Contemporary interpretations of traditional rubbings

Blessings to Hong Kong, Lee Yun Woon
Under the Lion Rock, Harrison Tso
Qin dynasty Stele Inscriptions Album
Inscription on Mount Tai from the Tang Dynasty
Eastern Echo Porcelain, Yeung Yuk Kan
Calligraphy and Printed Ink Rubbings for the Ultra-space Frog Utopi
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How shall a king be commemorated, or his deeds celebrated, and made known throughout the ages? Since the earliest days of China, emperors have inscribed their messages on monumental steles in public spaces. Years later, following the invention of paper, their devotees made rubbings of their inscriptions to carry the words far and wide. In our contemporary era, it is the art and inscriptions of self-proclaimed kings, such as the King of Kowloon and Hong Kong graffiti artist Frog King that capture our imagination.

These works are now celebrated in Kings’ Inscriptions, a unique joint exhibition organised by the University Museum and Art Gallery at Hong Kong University together with Oi! Gallery in Fortress Hill.

The exhibition pairs a group of rubbings, images, and albums of ancient calligraphic inscriptions with a set of newly commissioned contemporary works by seven artists from Hong Kong and overseas.

Dr Sarah Ng, curator of the University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG), aims to introduce traditional Chinese art to a broader audience. “It is the first time that contemporary artists have been invited to contribute, and be paired with, traditional inscriptions and rubbings.”

The First Emperor of China: The Stele of Mount Yi and its Rubbings

“The first king to be introduced in the exhibition is the most important,” explains Dr Ng. “The very term emperor begins with him.” Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the first ruler of a united China, established the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The stone Stele of Mount Yi, located on a mountaintop in Shandong, commemorates the first patrol by Qin Shi Huang.

Because few people visit the remote Mount Yi, ink rubbings of the stele began at least as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907). Dr Ng says, “The original function of inscriptions was this: to deliver a message to everybody, using a tough, durable material to do so; it is costly to cut something into stone, so people tend to believe it is true. Then, starting from the Sung dynasty, from around 992 onwards, they began to make official rubbings to create an album. Or people might make rubbings as a collectable.”

Exiled Child Kings in Hong Kong: The Sung Wong Toi Inscription Rock

The next is a piece of local history in Hong Kong. Legend has it that in the thirteenth century AD, the child king Zhao Shi of the late Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) and his younger brother Zhao Bing fled the Mongol invaders and visited Hong Kong to hide on a hill in Kowloon City. This made them the only kings ever recorded in history to have visited Hong Kong. Later, local villagers engraved Sung Wong Toi on a boulder on the hill where the kings hid, to remember them. While the exact age of the rock is unknown, it claims to have been repaired at least as long ago as the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

In the twentieth century, due to the expansion of the Kai Tak Airport, the Sung Wong Toi Inscription Rock was relocated to the current site of Sung Wong Toi Garden; even today, the new MTR station also bears this name. Dr Ng and the team commissioned a new rubbing of that stone on display at UMAG.

The King of Kowloon: Street Artist and Claimant to the Throne

The third kingly inscriptions anchoring the exhibition are the street writing of the self-proclaimed “King of Kowloon”, Tsang Tsou-Choi (1921-2007). His body of work, primarily presented in the format of a classic Chinese genealogy, meticulously records the lineage of Chinese kings within his family. “His is a collective memory rather than a real king,” says Dr Ng. “He positioned himself among other global royalty, including the Emperor of Vietnam and Queen Elizabeth II.”

Dr Ng points out, “Therefore, we have three perspectives: the real king, the kings in trouble, and the fake king.”

By weaving together ancient Chinese history, Hong Kong’s local history, and the collective memory of our community, the exhibition connects the past and the present, China and the world.

Inscriptions, Rubbings and Kings: Contemporary Interpretations

The King of Kowloon is now revered as the founder of Hong Kong graffiti art. Kwok Mang-ho, a contemporary graffiti artist known as the Frog King, considers himself his spiritual successor.

The exhibition recalls that rubbings are a fundamentally participatory form of art. So, both locations include an educational corner available to people who would like to try their own rubbings.

By weaving together ancient Chinese history, Hong Kong’s local history, and the collective memory of our community, the exhibition connects the past and the present, China and the world.

Text Jan Lee / Photos Jan Lee and Cammy Yiu