The date was 1901 and the place was Daijiawan Village 戴家弯村, Doujitai 斗鸡台, Baoji 宝鸡 in Shaanxi Province. A simple peasant farmer was cultivating his land when he accidently stumbled upon one of the greatest finds of its time: a complete set of ritual bronzewares, dating back to the Shang Dynasty/Western Zhou period (1046 – 771 B.C.). Up to present day, there are very few sets like it in the world, with this discovery possibly being the only complete set known to exist today.
So how did this absolutely stunning discovery make its way from a small village in Shaanxi all the way to modern day New York City?
China’s first global antiquarian.
Duan Fang 端方 (1861 – 1911) (“Tuan Fang” in Wade–Giles) was a relatively senior Qing dynasty career official, who held several positions during his time, including that of the governor of Hubei, the Viceroy of Liangjian as well as several other positions in Shaanxi, Jiangsu and Hunan. He hailed from a Manchu family of government officials, tracing back several generations and was even related to Yuan Shikai 袁世, (1859 – 1916) who was the first president of the Republic of China (albeit this was only through marriage).
He was a charismatic power broker, who is also credited with founding China’s first kindergarten as well provincial library systems.
In 1909, not long after being appointed the important position of Viceroy of Zhili (the area surrounding Beijing), Duan Fang was, for lack of a more eloquent term, “fired from his position.” This dismissal was in consequence of a perceived disrespect during the funeral procession of The Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 (1835 – 1908). Duan Fang had maintained a good relationship with Cixi and at the time of her death, Duan Fang was still the governor of Zhili. As senior official, it would have been expected that he attend and take part in the ceremony. As was customary at the time, each official would bring along a limited entourage of servants to protect, cater to and care for the needs of that particular official.
And herein lies trouble that he would soon face.
The Tianjin Fusheng Photo Studio.
Yin Shao Geng 尹紹耕 and his brother operated the Tianjin based Fusheng Photo Studio 天津福升照相馆. At that time, photo studios were indeed rare and the bulk of them were engaged mainly in portraiture. However, Yin Shao Geng took a very different path and decided the road to riches would be to cater to photographing officials, dignitaries and major events, which could then be sold onward to the media (as opposed simple portraiture for the average customer). He was also known to have regularly used money and gifts in order to curry favour with top officials, so as to be accorded the privilege of photographing important events or important people. In simplistic terms, one might say Yin Shao Geng was a bit of an early paparazzi. So it comes as no surprise that Yin Shao Geng would want to photograph the funeral of the Empress Dowager Cixi.
As a clever businessman, Yin Shao Geng knew the best way to reach Duan Fang was to appeal to Duan Fang’s interest in both photography, antiques and documenting historical events. After bribing a body guard for access and then requesting to photograph Duan Fang’s extensive antique collection, a connection was made. After some deliberation Duan Fang eventually agreed to help Yin Shao Geng in return. It was decided that Duan Fang’s entourage would secretly embed two photographers (Yin Shao Geng and his brother) and two assistants (his driver and another assistant) disguised as the official’s servants.
While there were indeed photographers who both officially and “unofficially” documented the funeral process, there were also certain aspects and areas of the procession which were off-limits, as a matter of protocol and of respect. In particular, the flash of a camera was considered disrespectful to the dead.
Despite Yin Shao Geng’s crews best efforts to capture photos discretely, as they attempted to record the final stage of the procession where Cixi ‘s coffin enters the dimly lit mausoleum at 东陵寝门 (a particularly sensitive juncture) both the light of the flash and the white smoke that followed gave them away. The officials in attendance were horrified. Court etiquette was of utmost importance and they had violated it. They were all detained immediately.
Duan Fang himself was accused of disrespect, of disrupting feng shui, taking unauthorized pictures and even intentional desecration. After deliberation, Duan Fang was eventually dismissed from his position. Yin Shao Geng and his brother were not so lucky, and were were fined and sentenced to ten years in prison, although they were released a little over two years later when the Qing government fell. They eventually resumed their photography business. Duanfang’s bodyguard who introduced Yin Shao Geng to Duan Fang, was not so lucky and was sentenced to life in prison.
