Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 6

The Palace Museum

The Palace Museum
Beijing, China

The inscriptions on a set of ten granite stone drums (shigu) are China’s earliest known examples of writing engraved in stone; they are also known as hunting monuments (liejie) due to their content. The ten drum-shaped stones with seal-script (zhuan shu) inscriptions are named after their shape and have no relation to the percussion instrument.

Scholars have not yet reached a consensus as to the precise date of the creation of the stone drums, but Wang Guowei (1877–1927), Guo Moruo (1892–1978), Ma Heng (1881–1955), and Tang Lan (1901–1979) agreed that they were engraved before 221 BCE, when the Qin dynasty was established. Tang Lan decided upon the year 374 BCE (the eleventh year of Duke Xian of Qin, r. 484–362) as the date of inscription. The original inscribed stones are currently part of the Palace Museum’s collection.

Each of the ten stone drums is named after two decipherable characters in its poetic inscription; the titles may be roughly translated as “My Chariot” (Wuche), “The River Qian” (Qian yi), “Hunting Chariot” (Tianche), “Regal Chariot” (Luanche), “Falling Rain” (Lingyu), Zuoyuan (meaning unclear), Ershi (meaning unclear), “Horse Presentation” (Majian), “My Waters” (Wushui), and “Man of Wu” (Wuren). The general content of these poems involves various descriptions of the conquest, expeditions, fishing, and hunting of kings, aristocrats, and court officials and reflect the political, economic, and cultural circumstances of the period in which they were composed. Each of the poems consists of eighteen or nineteen tetrasyllabic verses.

Rubbings of the stone drums were made as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), but those early examples are no longer extant. The earliest extant rubbings are three copies created in the Song dynasty (960-1279) and formerly housed in the Ten Drum Studio (Shigu zhai) of the art connoisseur An Guo (1481–1534) during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Creatively named Vanguard (Xianfeng ben, also known as Qianmao or Forward Patrol), Middle Guard (Zhongquan ben), and Rearguard (Houjin ben), all three Song copies were eventually acquired by a collection in Japan. The Palace Museum’s rubbings date to the Ming dynasty and have a distinguished provenance. First preserved by the Ming-dynasty artist Sun Kehong (1532–1611), the rubbings were later in the possession of Zhu Yian (1882–1937), who served as an art connoisseur and authenticator at the Palace Museum. The Museum acquired the rubbings from the Zhu family by bequest of the late scholar.

This Ming-dynasty album of rubbings, called Stone Drum Inscriptions (Shigu wen, the title of the album), has a thick application of ink and clearly delineated characters. The rubbings are mounted on hemp-paper folios with a wide incised border. With each folio measuring 15.5 cm wide and 28.4 cm long, the album consists of eighteen and a half pairs of rectos and versos (i.e., a spread of two pages showing the front and back of a folio or album leaf); each pair contains six columns of five characters. The album does not contain rubbings for the eighth inscription. Only one or two characters remain in each column of the rubbings for the fifth, seventh, and tenth inscriptions.

The album includes sixteen colophons, including those by Weng Fanggang (1733–1818), Wu Yun (1811–1883), and Cai Wenbi. Each collector added his own seal impression to the album; 130 total impressions are found throughout the album and include “Appreciated by Weng Fanggang” (Weng Fanggang changguan), “Read by Wu Yun of the Tranquil Studio” (Wu Yun Ping zhai ceng duguo), “Seal of Wang Guang” (Wang Guang zhi yin), and “Acquired by Huang Heting after Forty-seven Years of Age” (Huang Heting sishiqi sui hou suo de). Additionally, the colophon by Weng Fanggang notes that the red numbering before each of the inscriptions was written by Sun Kehong.

Judging from their understandings of the full or partial legibility of a number of characters abraded in later periods, Tang Lan and Ma Ziyun (1903–1986) recognized this album of rubbings as an authentic early Ming dynasty work. Stone Drum Inscriptions was originally written in greater seal characters (dazhuan). The characters are unique and show an ancient calligraphic aesthetic. Zhang Huaiguan of the Tang dynasty expressively described this imposingly distinctive style in his Judgments on Calligraphy (Shu duan).

The album of rubbings is accompanied by two appendices. One is a rubbing of Stone Drum Inscriptions with Phonetic Commentary (Shigu wen yinxun) on twenty and a half pairs of rectos and versos with two columns on each recto or verso. The final half consists of two columns of five characters. Engraved by Mao Liang, the text was written by Pan Di of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368); this series of rubbings also bears two seal impressions. The second appendix is Zhou Boqi’s (1298–1369) calligraphy in imitation of the stone drum inscriptions; the album comprises thirteen pairs of rectos and versos containing six columns of five characters. The extra leaf attached to the beginning of the album bears a tag with an inscription in small regular script and twenty-six seal impressions, including “Gentleman Zhou” (Zhou lang) and “Seal of An Yuanzhong” (An Yuanzhong yin).

This set of rubbings is recorded in catalogues by Ouyang Xiu, Dong You, and Chen Si of the Song-dynasty; Yang Shen of the Ming dynasty; and Gu Yanwu, Zhang Yansheng, and Yang Zhenfang of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Guo Moruo also wrote a work entitled Research on Stone Drum Inscriptions (Shigu wen yanjiu).

Many rubbings, among which the Belvedere of the Prime Under Heaven version (Tianyi ge ben) produced by Ruan Yuan, Zhang Yanchang, et al. is of the optimal quality.

Author: Yin Yimei
Translated by Adam J. Ensign


  • Title: Ming-Dynasty Rubbings of Stone Drums of the Warring-States Period - View 6
  • Type: photograph
  • Medium: granite
  • Dynasty: Ming-Dynasty

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