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Explore Lingnan decorative patterns on relics

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :2024-02-05

Looking back in history, a wide variety of decorative patterns were created by ancient Chinese people, either carved or painted, on building parts and utensils. Those patterns embody the aesthetic features of their times and regions, and often convey good messages. So what kinds of decorative patterns that were popular in ancient Lingnan Region?

The Nanyue King Museum in Guangzhou held an exhibition of the patterns on relics unearthed from the archaeological site of Nanyue Kingdom Palace. It was the latest of a series of exhibitions that showcase the findings of the archaeological site of Nanyue Kingdom Palace. It was also the first time that the most representative motifs on relics unearthed from the site were displayed.

The archaeological site of Nanyue Kingdom Palace had served as the base of local administration since the Qin Empire unified Lingnan Region in 214 B.C.. Cultural layers of different historical periods piled up at the site and an abundance of relics have been discovered.

The exhibition presented more than 200 pieces/sets of relics in five sections, which were arranged in chronological order. It unfolded the development of decorative patterns in Lingnan Region over time and their association with the society and culture.

During the pre-Qin period (pre-221 B.C.), the Baiyue tribe people who clustered in Lingnan Region invented several geometric patterns.

A pottery shard with patterns resemble the Chinese character “米” (rice)

A ceramic pot with stamped patterns of small squares

Following the unification of China in the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and Han (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) dynasties, Lingnan Region was brought under centralized control and started to be influenced by the culture of the Central Plains (generally refers to the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River). Rhombic patterns and patterns with Chinese characters were largely found on buildings of this time, especially on building parts of the Nanyue Kingdom Palace.

A brick with rhombic patterns

A tile with pattern of the Chinese word “万岁” (long reign)

In the Jin Dynasty (266-420 A.D.) and the Southern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.), Buddhism was introduced to Lingnan Region through sea trade routes and became popular in the society. Buddhist symbols were widely adopted in the design of ceramic ware, architecture and other fields, which has far-reaching influence on later centuries.

A tile with lotus pattern

Entering the prosperous Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), more sophisticated patterns appeared, such as patterns of butterflies and peonies, phoenixes and mythical creatures. They can also be found on palace buildings of the Southern Han Kingdom of the Five Dynasties (907-960 A.D.).

A brick with patterns of composite flowers

A tile with pattern of two phoenixes

During the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties, Canton (Guangzhou) was the first port city appointed by the imperial court to set up Maritime Trade Office (Shibo Si) to manage foreign trade affairs. Ceramics from across the country were distributed from Canton at that time, which drove the development of ceramic craftsmanship in Lingnan Region.

Various kinds of patterns were created and they gradually turned more elegant with the advancement of culture in the Song Dynasty.

A greenish-brown glazed ceramic water bottle with painted flower patterns, produced in Nanhai Kiln of Foshan

Between the Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1636-1912) dynasties, industries of all kinds continued to boom in Canton and the society became more diversified and complex. Patterns of auspicious words came in fashion, which catered to the secular taste.

A blue and white porcelain bowl with patterns of the Chinese character “喜” (happiness and blessings)

The exhibition also traces the origins of the patterns and the places where they were prevalent, to reveal the spread of and communication between different cultures.

A hollow brick step with a bear pattern

For example, a brick step unearthed from the archaeological site of Nanyue Kingdom Palace has a bear pattern very similar to that designed in the Central Plains. The worship of bear in China appears early in ancient mythology, and is well-represented by the Chu culture of the Warring States Period (476-221 B.C.). Later the Chu culture was absorbed into the Han culture (based in the Central Plains), and bear patterns were commonly seen on utensils from vassal states of the Han Empire. Nanyue Kingdom was one of them.

The bear pattern on the brick step therefore reflects the blend of cultures of Han and Chu as well as the Lingnan Region.

Through the exhibition, visitors were able to have an insight of the aesthetic preference for patterns of ancient people in the Lingnan Region, and see how Lingnan culture gradually merges into the diverse and integrated cultural system of the Chinese nation.

Sources: 南越王博物院,南方新闻网

Editor: Pauline, Annie