This rubbing, measuring 36cm x 46cm, is taken from an Eastern Han (25–220 AD) tomb brick, unearthed in the early twentieth century from Xinjin county in Sichuan province. Used for mausoleum walls, these bricks were moulded in relief with scenes from the lives of an intelligent, fun-loving, articulate people: farmers gathering crops, salt miners at work, the upper classes hunting, drinking, playing games and riding in war chariots, snake-bodied deities being worshipped, and even couples having sex.
This one is in a tamer gaming category, showing four people seated on mats. The two at the back seem to be sharing a large bowl of wine and snacking from little dishes set on the floor between them. The front two are playing – and apparently arguing over – a game of liubo or “six sticks” (六博).
A popular board game of the time, liubo is known from illustrated bricks like this one, pottery models, and even complete game sets found in tombs. It also gets a mention in contemporary writing, such as the shamanic funeral song zhao hun from the third-century BC poetry anthology Chu ci (translated by Penguin as Songs of the South). This describes wake festivities, when, between playing liubo and watching dancing girls, “days and nights are swallowed up in continuous alcoholic merriment”.
The exact rules of liubo are unknown but seem to have been connected in some way to the Chinese classic of divination, the I Ching. Each player moved six pieces around a board divided into 64 squares, all but the central four marked with symbols from the 60-year calendrical cycle.
The six sticks – here just visible on the floor between the two players – acted as some sort of dice. Key moves included turning your piece into a “fierce owl”, “entering the water”, and pulling or overturning “fish” – whatever these terms meant.
Han dynasty tombs with decorated bricks have been found all over eastern Sichuan. They were first discovered in the late nineteenth century, and rubbings from them – along with the bricks themselves – were soon appearing in local antiques stores. One early collector was the British missionary Thomas Torrance (陶然士), who donated sixteen rubbings and six bricks to the British Museum in 1909.
The first work on them in Chinese, “The Cuizhenge Collection of Sichuan Bricks” (萃珍阁蜀砖集) appeared in 1948, followed a few years later by the English-languge Han Tomb Art of West China. Four tomb bricks excavated around this time appeared on a set of stamps.
Back to this rubbing, which belonged to Dorothy Ann Helm (1946–2020), former Director of Center for International Services at the College of Staten Island, New York. There’s a nice dedication on the scroll: “To Ann always with love Lili 爰慶 [Yuan Qing] & Charlie 唐文龍 [Tang Wenlong]”.
According to the dealer I bought the rubbing from, Ann Helm made many trips to China between 1990 and 2010. From the simple mounting – and the Chinese names written in full-form characters, which weren’t taught after 1964 and were seldom seen by 1990 – I’d guess that it was gifted at the earlier end of this timescale.
Gifted in the 1990s, but was it made then, or many years earlier? And does this even matter? Well, sort of. In 1979, the “Interim Provisions for Rubbing Ancient Stone Inscriptions” (拓印古代石刻的暂行规定) laid down the law protecting ancient artefacts from which rubbings like these were made. Although rubbing is a fairly non-destructive process, it can cause slight surface damage, especially to brittle, two-thousand-year-old clay bricks.
In short, the 1979 Provision banned making commercial rubbings of artefacts dated earlier than 1279 (the start of the Yuan dynasty). One way around this was for museums to make replicas, so that rubbings could be taken from them instead. In the case of tomb bricks, a mould could be made of the original, and a new clay brick cast from this – which would essentially be identical.
SO, is this a rubbing made before 1979 from the original Han dynasty tomb brick, or one made from a more recently cast replica? I have no idea, but either way, it’s a beautiful picture.