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Gegu yaolun 格古要論

Apr 12, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Gegu yaolun 格古要論 "Important discussions about assessing antiques" is a treatise on collecting and assessing antiques written during the early Ming period 明 (1368-1644) by the collector Cao Zhao 曹昭 (mid-late 14th cent.), courtesy name Mingzhong 明仲, who hailed from Songjiang 松江 near modern Shanghai.

His book was finished in 1387 and is divided into 3 juan that describe antiques in 13 topics: ancient bronze vessels, paintings, calligraphies, rubbings of model inscriptions in stone steles, ancient music instruments, inkstones, marvellous stones (zhuqi 珍奇, i.e., jade, agate, pearls, rhino horn or ivory), metal objects, earthenware and porcelain, lacquerware, textile objects, extraordinary wooden objects, and strange stones. Each chapter is divided in between 5 and 40 paragraphs. All these various collectives are described in very much detail, but it does not cover all objects that were rated as precious among collectors.

Lang Ying 郎瑛 (1487-1566), for instance, criticized in his book Qixiu leigao 七修類稿 that Cao Zhao only mentions zithers (qin 琴) and not wind instruments (sheng guan 笙管), and that he could have added other descriptions about model calligraphies, and not only the Chunhua tie 淳化帖. Among the jewellery, the zumulü 祖母綠 and shengtie 聖鐵 are missing, and among the extraordinary stones, the Dali xiangu 大理仙姑 might have been mentioned, and so on. The critic does disregard Cao Zhao's principle only to write about objects that he had personally inspected, for instance, in the collection of his father Cao Zhenyin 曹真隱, and that his book therefore cannot be interpreted as an encyclopedia about antiques and collectibles.

There is one statement in the Gegu yaolun that really deserves critique, namely the assumption that bronze vessels, buried into the earth, preserve a fresh turquois colour (cui 翠) for a thousand years, and if kept under water, a green colour ( 綠). Sun Jiong 孫炯, author of the book Yanshanzhai zhenwan jilan 硯山齋珍玩集覽, doubts this general statements and says that the colour of the vessel depends on the colour of the water and the earth.

The Gegu yaolun is included in the series Gezhi congshu 格致叢書, Xiyinxuan congshu 惜陰軒叢書, Yimen guangdu 夷門廣牘, Baijia mingshu 百名家書, Yingyin Yuan-Ming shanben congshu shi zhong 影印元明善本叢書十種 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書. The version in the Gezhi congshu is an abbreviated edition.

There is a revised and annotated edition published by Wang Zuo 王佐 and Shu Min 舒敏 with a length of 13 juan and called Xinzeng Gegu yaolun 新增格古要論. It was published in 1459. Wang Zuo, style Zhuzhai 竹齋, hailed from Jishui 吉水, Jiangxi. He added information about calligraphies, model calligraphy boards (gubei fatie 古碑法帖), and supplemented quotations about bronze tools and stones, paintings and and "objects of the study" (wenfang 文房, i.e., brush, inkstone, ink, paper, brush rack, water pot). The also altered the sequence of the chapters into the following order: Zithers, calligraphy, bronze inscriptions, paintings, precious stones, inkstones, stones, porcelain, lacquerware, brocade, wood, bamboo, the objects of the study, short critical comments (gaochi tiba 誥敕題跋), and various investigations (zakao 雜考). Experts rate Wang Zuo's additions as qualitatively lower than the original text of Cao Zhao.

Quotation 1. Ancient Rhinoceros Horn Reproductions (Gu xipi 古犀毗)
古剔犀器以滑地紫犀為貴,底如仰瓦,光澤而堅薄。其色如棗色, 俗謂之棗兒犀, 亦有剔深峻者次之。 Among the cups and other articles of old carved lacquer fashioned after those of rhinoceros horn, the best are reddish-brown in colour with smooth polished surface, like fine earthenware underneath; the lacquer is lustrous, of strong substance and thin. The variety of a lighter red tint resembling the fruit of the cultivated Shandong jujube (Zizyphus communis) is known commonly as 'jujube lacquer' (zao'er xi 棗兒犀). There are also some in which the carving is deeply cut and in strong relief, but these are classed lower.
福州舊做者色黃,滑地,圓花兒者謂之福犀,堅且薄,亦難得。有雲者是也。 The old production of Fuzhou, which is yellow in colour with finely polished surface, and is decorated with designs in rounded relief, is known as 'Foochow lacquer' (Fu xi 福犀). It is solid and thin, but rare and difficult to find. The lacquer is mottled with clouds.
元朝嘉興府西塘楊匯新作者,雖重數多,剔得深峻者,其膏子少有堅者,但黃地子者最易浮脫。 During the Yuan dynasty (1280-1367) a new manufactory was established at the prefecture of Jiaxing 嘉興, in the province of Zhejiang, at Xitang Yanghui 西塘楊匯, which produced a large quantity of lacquer, carved for the most part deeply and in high relief. But the body is generally wanting in solidity, and the yellow ground, especially, easily chips and breaks off.
Source: Bushell, Stephen W. 1905. Chinese Art (London: Wyman & Sons), Vol. 1, 124-125. Transcriptions modernized.

A full translation of the Gegu yaolun was produced by Sir Percival David (1971), Chinese Connoisseurship: The Ko Ku Yao Lun: The Essential Criteria of Antiquities (London: Faber & Faber).

Table 1. Contents of the Gegu yaolun 格古要論
1. 古銅器 Ancient bronze vessels
2. 古畫 Ancient paintings
3. 古墨蹟 Ancient calligraphies
4. 古碑法帖 Ancient stone slab inscriptions and model calligraphy boards
5. 古琴 Ancient zithers
6. 古硯 Ancient inkstones
7. 珍奇 Marvellous gems
8. 金鐵 Metal objects
9. 古窯器 Ancient pottery and porcelain
10. 古漆器 Ancient lacquerware
11. 錦綺 Brocade and gauze
12. 異木 Extraordinary pieces of wood
13. 異石 Extraordinary stones
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