“Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” by Zhou Fang. Silk hand scroll, 18 inches by 71 inches, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang Province, China. (Public domain)“Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” by Zhou Fang. Silk hand scroll, 18 inches by 71 inches, Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang Province, China. (Public domain)

Whether worn by or the First Lady, celebrities at the Oscars, or society women at a Met Gala, high fashion appeals to us. Some believe that high fashion originated in the 15th century French Burgundian court, but looking back as early as the eighth century in China, the fashionable female had already been a favorite subject in art.

During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a period in Chinese civilization that had a stable economy and a flourishing culture, the genre of “beautiful women painting” reached considerable heights. And ranking above all Tang masters for utmost stylization in portraying the female figure was Zhou Fang. His exquisite silk hand scroll “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses” (at the Liaoning Provincial Museum in China’s Shenyang province) is a rare jewel that allows us to glimpse the remarkable achievement of not only Tang female portraiture but of fashion at the time.

In this piece Zhou Fang portrays five court ladies with one maidservant. We see the ladies stand next to each other casting their eyes on dogs, a red flower, a crane, a butterfly, and a blooming magnolia tree.

To the right, two ladies play with a dog and one lady teases it with a duster. In the middle, we see another court lady admiring a red flower in her hands while a crane strolls past. A maidservant holds a fan and appears smaller, (not because of trying to show physical depth but rather due to an intentional hierarchical scale that signifies her lower status).

To the left, a court lady with clasped hands adds a sense of depth to the composition. Another lady stands beside a blooming magnolia tree and just as she catches a butterfly, she shifts her attention to a dog running towards her.

There is great intimacy between the court ladies and the nonhuman entities as they keep each other company.  Their relationship can be interpreted to represent the pleasant past times of the carefree life of noble women in the imperial palace. Ironically, a mood of languor and a sense of poignancy permeate the ladies’ countenances, as perhaps they share each other’s loneliness.  

Feminine fashion and beauty of the Tang dynasty can also be perceived through this piece. The rounded faces and slightly plump figures (by today’s standards) represent the idealized sense of Tang feminine beauty. Their fair complexions are a result of the powdered white pigment applied to their faces. Their eyebrows are depicted like butterfly wings while their mouths are painted as cherry-like lips. High coiffures were also characteristic of aristocratic Tang women and were often embellished with peony or lotus flowers and with gold ornamentation (jinbuyao).

Under their delicate silk gauzes can be seen long, elegant gowns embroidered with floral patterns and geometric motifs. Zhou Fang uses rich colors of scarlet, crimson, and ocher for the underlying dress while his color palate presents a more subdued tones to depict the translucency of the gauze. The relatively low neckline, nearly floor-length sleeves, and wide scarves worn as stoles or draped across the arms are all characteristic of the high court fashion of the Tang Dynasty.

The flowers that adorn the ladies’ hair speak to the title of this piece. Whether it’s wearing flowers in their hair or holding one in their hands, the court ladies seem to admire the beauty of the blossoms. Feminine beauty and the flower became one as they both evoked the ephemeral nature of youth. Just as a flower wilts, youth and beauty fade.

Famous Tang poets like Li Bai, frequently juxtaposed these two ideas in their poems. Literary accounts have also revealed that the Tang emperor Xuanzong would release a butterfly during his springtime banquets and choose a partner based on whose flower it landed on.

Mike Cai is a 2012 graduate from the New York Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in 2012 and currently attends University of California–Berkeley.

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Chariot Model (Modern Replica) China, original: Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.),
bronze with pigments
chariot box, including axles: width 53 1/2 inches, depth 25 inches, weight 220.5 pounds; canopy: height 4 inches, diameter 49 1/2 inches; weight 66 pounds; each horse: height 36 1/2 inches, weight 13 1/2 inches, length 46 1/2 inches, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)Chariot Model (Modern Replica) China, original: Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.),
bronze with pigments
chariot box, including axles: width 53 1/2 inches, depth 25 inches, weight 220.5 pounds; canopy: height 4 inches, diameter 49 1/2 inches; weight 66 pounds; each horse: height 36 1/2 inches, weight 13 1/2 inches, length 46 1/2 inches, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

NEW YORK—In ancient times, the people of China believed their culture was divinely inspired. The elegant works of art and exquisitely made objects displayed in “Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.–A.D. 220),” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, show expressions of that belief.

From the First Emperor’s terracotta army created to accompany him in his tomb, to an intricately designed silk banner depicting a figure ascending to heaven, to a jade burial suit made to ensure the immortality of a princess, these ancient artifacts indicate the Chinese belief in the afterlife and in realms beyond the material world.

