero, dead or alive, and praised Xiang Yu for refusing to cross the river to escape. According to Sima Qian’s Historical Records, Xiang Yu chose to kill himself with his own sword because he could not face the families of his hometown after thousands of their young men fought and died for him.  

Li’s writings have always been more well-known than her husband’s. While most of her early prose involves themes of love, this poem exemplifies the themes of indignation, heroic grief and patriotism of her later work. She was disappointed in the cowardly escape of her husband from Jiangning, and other officials and even the emperors from the invading Jin army.  

A bronze from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771 BCE) inscribed with 78 characters is exhibited in the National Museum of China, March 2, 2021

Wartime Widow 
The couple settled in Chizhou, Anhui Province. Later Zhao was reassigned to Huzhou, but first had to report to the emperor in Shangqiu. While saying their goodbyes at a wharf, Li asked her husband what she should do in case she had to flee again. Zhao told her to first leave their heaviest belongings behind, then their clothes, then books and then antiques. But she was to never give up any of the Zhao family sacrificial vessels. Researchers today argue that Zhao’s priorities showed how little he cared about his wife. He valued objects more than her safety.  

Zhao died at 48 from malaria soon after he arrived in Shangqiu. Li was left a 45-year-old widow who never fully recovered from the loss.  

As the Jin army continued its southward march, Li was forced to move again. She finally settled in Lin’an, the Southern Song capital (modern day Hangzhou), three years after her husband’s death. Many of her antiques were lost as she fled. Life was hard for a widow with no children but rich in valuable antiques. Even the emperor coveted her collection. She was lonely, sad and in poor health.  

She remarried Zhang Ruzhou, a lowranking local official, as Zhang told her how much he cared for her. But he was violent toward her because she would not give him her collection of artifacts.  

Woman were not allowed to file for divorce at that time. Instead, she found another way to leave Zhang. She accused him of lying to get his position. During the Song, men over 40 years old who failed the imperial examinations six times had a chance of getting an official position by default. Li said Zhang had lied about failing six times. Zhang was dismissed and exiled. According to the law, Li could legally leave her husband, but had to serve two years in prison. However, she only served nine days thanks to one of Zhao Mingcheng’s relatives who was an official in the capital. Her remarrying and prosecuting her second husband were regarded as a stain on her reputation during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), when chastity and obedience were the most valued womanly virtues. To uphold her idealized feminine image as the most talented woman in Chinese history, many scholars at that time argued that she never remarried.  

After ending her second marriage, Li spent more than 10 years compiling and editing Records of Metals and Stones. She presented the book to the emperor.  

As Li Qingzhao explained in the afterword, the couple studied inscriptions on metal vessels and stone tablets from the Xia Dynasty to just before the Northern Song. Today we know this period spans nearly 3,000 years. She said they selected and reviewed all the inscriptions they could find and made sure their research was “not only in line with the ethical standards set by Confucianism, but could help official historians revise erroneous records.” She described how she and her husband enjoyed the research, and how she lamented that most of their collection was lost in the Jin-Song wars. She said when she wrote the afterword, it was like her husband was there with her.  

Li Qingzhao died at 71. For hundreds of years she has been revered as the most talented women in Chinese history, mainly for her literary works. While her husband Zhao Mingcheng is known for epigraphy, his achievements would not have been possible without Li Qingzhao’s support in writing the book, editing it after Zhao’s death, and risking her life to protect their antiques.  

As China began to develop its archaeological research in the late 1920s, epigraphy gradually became a part of archaeology. 

“The Portrait of Li Qingzhao” is a part of the famous “Qian Qiu Jue Yan Tu,” a 6-meter-long painting that details nearly 70 influential female figures in Chinese history finished during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)