85 stars that light up the heav­ens

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By WANG KAIHAO wangkai­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

There are just 85 stars up there, but my, how they shine! Those stars, Chi­nese paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works on dis­play in new sec­tions of the Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum in Shenyang, were se­lected to present a con­cise his­tory of Chi­nese fine art as the ex­ten­sions were of­fi­cially opened on Aug 17.

“The ex­hibits in­clude not only the most pre­cious ones in the early stages of Chi­nese paint­ings, such as in the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907), but also those of dif­fer­ent schools of literati paint­ing in more re­cent pe­ri­ods,” says Yang Yong, cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“What we wanted was a panorama.”

One of the most cel­e­brated is Court Ladies Adorn­ing Their Hair With

Flow­ers, a mas­ter­piece that will take many view­ers back to their child­hood, when they would have seen the pic­ture in school text­books. In more re­cent years it gained global recog­ni­tion when it was given a role in the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

“You can see just how el­e­gant these ladies were,” Yang says. “They wore filmy long dresses that dragged along the floor, and there were flow­ers on their aris­to­cratic chignons.”

The women are ac­com­pa­nied by two small dogs.

The 1.8-me­ter-long paint­ing on a silk scroll is com­monly at­trib­uted to Tang Dy­nasty artist Zhou Fang. It is widely re­garded as one of the most im­por­tant sur­viv­ing an­cient Chi­nese paint­ings and as a ref­er­ence point for study­ing the Tang Dy­nasty, an apogee of so­cial de­vel­op­ment in an­cient China.

“Who had painted this work long re­mained a mys­tery, un­til it was fi­nally cred­ited to Zhou rel­a­tively re­cently,” Yang says. “Still, this paint­ing ex­udes an aura that bears the un­mis­tak­able signs of the ex­quis­ite Tang Dy­nasty tech­nique of paint­ing.”

The paint­ing has been re­mounted many times, Yang says, and dur­ing the most re­cent of these, in the 1970s, it was re­al­ized that the work con­sisted of sev­eral con­nected parts. The dogs, for ex­am­ple, were painted on a sep­a­rate piece of silk. This strongly sug­gests the paint­ing was orig­i­nally used on a fold­ing screen rather than a scroll, he says.

While Court Ladies Adorn­ing Their Hair With Flow­ers takes pride of place in the Liaon­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, the 38 other stars do their ut­most in vy­ing for at­ten­tion, one of the most prom­i­nent among these be­ing the 6.46-me­ter-long Nymph of the Luo River.

The orig­i­nal scroll by the fourth-cen­tury mas­ter of fine art Gu Kaizhi, based on a well-known piece of poem-prose about ro­mance with the same ti­tle from the Three King­doms pe­riod (220-280), is the ear­li­est known Chi­nese paint­ing that nar­rates a story. How­ever, it was lost to his­tory.

The one on dis­play in Shenyang is a North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960-1127) fac­sim­ile, Yang says, one of the two best fac­sim­i­les that sur­vives, the other be­ing in the Palace Mu­seum in Beijing.

“This fac­sim­ile faith­fully rep­re­sents the spirit and artis­tic style of Gu Kaizhi’s time,” Yang says. “The god­dess in bright col­ors is of noble vin­tage.”

The North­ern Song Dy­nasty was a peak era for fine art, a na­tional paint­ing academy be­ing es­tab­lished un­der di­rect su­per­vi­sion of Em­peror Huizong, or Zhao Ji (1082-1135).

There is no doubt that Zhao had his short­com­ings as a ruler, but in the arts he was a pro­lific ge­nius.

One of the Shenyang ex­hibits, Aus­pi­cious Cranes, which Zhao drew when he was 31, is one of his most rec­og­niz­able works for its ei­de­tic por­trayal of 20 cranes hov­er­ing or rest­ing on a city gate.

“Un­like with other literati paint­ings ex­e­cuted in a sim­ple, el­e­gant style, the em­peror is able to show off his skills in a com­plex, flam­boy­ant way,” Yang says.

“This is a rar­ity, too, in that it in­cludes in one work his paint­ing, cal­lig­ra­phy and seals.”

In cal­lig­ra­phy, Zhao also cre­ated a vig­or­ous script called Slen­der Gold whose char­ac­ters re­sem­ble gold fil­a­ment. Such writ­ing can be seen in Aus­pi­cious Cranes.

Cal­li­graphic works by Zhao in other styles are not as well known, but his One Thou­sand Char­ac­ters Clas­sic in cur­sive script of­fers a new facet. It leads an­other all-star cast in the open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of the Liaon­ing mu­seum’s cal­lig­ra­phy gallery, in which 46 works are on dis­play.