However, just two years later Duan Fang was back in business, when in 1911 he was reinstated to a new position and charged with leading a battalion of imperial soldiers to quell a rebellion in Sichuan, known as the Railway Rights Protection Movement. This was a protest movement that aimed to stop the Qing government’s plan to nationalize local railway development projects. Halfway along the way, Duan Fang met his ultimate misfortune, where he was betrayed by his own troops who were sympathetic the revolutionary cause. His life (and his brothers life) ended with his head being cut off and morbidly, his troops placed his head in a kerosene barrel filled with rapeseed oil in order to preserve it. The head was eventually sent north where it was paraded in the streets and then displayed for a time in a Shanghai museum. You can read more about his preserved head here in Chinese. (backup version).
The scholar, antiquarian and connoisseur.
What makes Duan Fang so interesting to us, is that he was an extremely well known, avid collector of both Chinese antiques as well as foreign antiquities. In fact, Duan Fang is considered to be the first Chinese in modern times to have collected foreign artifacts and several of his books contain records of Egyptian, Greek and Italian antiquities. The London Times correspondent G.E. Morrison who was stationed in Peking at the time, described Duan Fang as “the greatest authority living on Chinese antiquities,” whose collection was “the finest in the Empire.
Throughout his career Duan Fang amassed what would be easily described as an extremely formidable collection. It was said that after his death in 1911, despite the fact that a mere five years later much of his collection was lost, there still remained as many as 1,600 pieces. To describe his collection as vast would be an understatement.
His collection included bronzes, Neolithic jades, stone carvings & tiles, ancient seals, calligraphy, rubbings of ancient stones and various paintings. He collaborated with and maintained relationship with a large number of famous collectors and connoisseurs from that time and worked with his contemporaries to organize, compile and record his (and sometimes their) collections into books, effectively helping to record, preserve and protect Chinese history and culture.
Tao Zhai Ji Jin Lu 陶斋吉金录 by Duan Fang
One of many books he wrote was the Tao Zhai Ji Jin Lu (陶斋吉金录) compiled in 1908. It contains records of 359 bronze ritual vessels, weapons, statues etc from the Shang, Zhou, Sui and Tang Dynasties (This book is actually scanned and available online at the Chinese text project for those who wish to read it). He also wrote books on jade, old seals (陶斋藏印), ancient gold vessels (陶斋旧藏古禁金器), Han pottery (陶斋藏陶), paintings and calligraphy (壬寅消夏录) and many others.
Another aspect that made Duan Fang particularly unique as a scholar-official, was his international connections. During the time of his service, the Qing government was undergoing a period of great reform (to say the least) and in 1905, Duan Fang was one of five officials chosen to visit the west. In an effort to help the Qing government write a constitution through the examination of foreign constitutional monarchies, over a period of 8 months, the group traveled to various places in the United States, Russia and Europe (France and the US were not constitutional monarchies but were visited nonetheless).
Chinese historians refer to this trip as “五大臣出” or “the five ministers going abroad.”
This accorded Duan Fang with the unique opportunity of being able to cultivate personal ties with foreigners who had political, cultural or economic interests in China. It also allowed him to promote his collection and passion for antiques, not just domestically but internationally. And ironically, this is also where he developed the interest in both photography and learned the importance of photographing historical events; a interest that we now know eventually got him into trouble.
And humorously his first encounter with a revolving door, which took him quite a bit to get used to.
The Thirteen Forbidden Weapons.
As fate would have it, in 1901 Duan Fang was already in office in Shaanxi at the same time as when a large archaic bronze vessel set was unearthed also in Shaanxi. Some stories say it was unearthed by a farmer named Wang. Others stories say Wang bought it from the farmer to resell it. At his direction, Duan Fang’s people rushed to the site to acquire it. Later, from the same site an additional 6 bronze daggers and one goblet were also unearthed. These too found their way to Duan Fang. Not only was it a complete set but it included the main platform for holding the drinking utensils. A set of this size is rare and precious. Casting a set of this size and complexity required much materials and skill and surely would have been a state endeavor.
