Olive pit in the form of a boat by Chen Zuzhang (active 18th century), 1737, Qianlong period (1736-95), Qing dynasty, 1.6 x 3.4 x 1.4 cm © National Palace Museum, Taipei

Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at the Chinese art treasures on display from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, currently on view in Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

In February, as celebrations for the start of the new Lunar New Year, the Year of the Pig, were underway, an extraordinary exhibition of Chinese art dating from the Neolithic period (circa 12000-1500 BC) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911, from the National Palace Museum (NPM), opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasure from the National Palace Museum, Taipei is drawn from the extensive collection housed in the country’s National Palace Museum.

The exhibition reflects and explores some of the many ways in which heaven and earth and nature, have been represented and reflected upon over 5,000 years in China, displaying, as Dr Michael Brand, director of the AGNSW, said at the opening, how China is ‘A culture that respects art. Chinese emperors and Chinese connoisseurs have respected art for so long with their painting, calligraphy and objects … and it is astonishing that these works have survived’. It is this self-evident survival that makes this exhibition all the more extraordinary. However, of equal fascination is the backstory to the NPM’s collection and how so much Imperial Chinese art came to be domiciled in Taiwan.

Imperial Art Collection and the National Palace Museum

The narrative of the collections travels through China reads like an historical thriller, embracing controversy, artistic expediency, political intrigue, armies fleeing a Japanese invasion, followed by a bloody civil war that resulted in the death of over a million Chinese. And it is this story that supplies the context for this remarkable exhibition and these works of art from the Imperial collections of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

In 1933, as the invading Japanese’s army approached Beijing during the second Sino/Japanese war fears arose among the ruling Nationalist army that the Imperial Palace, home of the Imperial Art Collection for hundreds of years – would be looted. Over one million works of art – porcelain, painted scrolls, ancient calligraphy, bronzes and art objects – were immediately crated-up in nearly 20,000 boxes and shipped out of the city. For over a decade the hoard was hauled around China to avoid capture by the Japanese.

The Crates Were Divided Up and Stored in Various Locations

The crates were divided up and stored in various locations until eventually making their way to Nanjing, the old southern capital of China. As the threat from Japanese troops dissipated with the Japanese defeat in 1945, the civil war between Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s communist armies grew into a conflict that left millions of Chinese dead.

In 1949, when defeat looked certain for the Nationalist army, they retreated to the island of Taiwan taking with them nearly 3,000 crates packed with some 600,000 pieces of art, the majority of which was from the Qing dynasty, a period the Nationalists seemed to favour. Eventually the rest of the Imperial Palace art was relocated back to Beijing where it remains to this day. Not surprisingly, Beijing maintains that the entire collection belongs in Beijing and that the Nationalist forces looted the art that went to Taiwan. Taiwan has a contrary view and, as a result, has never made any substantial loans of art or artefacts to mainland China from its National Palace Museum collection for fear of seizure by Beijing. A certain amount of friction still exists between the National Palace Museum in Taipei and that of the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing.

Only on three previous occasions has a selection of work from the NPM travelled outside of Taiwan, to the US, France, and Japan – and the AGNSW exhibition marks the first time that the NPM has loaned to an institution in the southern hemisphere. Dr Brand commented, ‘This is one of the most refined exhibitions we (AGNSW) have ever staged here and this exhibition must be one of the greatest exhibitions of Chinese art to ever visit Australia’.

Somehow the deities of heaven, earth and nature, a theme that unites the collection on show, must have been smiling benignly on the various custodians of the Imperial Art Collection to bring such an exhibition to pass.

Oldest Work on Show

One of the oldest works on show in Sydney is a bronze – more accurately a ceremonial cauldron, pengzu ding tripod, that dates from the late Shang to Western Zhou dynasties (circa 1300-771 BC-circa 1100-900 BC). Such vessels were traditionally used in ancestor worship rituals. It is the largest and heaviest bronze in the NPM collection and is thought to be about 3,000 years old. Interestingly, on the inside is inscribed a small figure of a person seemingly carrying two sacks of shells, used as currency in ancient times. Such cauldrons were symbolic of the Mandate of Heaven bestowed upon the ruler of China. Political power on earth derived from religious authority above. There was no intermediary.

The exhibition of works from the National Palace Museum, with its 87 exhibits (152 depending on interpretation of composite works), is a coup for the AGNSW. Bronzes, porcelain, paintings, scrolls, ancient artefacts and some exquisite calligraphy explore the extraordinary creativity and sophistication of Chinese artists over the centuries.

