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Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei

Fong, Wen C., and James C. Y. Watt, with contributions by Chang Lin-sheng, James Cahill, Wai-kam Ho, Maxwell K. Hearn, and Richard M. Barnhart
664 pages
600 illustrations
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Only two major exhibitions from the fabled Chinese Palace Museum collections have been seen in the West—the first in London in 1935–36 and the second in the United States in 1961–62. These two exhibitions provided an extraordinary stimulus to the study of Chinese culture, revolutionized Asian art studies in the West, and opened the eyes of the public to the artistic traditions of Chinese civilization. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei is the publication that accompanies the third great exhibition of Chinese masterworks to travel to the West. Written by scholars of both Chinese and Western cultural backgrounds and conceived as a cultural history, the book tells the story of Chinese art from its foundations in the Bronze Age and the first empires through the rich diversity of art produced during the Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Ch'ing dynasties, contrasting China's absolutist political structure with the humanism of its artistic and moral philosophy. Synthesizing scholarship of the past three decades, the authors present not only the historical and cultural significance of individual works of art and analyses of their aesthetic content, but a reevaluation of the cultural dynamics of Chinese history, reflecting a fundamental shift in the study of Chinese art from a focus on documentation and connoisseurship to an emphasis on the cultural significance of the visual arts.

National treasures passed down from dynasty to dynasty, the works of art that now form the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, originally constituted the personal collection of the Ch'ien-lung emperor, who ruled China from 1736 to 1795. Two centuries after Ch'ien-lung ascended the dragon throne, when the Japanese invaded China in 1937, the nearly 10,000 masterworks of painting and calligraphy and more than 600,000 objects and rare books and documents—which had earlier been moved from Peking to Nanking following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931—were packed in crates and evacuated to caves near the wartime capital, Chungking. It was not until after World War II that the crated treasures were moved to their present home in Taiwan, where today they represent a major portion of China's artistic and cultural legacy.

Drawing on this extraordinary collection, the authors explore in depth four interrelated themes: a cyclical view of history, the Confucian discourse on art, the social function of art, and possessing the past. The last theme, from which the volume takes its title, refers both to imperial China's possession of its past through the art of collecting and to the broader cultural tradition of embracing change through the creative reinterpretation of the past.

This major scholarly publication will expand our understanding and deepen our appreciation of works of art that over the centuries have emerged from a remarkable and, in the West, still largely unexplored culture.

The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three: Ji'nan to Mount Tai, Wang Hui and assistants Chinese, Handscroll; ink and color on silk, China
Wang Hui
datable to 1698
Poem of Farewell to Liu Man, Yelü Chucai  Khitan, Handscroll; ink on paper, China
Yelü Chucai
dated 1240
Scroll Cover for Imperial Calligraphy

, Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi), China
Tapestry with Dragons and Flowers, Silk tapestry, Eastern Central Asia
Eastern Central Asia
11th–12th century
Vajrabhairava mandala, Silk tapestry (kesi), China
ca. 1330–32
Nomads hunting with falcons, Chen Juzhong  Chinese, Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink and color on silk, China
Chen Juzhong
early 13th century
Enjoying the Wilderness in an Autumn Grove, Ni Zan  Chinese, Hanging scroll; ink on paper, China
Ni Zan
dated 1339
Basin, Glass; enameled
14th century
Flowers, Lü Jingfu  Chinese, Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk, China
Lü Jingfu
14th century
Textile with floral medallions, Weft-faced compound twill, China
8th century
The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Four: The Confluence of the Huai and Yellow Rivers (Qianlong nanxun, juan si: Huang Huai jiaoliu), Xu Yang and assistants Chinese, Handscroll; ink and color on silk, lacquer box, China
Xu Yang
dated 1770
One Hundred Horses, Giuseppe Castiglione  Italian, Handscroll; ink on paper, China
Giuseppe Castiglione
datable to 1723–25

View Citations

Guo li gu gong bo wu yuan, Wen Fong, and James C. Y. Watt, eds. 1996. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art : Distributed by H.N. Abrams.