A Ming Pipa in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In Pursuit of Visual, Literary, and Musical Connections

Wed, Oct 19, 2016, 4:30 pm

One of the treasures of the musical instrument collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a richly decorated pipa (a pear-shaped Chinese lute), made of wood, ivory, and bone, and thought to date from the late Ming (ca 1550-1644). The unusually rich and profuse decoration, superb level of craftsmanship, and extensive use of ivory indicate that this instrument was manufactured as a luxury good. Unfortunately, nothing is known of this pipa’s provenance except that it was a bequest of the American philanthropist and art collector Mary Stillman Harkness in 1950.

What was this instrument? Where might it have been fashioned and who could have played it? What does its decorative program mean and why was it ornamented so lavishly?  And above all what can this sort of highly wrought luxury object tell us about the representation and social practice of music in early modern China?

An anonymous late Ming hanging scroll in the British Museum provides a set of tantalizing visual clues to help situate this enigmatic instrument within the visual, material, and literary context of early modern Chinese decorative objects. The talk itself will take two approaches to interpreting the Met pipa: intrinsic and extrinsic. By intrinsic, I mean studying the decorative program, material, and design of the object itself; by extrinsic, I mean studying how such an instrument might have been treated and given meaning by others in the early modern period. In this latter pursuit, I focus on Kong Shangren (1648-1718), the famous playwright of Peach Blossom Fan, who was a keen collector of antique musical instruments, including two ornate pipas, and who wrote his first play on another rare instrument he owned. The final part of the talk will introduce a collaborative project undertaken with composer Yao Chen and pipa virtuoso Lan Weiwei on imagining the sounds of the Met pipa in twenty-first century music.

Co-sponsored by the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art

202 Jones Hall

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