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趙佶《宮詞(其九十)》 “Palace verse (no. 90)” by Zhao Ji





Staying close to the patterned window, table, and inkstone every day,

[I’m] committed to pursuing refined curios that please [my] heart.

[My] brush rests and inkstone-screens are all made of treasure;

[As for] the paperweight, [I] cherish nothing but horse-hoof gold.

Detail of the “Xingyuan yaji tu” 杏園雅集圖 (Elegant gathering at the Apricot Garden) by Xie Huan 謝環 (1346-1430), with an inkstone-screen and a brush rest depicted on the left.

*From Erjia gongci 二家宮詞, in the Shici zazu 詩詞雜俎 edited by Mao Jin 毛晉 (1599-1659), 14b.

[1] Red characters rhyme.


Knowing that Zhao Ji 趙佶 (Huizong of Song 宋徽宗, 1082-1135, ruling 1100-1126) was an emperor celebrated for his great talent in art, one may find it easier to understand the poem above that brags about his extravagant and cultured lifestyle. When I first read this poem, it struck me in particular that he referred to matijin 馬蹏金 (“horse-hoof gold”), first used during the Western Han (202 BCE – 9 CE) as an adjunct currency for high-value transactions and for awarding royal family members and meritorious ministers, as a paperweight.

I’m not aware of any example of Song dynasty hoof-shaped gold that may give us clues to Emperor Huizong’s paperweight, but we do have many examples from the Western Han. In the recent decade, the number of such ingots has grown considerably because of the excavation of the tomb of the Marquis of Haihun near Nanchang.

In early November, I went to Nanchang for the Marquis of Haihun Relics Park that opened to the public in late September. The excavation of this royal tomb started in 2011 and remains an ongoing project. The tomb belonged to Liu He 劉賀 (92-59 BCE), the ninth emperor of the Western Han who reigned for only 27 days before being deposed by the powerful stateman Huo Guang 霍光 (d. 68 BCE).

I have to mention that the discovery of Liu He’s tomb is as exciting as a treasure-hunting thriller. In the spring of 2011, a peasant reported suspected looting activities in a mount he passed every day to the local police station. When the archaeological team arrived, the looting shaft had gone down nearly 15 metres, right to the centre of the main chamber and clearly aiming at the treasures in the main coffin set. Before the excavation of Liu He’s tomb, the knowledge gathered from other Western Han royal tombs suggests the main coffin set is typically placed at the centre of the main chamber. But as it happens, the main coffin set of Liu He’s tomb turned out to be sitting along the eastern wall of the main chamber. Also, the looting was reported before the looters could get through the last bit of wood that protects the main chamber.

In fact, this tomb has been the target of many historical looters. During the scientific excavation, more than a dozen looting holes were found in the mount on top of the tomb, and a tenth-century attempt even made it to the northwest chamber. Archaeologists surmise that the looter had to stop because the tomb chambers had collapsed due to a fourth-century earthquake and remained submerged in the Poyang Lake for centuries. Lacking the necessary technologies for underwater looting, the unlucky looter dropped his lamp in the tomb, which has now also become a thousand-year-old artifact.

What has escaped from these looting attempts is about 120 kg of gold, 10 tons of copper coins, 5200 bamboo slips, among many other precious objects. It must hurt when the looters read the news.

The great quantity of gold takes the forms of hoof-shaped gold (which can be further categorised into the bigger niaotijin 褭蹄金, “horse-hoof gold,” and the smaller linzhijin 麟趾金, “unicorn-toe gold”), golden pies, golden sheets, etc. Coming in different sizes and designs, the hoof-shaped gold ingot is one of the most popular stars of the tomb. These special designs of ingot were first commissioned by Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (156-87 BCE, ruling 141-87 BCE) to commemorate the appearance of three auspicious signs in 95 BCE, a white unicorn, a heavenly horse, and gold.

These hollow ingots, some inlaid with jade or glass, weigh between 80 to 300 grams. Each ingot has a character on it (shang 上, “top,” zhong 中, “middle,” and xia 下, “bottom”), but there’s no consensus regarding what it refers to. We know nothing about the hoof-shaped gold in Emperor Huizong’s cabinet of curiosities, but looking at the ingots from Liu He’s tomb, I think it’s not really a bad idea to use something like this as a paperweight. By the way, there is a gold bureau within the museum, but unfortunately, visitors don’t have the opportunity to buy a replica of the hoof-shaped gold ingot there. They only have a souvenir-coin-like thing representing a simplified profile of the ingot, which doesn’t look very attractive.

Top and middle: photos I took at the museum

Bottom: from Tushuo Haihunhou er Liu He qi mu 圖說海昏侯(貳)劉賀其墓 (Nanchang: Jiangxi meishu chubanshe, 2016), p. 80.

Apart from the hoof-shaped gold, there are many other fascinating artefacts in the museum, but for my first visit there were also some disappointments. The gallery of lacquerware, for example, was full of replicas that looked boringly nice. Also, in the royal cemetery, visitors could only see a few mounts, simple explanatory plates, and a small model of the main tomb. Somehow I had the impression that this area was hastily prepared and was not designed to make the visit worthwhile. “Is that all?” was the question that everyone asked when the exit sign appeared. But this is a newly opened relics park, and I’m sure things will be quite different as research continues.

As a local cultural site, the relics park certainly has great potential. Although it’s quite some distance away from the city of Nanchang, the park is designed to be a new must-go destination for school outings. There are a lot of interactive areas in the museum and plenty of picnic areas along the long road from the museum to the excavation site. I must say it was quite a memorable experience to come across hundreds of kids, group after group, flowing and screaming among Han dynasty objects. But it was also nice to see, in the hustle and bustle, there were always a few kids who stood still in front of their favourite artefacts, trying to observe the details of the life of a deposed emperor over two millennia ago and draw them in their sketchbooks.


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