Dongpo Pork Jade from the National Palace Museum

Today, the National Palace Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world with 4.44 million visitors in 2017 – many of whom joined long queues to see one of the museum’s most famous and popular works the meat-shaped stone from the Qing dynasty. Thought to date from the early 19th century, this astonishing small piece of layered jasper has been skilfully carved and colour enhanced to portray a piece of tender pork belly cooked in yellow wine and soy sauce. Often referred to as ‘Dongpo pork’, the name of the dish comes from a legend that tells how the poet Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo the revered 11th-century Chinese poet and artist) is believed to have invented this technique of braising pork. This is only the third time that meat-shaped stone has left Taiwan. ‘Sometimes works of art capture the imagination in a way beyond the goal of the artists making it. The Meat shaped stone is a tour de force of materials to inspire a work of art, which has taken on a life of its own,’ Dr Brand added.

The Poet Su Shi Works from National Palace Museum

Su Shi was the poet who penned the poem Former and Later Odes on the Red Cliff that commemorates a battle that took place at Red Nose Cliff (modern day Huangzhou) in 208. He was writing 800 years after the battle, but his elegant calligraphic style has been celebrated and copied ever since by artists and calligraphers. In China, to copy something is seen as having a conversation with the master, whomsoever that might be. Yuan-dynasty poet Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) refined Su Shi’s cursive script in his own exhibited copy of the poem Portrait of Su Shi and Two Odes on the Red Cliff  in running script from 1301, and threw in an imagery portrait of Su Shi for good measure.

Two hundred years later, Ming-dynasty artist Wen Jia (1501-83), also in the exhibition, was transcribing the poem and adding a landscape painting in his ‘literati’ subjective style that was more interested in expressive emotion than fine detail. Wen Jia’s The Red Cliff and transcription of the Former and Later Odes on the Red Cliff, a 3-metre long scroll painting with large areas are left unpainted, allows visitors to use their own imagination in this work from the National Palace.

A mere flick of an olive pit away from these works is an actual olive pit (stone), carved by master craftsman Chen Zuzhang, in 1737, into the form of a boat with windows and doors that open and shut and where eight passengers and attendants sit on furniture inside. On the underside of the pit is the entire text of Su Shi’s Red Cliff poem. To say this is a breath-taking example of craftsmanship and human endeavour is an understatement. I was told by AGNSW Curator of Chinese Art, Yin Cao, that the craftsman was summoned by the emperor and subsequently became the highest paid carver at court.

Chinese Painting Scrolls

Every work in this exhibition is a masterpiece and the painted scrolls are no exception. At 12 metres in length, the Qing-dynasty scroll Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Shen Yuan (1736-95) occupies a special place in the exhibition. It is a monochrome copy of a coloured 12th-century original of the same subject that remains in Beijing’s Palace Museum. The scroll is a celebration of life on earth with centimetre high drawings of people going about the ritual of their daily lives; weavers weave, actors perform on a stage surrounded by rowdy a crowd, children fly kites, restaurants bustle with customers, shops too, children go to school, dogs are walked, and ships are pulled along the river by squads of labourers on the river banks.

Its level of detail offers an insight into life in ancient times. Dr Brand again, ‘Chinese artists were really interested in what people were doing’. Along the river during the Qingming Festival scroll perfectly captures this sentiment and the Chinese artist’s interest in human activity gifting us today an insight into how people lived their lives hundreds of years ago, how they cared for their families, divided labour between men who cultivated crops, and women who dyed fabrics and wove. An album, Illustrations of Farming and Weaving by Leng Mei, circa 1696, paints a picture of an agrarian utopian world.

Portrait of the Hongzhi Emperor

Overseeing all the complexities of life in this vast and at times violent world is the emperor. Pride of place in the exhibition from the National Palace Museum is a Portrait of the Hongzhi Emperor (r 1488-1505), a life-size hanging scroll of the tenth emperor of the Ming dynasty painted on silk. He sits on an elaborate turquoise-blue throne wearing an ornate dragon robe heavy with iconic references. The emperor is the Son of Heaven and custodian of both cosmic and social harmony and radiating a kind of supernatural power. Justin Paton, head curator of international art at the AGNSW on Instagram described the emperor’s wispy beard as the ‘best beard ever painted’ and the dragon robe as being one of ‘dizzying splendour’. It is a captivating and entrancing portrait of a young man who gazes out at us across the centuries and appears to not quite know what is expected of him.

Among all the exhibited imperial splendour Dr Brand dragged my attention back to the humanity on display. ‘Chinese artists were really interested in human activity – in the realm between heaven and earth. This activity is what we have tried to bring out in the exhibition, as well as the grand philosophy and the afterlife’.

This is not a huge exhibition of works from the National Palace Museum, but sometimes you can make a show just too big. This is just perfect. Dr Brand continued, ‘Our intention was for it to be human in scale, to give our visitors a chance to really appreciate the masterworks, rather than rushing through to view a thousand works of art’.  Dr Brand’s success in doing so is a masterwork in itself.


Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasure from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 5 May,