Lion-dogs, Hundred Antiques
Classical Chinese Carpets 1

The 'hundred antiques'
Gary Dickinson


The 'hundred antiques' design is an important development in Chinese art marking the transition of the Ming to Qing periods in the mid-seventeenth century. The collapse of the Ming (1368-1644), the last native Chinese dynasty, and the establishment of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was a politically and intellectually turbulent chapter in Chinese history. The 'hundred antiques' emerge from this period, symbolising the continuity of Chinese culture. The design consists of a collection of culturally significant objects: books, the implements of writing together with related objects such as brush and water containers, archaic bronze vessels, porcelain, musical instruments and pastimes such as the game of go. Rarely totalling one hundred items, this figure probably simply represents a large number, as in the 'hundred names', a term used to describe the Chinese nation.

The paraphernalia of the scholar's desk have long been prized by the Chinese as objects of virtue in their own right. The cultural importance of these literary implements is demonstrated by their widespread use as decorative motifs on other forms of Chinese art, including porcelain, lacquer and textiles. Collections of valued objects or materials as decorative motifs were a tradition of long standing in Chinese art. Perhaps the oldest is the grouping called the 'eight precious things'. It is apparent from the use of these decorative motifs that they carried with them their owner's aspirations for status and happiness. But they also had an important symbolic purpose, reflecting belief systems and philosophical allegiance. The 'hundred antiques' design is rooted in Confucianism with its constant reference to the past and emphasis on the cultural accomplishments of the 'ideal man'. Unlike Buddhism and religious Daoism, Confucianism did not develop a specific iconography. The 'hundred antiques' design may have been an attempt to address this lacuna and promote the Confucian orthodoxy being pursued by the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722).

Of the Confucian classics, the Great Learning offers us the key to understanding the significance of the 'hundred antiques' design. It explains that: "Those who wish to make their intentions sincere would first extend their knowledge; the extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things". The 'investigation of things' was of crucial importance to Neo-Confucian thought, equivalent to the meditational practices of Buddhism or Daoism. It was a process of exhaustive investigation of the principles of individual external objects and events, aimed at establishing or apprehending an inherent absolute, single underlying principle. Once this unifying principle had been understood, it could then be applied to moral issues and social norms. Classical models provided the ideal subject material for the 'investigation of things'. Confucianism regarded the ancient past as a 'golden age' presided over by sage rulers who governed by moral example through institutions founded on the application of the unitary principle. It was believed that careful study of these ancient ideals would effect a transformative influence on both the individual and society. Within this philosophical context we can begin to understand the significance of groupings of objects that collectively form the 'hundred antiques'.

The archaic bronzes included in the design were used in sacrificial ritual. Confucianism accorded ritual an important place, most significantly in the cult of the ancestors, which was universally observed and provided a cohesive influence, helping to maintain social distinctions and strengthen the hierarchical relationships of Confucian society. Closely related to the bronze ritual vessels are the musical instruments in the 'hundred antiques' design. Music was one of the accomplishments of the Confucian gentleman and provided a model for social relationships.


Classical literature, represented by bound volumes, the so-called 'four treasures' ­ ink, inkstones, brushes and scrolls of writing material ­ together with all the other apparatus of writing such as brush pots, water droppers and seals emphasised the importance of literacy. The inclusion of complex symbols which are in fact plays on words demonstrates the degree of literacy and knowledge required of the Confucian gentleman. At his leisure, the Confucian gentleman was expected to be an accomplished calligrapher and genre painter. The ruling Confucian elite became sophisticated connoisseurs, assembling important collections of paintings, calligraphy, jade and porcelain. Mathematics and even games such as go provided the opportunity for disciplined mental stimulation. Nature, represented by the dwarf potted shrubs, or flowering branches and dishes of fruit included in the 'hundred antiques' design, was a common source of inspiration.

The 'hundred antiques' was therefore not just a collection of objects which reflected China's long cultural heritage, or a simple representation of the liberal arts worthy of the Confucian gentleman. Its emergence during the seventeenth century symbolised the assimilation of the new dynasty into the mainstream of Chinese culture and completion of the transition from the Ming to Qing periods.

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