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Vivid portrayal of Song-era water mill

SHANGHAI Museum is fortunate to have a Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) painting that reflects the level of mechanical ingenuity at the time.

Wei Xian's "Watergate Gristmill" (闸口盘车图卷), a 53.3cm-by-119.2cm painting on silk, shows the same style as his better-known successor Zhang Zeduan, famous for his meticulous portrayal of market scenes and river traffic in the Song capital of Bianliang (today's Kaifeng in Henan Province) in a scroll painting, "Along the River During Qingming Festival."

"Gristmill" depicts the busy scenes of merchant ships on a river, cargo-laden mules filing through a marketplace, and officials collecting fees at check points or relaxing in a tavern. But the focal point is a grinding mill on top of a watergate.

This painting once belonged in Song Emperor Huizong's collection and it has changed hands many times before the Shanghai Museum acquired it in the 1950s. Huizong was a prominent painter and calligrapher in his own right, but also a weak, incompetent ruler who was later abducted by foreign invaders to northern China and died in exile.

Despite incessant warfare with aggressive nomadic neighbors, China witnessed a spurt of technological innovation during the Song Dynasty. The compass, movable type printing and gunpowder - three of the four most highly touted Chinese inventions, the other being paper - first appeared during this period. There were also breakthroughs in shipbuilding, metallurgy, textiles, paper making and ceramics.

Well-known sinologist Dr Joseph Needham of Cambridge University researched China's scientific and technological achievements in his 27-volume tome, "Science and Civilization of China." The book contains drawings sourced from many museums and libraries.


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