Stories carved in stone
By Ju Chuanjiang and Wang Qian ( China Daily )
A collector of Han Dynasty bricks engraved with ancient scenes reconstructs a picture of the past. Ju Chuanjiang and Wang Qian report
In the early 1980s, a PLA officer was helping lay a road in Henan province when he noticed beautiful carvings on bricks that the farmers were smashing up and mixing with pebbles to pave it.
Fascinated by the patterns, he urged the farmers to spare them and exchanged two truckloads of pebbles for 18 intact bricks. Later, he found several more in the villagers' pigsties, kitchens and courtyards.
That was the start of Zhang Xinkuan's collection of more than 5,000 bricks dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), offering a rare peek into life in China more than 2,000 years ago.
Zhang's bricks are now housed in a private museum at the foot of the Laoshan Mountain in Qingdao, Shandong province.
Over the past 30 years, Zhang, 60, has spent his entire savings collecting these relics, investing 1 million yuan ($146,500) to build the museum in 2007.
According to Gu Sen, an expert on Han Dynasty paintings with the Chinese Academy of Arts, these carved bricks are found mainly in Henan, Shandong, Shanxi, Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces. They once decorated imperial palaces, ancestral halls and tombs, and are like an encyclopedia of ancient Chinese society. The images they depict range from mythical dragons and phoenixes, to animals and plants and scenes of everyday life.
Zhang had no idea of the bricks' value until an artist friend, Hao Benxing, sent him a gift - rubbings of Han Dynasty carved bricks. Hao told him that when former president Jiang Zemin visited Russia, he took a set of such rubbings as a gift.
Zhang then began devoting all of his spare time and money to collecting these bricks.
Standing in front of his museum, which features more than 10 exhibition rooms, Zhang proudly says: "It has only a third of my collection. Displaying all 5,000 bricks would require at least 20,000 sq m."
His wife, Yang Min, who quit a well-paying job in a joint venture to be the museum's curator, says: "He will hesitate to pay 200 yuan for a coat, but when it comes to these bricks, he is prepared to borrow, if necessary."
She adds that not all the patterns on these bricks depict Han Dynasty life. Many are rather mysterious.
One brick, for example, shows hunters in clothes that resemble those worn by ancient Persians. Another depicts girls dressed in long flared skirts, typical of 18th-century Europe.
The couple's passion for preserving these relics has drawn support from many, including other Han Dynasty brick collectors.
Chen Zengsheng, vice-chairman of the Weihai Artists Association, sent Zhang a letter and five paintings after visiting his museum. "You are doing something great. Please sell these paintings to ease some of the financial pressure on you," Chen writes.
Last November, the first Han Dynasty Brick Cultural Festival was held in Qingdao. More than 60 experts studied Zhang's collection and put their value at more than 800 million yuan.
"What I am preserving is Chinese culture," Zhang says.
"Money will come and go, but culture can be handed down from one generation to the next."
He will never sell any of his bricks, he says.
Museum admission is free for primary and middle school students.