The craftsmen of the 12th century would never have imagined that their sculptures would be seen as Hello Kitty and Garfield cartoon icons by the children of the 21st century. Similarly, the tourists today look at the kittenish shapes and find it hard to reconcile that these were the artists' interpretation of tigers.
Here at the Southern Song Dynasty Stone Sculpture Park beside Dongqian Lake in Ningbo, on the coastal fringe of Zhejiang province, relics from that era are reminders of the dynasty's sad history.
The Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) left only sculptures, a large number of which can only be seen at Ningbo. There are no tombs of its rulers, who refused to be buried in Southern China after they died, as they had fled to these parts after enemies from the north invaded their land.
For generations, the rulers indulged in wine, women and song to dull the pain and shame of defeat. Melancholy drove them to poetry, and they sought refuge in art as their kingdom weakened by the day. The Southern Song rulers cared more about the decoration on their attire than their weapons - a fact amply illustrated by the sculptures they left.
Even the tigers, usually symbols of ferocity, are docile in stone, eyelids lowered as if half asleep.
Most of the stone art from this era is found in Buddhist grottoes and tombs in the middle part of China, and the Ningbo collection is a rare exception.
The Southern Song emperors' refusal to be entombed properly left a huge gap in archeology, but fortunately, their lesser officials had no such qualms. The sculptures that decorate the tombs of the feudal prime ministers fill the void.
Most of these officials were natives and began their careers around Dongqian Lake. They were thus granted the honor of having their own tomb paths, lined with lively sculptures with accurate molding, diverse contours, gestures and expressions.
The tomb passage sculptures of the Shi family, which boasted a lineage with three prime ministers, are major exhibits.
Over the past nine centuries, the sculptures scattered around the hills and in the beside Dongqian lake have suffered erosion, sabotage and theft. They were finally salvaged and saved in 1999 when a park was created to house them permanently.
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