Its not wonder that this set was said to be one of Duan Fang’s favorites and was called “The Thirteen Forbidden Weapons” (柉禁十三器). “Forbidden” because alcohol was essentially forbidden at time of the Western Zhou dynasty, with the exception of during major sacrificial rituals (the ladle makes 14 but technically belongs to one of the urns).
“The Thirteen Forbidden Weapons” followed Duan Fang wherever he moved. He had rubbings made of the set, and invited his contemporaries to view it, including recording the occasion with a photograph.
Enter John Calvin Ferguson.
John C. Ferguson 福開森 (1866-1945) was a Canadian-American pastor who was part of the American Methodist Mission in Nanjing, and who started started a small college that was eventually went on to become Nanking University. He even worked for the Qing government on education reform (among other things). Ferguson was a unique character in his own right, with an impressive command of the Chinese language combined with a deep affinity for Chinese culture.
Ferguson was also an extremely prolific collector and amassed a formidable collection of archaic bronzes, scroll paintings, oracle bones and jades. Many pieces from his collection were eventually donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, although the bulk of his collection remains in China as over 1000 pieces were donated to Nanjing University & Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Ferguson also published a small Chinese-language newspaper, the Xinwenbao 新聞報, which eventually became Shanghai’s largest daily newspaper thus providing Ferguson with significant financial resources for his antiques passion. Ferguson’s connoisseurship along with his familiarity with the Chinese bureaucratic system eventually even enabled him to play a role as an advisor in establishing the first Palace Museum in Beijing. Impressive!
Books by John C. Ferguson (Chinese & English)
By the time he left China in 1943 Ferguson had spent an impressive total of 57 years living in China.
His time as an advisor to the Qing government put Ferguson in direct contact with Duan Fang and from him, learned the Chinese tradition of bronze connoisseurship. Both individuals were well-known connoisseurs of archaic Chinese bronzes. Both were drawn together by their shared passion for antiques. And both of them amassed formidable collections, which they wrote about. This level of close friendship between Duan Fang and Ferguson was rare among Chinese officials and foreigners in China at that time, not the least due to the language barrier.
Crossing paths for the last time.
In 1912, only a year after the fall of the Qing dynasty and year after the death of Duan Fang, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City engaged Ferguson as their agent in China, setting him with the task of assembling a collection of Chinese art for the Museum.
After Duan Fang died, for reasons unspecified, his family fell apart rapidly and his children fell into poverty. Within a mere five years they had already sold most of his collection. As fate would have it, Ferguson would cross paths with his friend Duan Fang one last time. In 1924 his family sold his most famous collection; his prized set of Shang dynasty bronze artifacts. Naturally his children would have went to Ferguson knowing their fathers relationship to him.
The Thirteen Forbidden Weapons at the MET
Ferguson then purchased the collection from Duan Fang’s children for approximately 20 million taels of silver and then sold it to the museum for roughly 100,000 dollars. The additional six pieces also later excavated at the site were sold to the museum as well. These bronzes remain today as part of the permeant collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another great discovery.
In contemporary times, Chinese nationalists have often chose to interpret the 1912 sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one of several great losses of national treasure. However in June of 2012, an exciting new discovery was made:
Archaeologists once again in Baoji, Shaanxi discovered a well-preserved tomb of a Western Zhou noble. Over 100 pieces were unearthed including 31 bronze ritual utensils, similar in form to Duan Fang’s “Thirteen Forbidden Weapons.”
These pieces now are on display in a provincial Shaanxi Museum (渭滨区博物馆) for the Chinese public to appreciate.
Who knows what other great treasures are out there, just waiting to be touched by a peasants shovel?