A Lineage of Models: Rethinking the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove of the Southern Dynasties Tombs

ZHENG Yan, Central Academy of Fine Arts, China

This paper reconsiders the idea of models (mo 模) and molds (mu 模) in Chinese art history through an investigation of the widely known images of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove during the Southern Dynasties period (420-589 C.E.).  Several new examples of this type of imagery have been recently excavated in the area of Nanjing, and the complex relationship between different tombs brick reliefs of the same subject allows us to trace the development of this well known subject. As such images were usually composed by the technique of piecing together brick reliefs, I propose to rethink the circulation of the Seven Sages through an investigation of specific terms related to models and molds, such as mofan模范, kaimo楷模, etc.. I argue that the recycling and modification of image models or stencils partook in the process of making the Seven Sages a canonized iconography during the 5th to 6th centuries. This process of canonization demonstrates how images became gradually more important in contemporary culture. Such depictions became prized works of art, and this important cultural shift also became the context for the constant making, preserving and recycling of well-known images such as the Seven Sages. Notably, through the course of over two centuries, the popularity of the Seven Sages persisted through several political regimes.  It is remarkable how ancient figures of past times continued to be favored by people even through periods of war and turmoil. At the end of this paper, I also hope to explore the cultural significance of this particular iconography in medieval China.