National Palace Museum Features Decorated Paper from Song Dynasty

With the advancement of technology, we use emails, messengers and social networks, instead of writing letters, as means of communication. However, in the past, writing letters was more than delivering messages to recipients. On top of the content or style of one’s letter, the sender’s personality and thoughts can also be shown by the choice of letter paper. To explore the art of decorated paper produced in the Song dynasty (960-1279), National Palace Museum offers an exhibition titled “A Special Exhibition of Painting and Calligraphy on Song Dynasty Decorated Paper”.

Emperor Huizong, Autumn Colours on the Shore

"Decorated paper" generally refers to letter paper that has been specially prepared to give it decoration. This exhibition features twenty select examples of artwork on decorated paper from the Song dynasty, of which many are letters. The technique for this type of paper involves carving a design into the press, yielding a pattern in low hollow relief after use.

Using special photographic technique to view Autumn Colours on the Shore

Except for some decoration that is quite easy to see, many are difficult to discern with the naked eye, leading to previous misidentification as plain paper. But precisely because of the subtle and reserved nature of this decoration, it testifies to the exceptional refinement of Song dynasty ornamental paper. Unfortunately, the methods of production and mounting combined with wear over nearly a thousand years have made these forms of decoration very difficult to distinguish. Only with special photographic techniques is it possible to rediscover many of these designs lost for nearly a millennium. To allow audiences to clearly see these hidden patterns on Song dynasty artworks, the originals are on display along with photographs that aid in bringing out the subdued splendor of letter-writing culture found in decorative pressed paper.

Su Shi, Letter to Filial Gentleman Guo Tingping

For example, Su Shi’s Letter to Filial Gentleman Guo Tingping was written on a piece of light pastel-colored paper covered with a turtle-shell pattern, and inside each hexagonal motif appears a small turtle. After this design was exported to Japan, it became quite popular there, the turtles sometimes simplified into small flowers. In China, however, it is relatively rare.

Using special photographic technique to view Letter to Filial Gentleman Guo Tingping

The "filial conduct" mentioned in the letter here refers to the daily activities of a person mourning the passing of a parent, indicating that the recipient Guo Tingping was in such a period of grief. From the contents, it would also appear to have been written in 1075. The style belongs to Su Shi's early manner characterized by elegant beauty, the brushwork fastidious and the lines full and fluid.

Although the rites of mourning called for simplicity in every aspect of daily life, Su Shi still chose a kind of decorative paper pressed with this refined turtle-shell pattern. Perhaps he took into consideration that ancient inscribed funerary stones in the shape of a turtle were decorated with a turtle-shell pattern, the choice of design here befitting Guo's circumstances.

A Special Exhibition of Painting and Calligraphy on Song Dynasty Decorated Paper
Dates: 2018/1/1 - 2018/3/25
Venue: (Northern Branch) Exhibition Area I 208,212

Taipei National Palace Museum

Opening hours (exhibition I):
Sundays to Thursdays|8:30am - 6:30pm
Fridays to Saturdays|8:30am - 9pm
Address: 221 Section 2 of Zhishan Road, Shihlin District, Taipei
Group|NT$230 (groups of 10 or more)
Discount|NT$150 (Students with valid international student ID)
Free|Children under school age / People with disabilities and one accompanying person
Enquiries: 886-2-6610-3600