Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 2, Issue 14
The New Year has arrived. It can be a time of new journeys and hopefully healthier and more peaceful paths. To begin 2023, this Issue looks at a 324-year-old journey of the heart, mind, hand, and history along the Yangzi River, through China, and across the ocean to America.
10,000 Li Along the Yangzi River
Wang Hui (1632-1717) puts down his brush and exhales. The eleventh and final section of his relaxation project is complete. Narrow mountain paths and soaring craggy peaks are populated with wild forests and crashing waterfalls. Intrepid sojourners will clamber over trestles and rest at a secluded waystation pavilion on their journey to a heavenly temple perched atop a beckoning summit. To the left end of not only his fifty-three-foot-long handscroll, but also the very edge of far west China, clouds consume the source of the mighty river.
Wang is the leading painter of his time; history will recall him as one of the Six Masters of the Early Qing Dynasty. He had spent the past six, stressful years leading a team of painters to produce the Kangxi Emperor’s commission of twelve even larger handscrolls documenting the Emperor’s second Southern Inspection Tour of 1689. Now, upon his return home along the Grand Canal to the Yangzi River delta and his hometown of Changshu in Jiangsu Province, Wang has an idea (a guilty pleasure really).
He names his new work, the object and result of his pleasure, “Ten Thousand Li Along the Yangzi River” (長江萬里圖). It is not an original name nor subject matter, but he has placed his unique transformative style on its historical legacy.This 1699 painted tour is the product of Wang’s traveled experiences, his knowledge of the literati masters of China’s past, and not a small touch of vibrant imagination. He has never traveled all along the river after all.
The course of the painting takes one through several provinces and past multiple cities and towns small and large on both sides of the river. There are powerful tributaries, roaring waterfalls, and rugged mountains. The echoes of poems by many of China’s revered poets reach out from Wang’s landscape vision. There is Su Dongpo and the Battle at Red Cliffs, Li Bai and the Three Gorges in Sichuan, Cui Hao and the Yellow Crane Tower, and Chen Run and the fisherman. Fishermen are a symbol of reclusion and seclusion, of people (former officials perhaps) who desire an escape from the disharmony and corruption of life at Court and seek a purer life.
The new work is not destined to stay in Wang’s possession long. Almost before the ink is dry, Zhang Rongduan, supervisor of the regional imperial examinations, appears at Wang’s door and purchases the painting on the spot. Zhang must have sensed that it will be a masterpiece. How many times in the following years must he have read Wang’s artist colophon describing his long ago viewing of a similar painting by a famous Northern Song Dynasty painter (10th-11th centuries)…
I studied it closely over and over again, causing my spirit to float in the bright and boundless space. In the ensuing thirty years, I traveled without rest between the North and the South; whenever I thought about the painting, my heart seemed to be intoxicated by it.
It was this intoxication that had caused Wang to sketch his own concept while floating home. He then spent seven months brushing, swirling, and detailing ink and color onto the paper (not the finer silk of the Kangxi Emperor’s handscrolls) to bring his mighty east-west voyage along the Yangzi River to life.
Wang’s 10,000 Li will remain in the possession of the Zhang family from the tail end of the seventeenth until the first half of the nineteenth century. On June 8, 1875, it was sold by a Beijing art dealer into what became another almost unbroken century-and-a-half stewardship by the Weng Family. Weng Tonghe (1830-1904) was a distinguished Confucian scholar official and famed literati art collector who tutored two Chinese emperors (Tongzhi and Guangxu) during the second half of the nineteenth century. Weng hailed from the same town, Changshu, as Wang Hui.
Though an avid collector, to say he stretched himself to buy the painting is an understatement. The colophon that he added to the end of the painting says it all:
This Yangzi River painting may have a spirit of its own,
Acquiring it helps me forget how poor I feel.
Who would buy a painting instead of a house?
Please forgive me, friend, if I never let it out of my sight!
As Weng wrote in his diary, his concubine was disappointed when she arrived inquiring when they were to move into the new house, only to discover that the money was no longer available for such a purchase.
Wan-go H.C. Weng (1918-2020), himself a twentieth-century literati connoisseur and collector, inherited his great, great grandfather’s collection, including the Yangzi River handscroll, in 1919, when he was a baby. It came with the family when they emigrated to the United States in the mid twentieth century and remained in his charge until the collection was donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2018 in commemoration of his 100th birthday.
The Weng family, like the Zhang family two centuries before, were long custodians of the wooden box that protected Wang’s painting. Six generations gazed deep along its course, absorbing and appreciating China’s literary, cultural, and economic history spread from near the mouth of the river at the sea in the east to its ethereal source in the mountains of the west.
An exhibition of the Weng Collection of Chinese Painting: Art Rocks is ongoing at the Boston MFA until early May 2023. The current exhibition “…features more than 25 works from the gift as well as the MFA’s collection that explore how rock aesthetics have permeated architecture, landscape design, and painting styles in China for a millennium.” For those in Boston, let me know if you want to meet at the entrance on Huntington Avenue.
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Kristina Kleutghen, Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, University of Washington Press, 2015, Page 34
Wang-go Weng, “Ten Thousand Li up the Yangzi: A 17th Century Chinese Masterpiece,” Orientations, Vol. 38, No. 3, April 2007, Pages 46-51, 46
Wang-go Weng, “Ten Thousand Li up the Yangzi: A 17th Century Chinese Masterpiece,” Orientations, Vol. 38, No. 3, April 2007, Pages 46-51, 51
I love this painting! Thank you.