A world of difference

Art & Culture | Crystal Wu 7 May 2021

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Chinese University of Hong Kong's Art Museum is showcasing part of its vast collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in its spring exhibition, Artistic Confluence in Guangdong: Selected Painting and Calligraphy from Ming to mid-Qing China.

Like its Chinese title, guang na bai chuan - which is half of a couplet - suggests, the exhibition is the first of two phases that will cover the artistic development of the region beginning from the Ming dynasty to the republican era in Chinese history.

The calligraphy that gave the exhibition its name, which was written by the former deputy director of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, is hung in the center of the first floor.

"As the phrase guang na bai chuan suggests, the development of the region from the Tang Dynasty saw the absorption of Zhongyuan culture, as well as culture brought back from the West via sea routes," said curator Peggy Ho.

She explained that the museum has been collecting the pieces on display since it first opened - so they're a fitting choice for its golden anniversary.

When it comes to Chinese calligraphy, the more famous calligraphers hail from Jiangnan or Zhongyuan, but Ho is determined to tell the story of the Guangdong region and show its unique artistic development.

"Chinese calligraphy culture is closely associated with the emperor and government officials, but since Guangdong is far from the capital, there are fewer people from there who became government officials. So the calligraphy culture was only brought into the region around the mid to late Ming dynasty. The calligraphy of the region adopted certain characteristics in response to the local culture," explained Ho.

One of the first Cantonese painters to achieve fame was Lin Liang, a Nanhai-born Ming imperial artist. His naturalistic approach became a common motif in the region. Using just black ink, Lin masterfully captured birds mid-song in Magpies and a Pine Tree.

Another key characteristic of the region is its geographical location by the sea, which gave rise to foreign trade through its ports.

The watercolors from the Album of Guangdong Export Painting may look out of place alongside traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy, with their Western techniques and use of color, but the subjects in Manchu clothing are unmistakably Chinese.

This East-West mix was popular at the time - the museum also discovered at least five others similar to one of the watercolors, one of which is on display at the Sydney Living Museums.

Artistic Confluence in Guangdong is more than just an exhibition of old paintings and calligraphy. It is a history lesson in the region taught from a Cantonese perspective - from its beginning in the Ming Dynasty, to its subsequent growth to fame by scholars like Chen Baisha.

It also documents the region's development - such as the taking in of elites from the north in the early Qing dynasty, where many fled due to the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and how trade with the West brought new artistic influences to the region.

The exhibition will be showing at the CUHK Art Museum until May 16.

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