“Study­ing the strokes, you can dis­cern that Zhao wrote the 1,000 char­ac­ters al­most non­stop on an 11.72-me­ter-long scroll,” says Dong Bao­hou, cu­ra­tor of the cal­lig­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion. “That is a great artis­tic achieve­ment.” The long para­graph is com­posed of 1,000 char­ac­ters, all dif­fer­ent from one an­other.

“The pa­per it­self is very sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­ally,” Dong says. “It tells us about pa­per­mak­ing tech­niques of the North­ern Song Dy­nasty.” This cal­lig­ra­phy is cited in Sciences and Civ­i­liza­tion in

China, the sem­i­nal work by the Bri­tish Si­nol­o­gist Joseph Need­ham, who ex­plained its sci­en­tific sig­nif­i­cance.

Dong also es­pe­cially rec­om­mends an­other item in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log, a Bud­dhist scrip­ture in run­ning script

(xing­shu) by Ouyang Xun. Ouyang is hailed as one of the most im­por­tant cal­ligraphists dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty. His works are still widely used in stan­dard cal­lig­ra­phy text­books to­day.

“Most of those who know his works are fa­mil­iar with them through rub­bings from stone in­scrip­tions,” Dong says.

“The one on dis­play is a pre­cious ex­cep­tion that gives us a first­hand un­der­stand­ing of his char­ac­ters.”

In the process of trans­fer­ring char­ac­ters to stone, a lot of in­for­ma­tion about the cal­lig­ra­phy that would have been ev­i­dent in the pa­per renderings has been lost.

At least one sam­ple of Ouyang’s cal­lig­ra­phy is known to sur­vive to­day — the one on dis­play in Shenyang. In ad­di­tion, there are three that some schol­ars sug­gest are his, though oth­ers schol­ars are skep­ti­cal.

The ex­hi­bi­tion even in­cludes a cur­sive script ( caoshu) on four old po­ems cred­ited to Zhang Xu, an­other cel­e­brated Tang Dy­nasty cal­lig­ra­pher. It is the only sur­viv­ing work be­lieved to be his.

“Some peo­ple are skep­ti­cal about that, too, be­cause there is no other Zhang work to com­pare it with,” Dong says.

Other big names, such as Ouyang Xiu of the North­ern Song, Zhao Gou, an em­peror of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127-1279) and Zhao Mengfu of the Yuan Dy­nasty (12711368), are also rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

This all raises the ques­tion of why so many top-level na­tional treasures are in the pos­ses­sion of a pro­vin­cial mu­seum in North­east China — and most, Yang says, from the For­bid­den City in Beijing, also known as the Palace Mu­seum.

It func­tioned as China’s im­pe­rial palace from 1420 to 1911 and is home to myr­iad for­mer royal col­lec­tions. Many em­per­ors of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) were avid an­tique col­lec­tors, and among these, paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works held a spe­cial place. Of those col­lec­tors, Em­peror Qian­long was prob­a­bly the most zeal­ous.

He left com­ments on many works. On at least one he wrote: “This is with­out doubt the orig­i­nal.” That com­ment re­lates to text that pre­cedes cal­lig­ra­phy by Ouyang Xun that is on dis­play.

Af­ter Qing rule ended, the last em­peror, Puyi, con­tin­ued to live in the For­bid­den City un­til 1924. In that pe­riod he se­creted many paint­ings and works of cal­lig­ra­phy out of the palace, os­ten­si­bly as gifts for his broth­ers.

As so-called em­peror of “Manchukuo”, the Ja­panese pup­pet state in North­east China that lasted from 1932 to 1945, Puyi held these pieces in its cap­i­tal known as Xin­jing — to­day’s cap­i­tal of Jilin prov­ince, Changchun — and housed them in his “im­pe­rial palace” there.

Puyi aban­doned Changchun on the eve of Ja­pan’s sur­ren­der, which ended World War II, and many art­works were scat­tered to places un­known. Puyi also took some art­works by hand and planned to flee to Ja­pan, fly­ing from Shenyang.

How­ever, sol­diers of the Soviet Union man­aged to stop

the air­craft just be­fore it took off, and treasures in­clud­ing Court Ladies Adorn­ing Their Hair With Flow­ers were pre­vented from go­ing over­seas.

The re­cov­ered art­works were later put in the cus­tody of the North­east Mu­seum, which has be­come the Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum.

