Grace Wu Bruce with Wang Shixiang in China

The MQJ Collection exhibition was first seen in Hong Kong in October during Sotheby’s autumn sale series. MQJ, short for Mu Qu Ju (The Lodge of Wood Delights), is the name chosen by the late Wang Shixiang, the renowned scholar of Chinese, particularly Ming furniture, to Grace Wu Bruce’s personal collection of Ming-dynasty classical Chinese furniture. Many pieces of her collection have never been seen in public before.

Passion for Ming-dynasty Furniture

‘My passion for Ming furniture began with my visits to museums in Europe and the US in my younger days,’ said Grace Wu Bruce. She went on to become the leading dealer of Chinese furniture and a world authority on the subject. She continued, ‘I had met Wang Shixiang in 1983, when I had already acquired a small collection of furniture from Europe and the US’.

The bulk of the collection was acquired in the 1980s and 1990s, the golden age for collecting. It was a rare moment for collecting, as Ming furniture had fallen out of favour. This type of furniture was made for the elite and scholars in the 17th century and had largely disappeared from view until late last century.

Wang Shining and Appreciation of Ming Furniture

In 1985, Wang Shixiang (1904-2009) released his first publication Appreciation of Ming Furniture. It was met with wide acclaim and it was this publication that brought the furniture back into the public eye and stirred interest amongst collectors and scholars. There had been a book in English on Chinese furniture, Chinese Furniture; Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties by Robert Hatfield Ellsworth published in 1971, in New York, however, it was before its time for most Western collectors.

However, by the early 1990s, bolstered by more scholarly books and exhibitions in the US, the time was right and, as this curiosity spread internationally, more early furniture came to light and became available on the market. Many of the large institutions started to become interested and start their own collections of Chinese Furniture. Master Wang went on to write to seminal books: Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties (1990) and Classic Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties (1991).

Opening of the Gallery Dedicated to Chinese Furniture

In 1987, in response to this urge for collecting and greater awareness of this type of high quality furniture, and to be able to continue her own collecting apace, Grace Wu Bruce decided to open a gallery specialising in Ming furniture. ‘I bought all that I was able to and all that met my collecting standard without considering whether my fervent buying might result in too many for the gallery to sell. Over the course of six or seven years I accumulated a sizeable stock’.

In 1990, the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture was formed in Renaissance California by Robert Earl Burton and The Fellowship of Friends (a philosophical and religious organisation), which was to close in 1995 and its collection was to be dispersed.

This collection it seems first went through the hands of a Taiwanese dealer who sent it on to Christie’s September 1996 sale in New York – with the sale setting a record for a piece of Chinese furniture sold at auction – the Minneapolis Museum of Art bought a massive 17th-century screen with a marble striated plaque that resembled mountains for over US$1 million – an unheard of price at the time.

Private American Collectors

It was to form the centrepiece of their new Chinese galleries. However, most of the buyers were American private collectors, Michael Ovitz, then president of Walt Disney Company bought a pair of cabinets for $607,500 bought through the dealer Nicholas Grindley.

As there was no other institution open to the public that housed such a sizeable, representative collection of Ming furniture at that time, and the buzz around the sale of the Christie’s sale, Mr Wang told Grace Wu Bruce that he had wished that the collection could have been kept intact. This inspired Grace Wu Bruce to start her own collection that would be kept together and be able to be seen by future generations, thus Master Wang gave her the name for the Collection – Mu Ju Qu.

Chinese Studio Name – The Character Mu (Wood)

In his letter to her on the subject of choosing a name, dated 28 May 1995, Wang Shixiang writes, ‘I have been thinking of a Chinese studio name or a plaque for you in the past few days. To my surprise, it turned out to be not that easy. Simply tell me if you don’t like it. I can always find you another one. First of all, I am not for a long one.

Three Chinese characters would be best after all. Anything longer would be wordy. The difficulty is there seems to be no other choice but the character mu (wood), if it has to be relevant to furniture and their beautiful material. There are many other related words or expressions but they just do not fit nicely into a studio name and would actually sound weird. So, I was left with this one single Chinese character.

And, for the sake of differentiation, I have decided to begin the name with mu instead of placing it in the middle, as in Jiamutang, the existing name of your gallery. As for the second character, it has to be personal, or ‘intimate’ as I put it in my last letter, so as to be different from that for a gallery.

Meanings of Qu (Delight)

This is when the character qu (delight) came up. Although it is often translated into English as ‘interest’, it has many meanings in Chinese. Anyway, qu refers to the pleasure obtained from both mental and sensual acknowledgement, understanding, and appreciation to the extent of enlightenment. In your case, it would include your appreciation of the wood grains, attraction to the designs and decorations, genuine understanding of the art of Ming-style furniture, and spiritual communion with objects.

The Third Character

The third character can neither be tang (hall) or zhai (studio). There has to be more homeliness and hence intimacy to it. A relatively common character would be ju (lodge), which his associated with home. So, here are my suggestions: Muquju or Muquji. Which do you like best? Maybe none. In that case, I will give it some thought once again.’

So the collection had a name and its own identity – and now comprises over 100 pieces of furniture, boxes, and scholars’ objects reflecting the passion of Grace Wu Bruce to find and restore the best examples in the most beautiful woods. It is perhaps the largest exhibition of Ming furniture ever organised for public exhibition – now shown in Hong Kong (October) and in London (November).

The Accompanying Book

The book that accompanies the exhibition is in two volumes, in Chinese and English, and is extraordinary in its detail and information. The collection itself comprises 11 categories, with over 100 pieces of huanghuali and zitan wood, including not only furniture, such as chairs, tables, daybeds and beds, but also scholars’ objects, bookstands, many different types of boxes, incense stands, and screens. There are over 1000 plates with small impressions of woodblock prints in the index at the back showing how the furniture would have been used or placed in a setting.

The Best of The Best: The MQJ Collection of Ming Furniture, SDX Joint Publishing Company, ISBN 9787108060662, US$90.

Watch Sotheby’s video of the sale from 2017