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A talk with Palace Museum’s bronzeware masters

REN GUANHONG and BAN XIAOYUE | 2020-09-17
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wang Youliang working on a bronze ding (sacrificial vessel) of the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) Photo: Ban Xiaoyue/CSST


The year 2020 marks the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City and the 95th anniversary of the Palace Museum. Recently, Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST) interviewed two experts in bronzeware restoration working in the Department of Conservation Science at the Palace Museum, Wang Youliang and Lü Tuanjie. Both experts are representative inheritors of the art of restoring and replicating bronze items inscribed on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage list. 
 
CSST: How did you enter this profession? 
 
Wang Youliang: In 1983, I entered the Palace Museum and was apprenticed to Mr. Zhao Zhenmao, the fourth-generation inheritor of the Beijing School of Bronzeware Restoration. The Beijing School of Bronzeware Restoration was established during the late years of the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) and its founder was nicknamed “Waizui Yu” (“Crooked Mouth Yu”), as no one knew his real name. Mr. Zhao was blessed with the skillful craft of antique finishing, the top craft in the field of bronzeware restoration and the most difficult. The work of this craft directly determines whether an original antique bronze item can be restored. However, none of us were able to learn all of Mr. Zhao’s antiquing skills, particularly the skill known as menxiu (literally, braising rust), a method that includes allowing bronze to rust (in order to finish the bronze with an antique look). 
 
In the year that I entered the Palace Museum, a British company ordered the replicas of a number of Chinese bronze antiques in a collection at the Palace Museum. It took us three years to complete these replicas. For a novice like me, it was a great opportunity to practice, as learning bronzeware restoration usually begins with replication. During those three years, I mastered the basic skills and procedures required in replicating bronzewares, laying the foundation for future work. 
 
One minute on the stage and ten years of practice offstage. The learning and practicing of bronzeware restoration is tough. Take a basic skill for example—bronze polishing. During the apprenticeship, each one of us had to polish a bronze artifact every day. Mr. Zhao required us to rub the surface of the bronze to make it “as smooth as the surface of a peeled egg”; as time passed by, we all developed thick calluses on our fingers. It even seemed that our fingerprints were almost erased. Because bronzeware restoration often involves the use of chemicals, many of us suffer from rhinitis and pharyngitis. Sometimes we have to hold or lift the bronze pieces in our arms when we are working on them. The lower back pain that is caused by the weight of those heavy bronze items is another problem that we face. 
 
CSST: What impressed you most in your long career? 
 
Lü Tuanjie: In 1990, several colleagues and I were dispatched to Jiangxi Province to restore a Shang Dynasty bronze ding vessel. This rectangular bronze ding with a beast mask design was unearthed from Dayangzhou in Jiangxi Province in 1989. We found it in bad condition—a severely deformed body with one of its facing handles falling off. Restoring the bottom was most challenging, because the bottom, which should have been rectangular, had already been distorted into a rhombus. Half a month later, we still made no progress in restoring the bottom. Tools and procedures that we usually used weren’t working well. We became more and more anxious. Thanks to the high-quality bronze which the ding was made of, we noticed that the ding possessed time-tested toughness and elasticity. After intense discussion, we decided to use a car jack to force the deformed parts of the ding back to its original shape. During this process, the amount of force on the jack had to be adjusted from time to time, so as to avoid damage to the vessel. Finally, we restored the bottom of the vessel successfully. Later stages of the restoration were carried off flawlessly. I left Beijing for Jiangxi Province in August, when the weather was hot and sunny. When I came back to Beijing in November, the water in a moat outside the Shenwu Gate (the northern gate of the Forbidden City) had frozen. 
 
CSST: China and other countries hold different ideas about antique restoration. What are your thoughts on this? 
 
Lü Tuanjie: The beauty of completeness and symmetry is highly appreciated in traditional Chinese culture. This aesthetic standard has influenced China for thousands of years, evidenced by the design of ancient bronzeware as well as the appreciation of viewers today. Therefore, we should maintain this unique aesthetic when restoring antique bronze pieces. Symmetry is one of the most important characteristics of Chinese bronzeware. It allows us to restore the missing parts of an antique bronze artifact according to its symmetrical structure. However, not all the bronze items can be restored in this way. For a badly wrecked bronze artifact, we have to deduce its proper shape and type at first, before picking out its matching pieces from all those found. This requires not only plenty of experience but also rich knowledge of Chinese ancient bronzeware. If there were not enough remains for us to deduce the original form and pattern of a bronze artifact, we would have to leave it as it was, because it is forbidden to restore antique bronze items based on guesses about what it originally looked like. 
 
Wang Youliang: An important principle for the repair and restoration of antiques in foreign countries is to make the repairs and restorations “distinguishable,” which means that the repairs and restorations has to be done in a way that people can tell which parts of the antiques have been repaired. Perhaps the purpose of this is to make it easy for later generations to discover previous repairs and restorations and how they were carried out. In China, however, restorers of bronzeware are required to leave no sign of repair and restoration on the objects that they work on, and this is why restoration of bronze objects in China is more challenging. 
 
I have a different idea about the foreign principle of “being distinguishable.” On one hand, as technology advances, previous bronzeware repairs and restorations can be spotted with the help of modern techniques such as X-rays and computed tomography scanning. There is no need to deliberately make it so the repaired parts are different from the original. On the other hand, techniques such as 3D scanning and 3D printing are helping us discover more details from the original bronze pieces, which makes the process repair and restoration more precise and convenient. Therefore, I agree with the tradition that the missing parts of the bronze pieces should be restored as long as we can find out what the original pieces looked like. The aesthetic pursuit of completeness should also be followed. 
 
CSST: Is there any difference between you and the next generation of restorers? 
 
Wang Youliang: The next-generation restorers are better educated when compared to us. They have more knowledge and systematic understanding of the related fields of bronzeware restoration. They are also more willing to learn and accept new things. It was these young people who first introduced and used the aforementioned new tools and technologies, such as 3D printing and 3D scanning. The power and vigor of the younger generation also fills our offices with more ease and joy. 
 
The original and traditional apprenticeship was a “learn-while-you-earn” model combining on-the-job training. Before working as a restorer, most of us received little training. The same was true for the earlier generations of restorers. Different from us, the younger generation is systematically educated and trained before they enter their careers. There are a few problems in this model. For the younger generation, there are too many branches of the subject in Master degrees and Ph.D degrees, and they have to specialize in a particular branch. It means that they may have little knowledge beyond the scope of their study. When our generation of restorers entered the Palace Museum, the division of labor was not clear, thereby providing a good chance for us to learn from experts of various fields and to gain access to different antiques. Through this method, we were able to draw on the successful experience of others and learn by analogy. Furthermore, the younger generation tends to have a good command of theories and knowledge but little experience and practice, which could have helped to fill in the gaps that reading alone couldn’t give them. Practicing hard is necessary to develop from a learner to an accomplished restorer. 
 
Edited by Ren Guanhong