“Along the River Dur­ing the Qing­ming Fes­ti­val also got into our col­lec­tion this way,” Yang says, smil­ing, “but it was even­tu­ally re­turned to the Palace Mu­seum.”

Along the River Dur­ing the Qing­ming Fes­ti­val, by the North­ern Song painter Zhang Ze­d­uan, is with­out doubt the most fa­mous an­cient Chi­nese paint­ing. When it last went on pub­lic dis­play, in 2015, there were long lines as peo­ple waited just to get a glimpse of it.

The new Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum cov­ers 100,000 square me­ters, mak­ing it the big­gest pro­vin­cial-level mu­seum in China. It is the prod­uct of the old mu­seum be­ing reestab­lished in an­other lo­ca­tion, and it opened three years ago.

With the open­ing of an­cient paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy gal­leries, all of its 22 ex­hi­bi­tion halls are now fully open to the pub­lic.

“We’ve come so late,” says Ma Bao­jie, the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor. “But we’re well pre­pared now. You can be sure that more than 70 per­cent of these ex­hibits are at the ab­so­lute pin­na­cle of qual­ity.”

Ma, thus al­low­ing a lit­tle room for mod­esty, says the col­lec­tion is not big enough, given that the mu­seum houses only about 10,000 an­cient paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works. The Palace Mu­seum has more than 130,000 such ar­ti­facts, and af­ter any of its pa­per-based works are shown, they are put into hi­ber­na­tion for at least three years.

For the Liaon­ing mu­seum to sup­port per­ma­nent gal­leries, putting works on ice for such long stretches is no doubt out of the ques­tion, but Ma stresses that no mat­ter how fa­mous an item is, it can only be ex­hib­ited for three months at most in one ro­ta­tion to leave enough time for ev­ery­thing else.

Works will be ro­tated three times a year, and the two gal­leries will be closed for three months each year, Ma says.

Late last year and early this year, the Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum and eight ma­jor mu­se­ums na­tion­wide took part in Na­tional Trea­sure, a China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion va­ri­ety show, and three ar­ti­facts from the Liaon­ing mu­seum, in­clud­ing Nymph of the Luo River, were pre­sented to TV au­di­ences with a com­pre­hen­sive telling of the sto­ries be­hind them.

On the back of the pro­gram’s phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess, the num­ber of peo­ple vis­it­ing the Liaon­ing mu­seum and oth­ers fea­tured in the pro­gram swelled con­sid­er­ably.

Higher vis­i­tor num­bers in mu­se­ums through­out China are plac­ing huge stress on their man­age­ments, and one way they are try­ing to deal with this is by in­tro­duc­ing dig­i­tal dis­plays of ex­hibits. How­ever, Ma says it is es­sen­tial that the mu­se­ums con­tinue to of­fer “some­thing real”.

“For vis­i­tors, see­ing orig­i­nal ar­ti­facts for them­selves can­not be beaten. The use of dig­i­tal meth­ods or de­riv­a­tive cul­tural prod­ucts can only be ad­di­tional to that. Top-level treasures need to be ex­hib­ited more of­ten.”

His plan is to use tech­nol­ogy to en­sure that the at­mo­spheric con­di­tions of ex­hi­bi­tion cases ap­prox­i­mate as near as pos­si­ble those of the ware­house in which they are stored, the tem­per­a­ture be­ing kept be­tween 18 C and 20 C and hu­mid­ity at be­tween 55 and 58 per­cent.

“How­ever, the main thing is to keep an eye on the well­be­ing of the works, and if any ab­nor­mal data are de­tected, to re­move them from dis­play.”

Set­ting a daily cap on vis­i­tor num­bers to paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy gal­leries is also a pos­si­bil­ity, he says.

The Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum says about 5 per­cent of its to­tal col­lec­tion is on dis­play at any one time — one of the high­est among Chi­nese mu­se­ums.

WANG KAIHAO/CHINA DAILY

Eighty-five star paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works are on dis­play at the Liaon­ing Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum in Shenyang.

Aus­pi­ciousCranes by North­ern Song Dy­nasty Em­peror Huizong, or Zhao Ji (1082-1135).

PHO­TOS BY WANG KAIHAO / CHINA DAILY

Eighty-five star paint­ings and cal­li­graphic works were se­lected to present a con­cise his­tory of Chi­nese fine art.

A North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960-1127) fac­sim­ile of fourth cen­tury mas­ter of fine art Gu Kaizhi’s Nym­phoftheLuoRiver.

Court Ladies Adorn­ingTheir Hair with Flow­ers

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