Kneeling archer, Qin Dynasty, 221–206 B.C. Earthenware with traces of pigments, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Kneeling archer, Qin Dynasty, 221–206 B.C. Earthenware with traces of pigments, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Strongman, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). “The unique feature of this sculpture is the depiction of human anatomy, which you don’t find in Chinese art any time before the Qin Dynasty,” said Zhixin Jason Sun, the curator of Chinese art at The Met. This large figure was found with ten others in a pit near the First Emperor’s tomb. The group is believed to have represented an acrobatics troupe performing at the imperial court. Acrobatics in China originated in antiquity, and by the Qin–Han era had developed a full repertoire of moves, including rope walking and sword swallowing. The figure has an imposing physique and brawny hands, which together with his wide stance suggest his role as a strongman. He and a partner once held a pole, atop which another performer could swing, balance, and twist. The striking accuracy of his anatomy, hitherto unknown in Chinese figural art, has led to speculation that he was inspired by the Hellenistic sculptures that Alexander the Great introduced into Central Asia a century earlier.

Strongman, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). “The unique feature of this sculpture is the depiction of human anatomy, which you don’t find in Chinese art any time before the Qin Dynasty,” said Zhixin Jason Sun, the curator of Chinese art at The Met. This large figure was found with ten others in a pit near the First Emperor’s tomb. The group is believed to have represented an acrobatics troupe performing at the imperial court. Acrobatics in China originated in antiquity, and by the Qin–Han era had developed a full repertoire of moves, including rope walking and sword swallowing. The figure has an imposing physique and brawny hands, which together with his wide stance suggest his role as a strongman. He and a partner once held a pole, atop which another performer could swing, balance, and twist. The striking accuracy of his anatomy, hitherto unknown in Chinese figural art, has led to speculation that he was inspired by the Hellenistic sculptures that Alexander the Great introduced into Central Asia a century earlier.

Burial ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Jade (nephrite) with gold wire, Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This jade suit was excavated from the tomb of Dou Wan, wife of Prince Liu Sheng of Zhongshan. Wan’s body was encased and sealed in this suit. Its 2400 rectangular plaques of jade are each meticulously shaped and fitted together with gold wire and silk ribbons. A Han Dynasty belief stipulated that if a deceased body would be encased in jade and its orifices plugged, preventing “the essence of life” from escaping, the person could attain immortality.

Burial ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Jade (nephrite) with gold wire, Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This jade suit was excavated from the tomb of Dou Wan, wife of Prince Liu Sheng of Zhongshan. Wan’s body was encased and sealed in this suit. Its 2400 rectangular plaques of jade are each meticulously shaped and fitted together with gold wire and silk ribbons. A Han Dynasty belief stipulated that if a deceased body would be encased in jade and its orifices plugged, preventing “the essence of life” from escaping, the person could attain immortality.

“Many of these spectacular works have never been seen before in the West, offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a fresh appraisal of the classical era of Chinese civilization,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of The Met, at a press preview for the exhibition, which will be on view through July 16.

Some of the more than 160 objects—including sculpture, painting, calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and architectural models on loan from 32 museums in China—have quite a presence about them.

Unarmored General (detail), Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Unarmored general (detail), Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Each of the terracotta warriors, for instance, has unique facial features, emanating the feeling of a particular character. The 7,000-strong army was buried with the First Emperor to protect him in the afterlife. “The [First Emperor’s] army is just as powerful as when he was alive,” said Zhixin Jason Sun, the curator of Chinese art at The Met, describing the assumed intent of the First Emperor in having created his mausoleum complex.

Figures of Han Dynasty dancers with flowing sleeves are made of simple earthenware, yet they look as if they are in the middle of a movement. Known as mingqi, or spirit goods, they were created to transport worldly pleasures into the afterlife and to entertain the deceased into eternity.

Female dancer, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Earthenware with pigment, Xuzhou City Museum. (Milene Fernandez/Epoch Times)

Female dancer, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Earthenware with pigment, Xuzhou City Museum. (Milene Fernandez/Epoch Times)

Gilded bronze objects with elaborate inlays, refined lacquer vessels, and smooth silk textiles with magnificent patterns, among other objects, show incredible attention to detail and technical virtuosity in design.

A Han Dynasty wine container, ornamented with gold and silver, shows four stylized, gilded dragons elegantly entwined, while three phoenixes form an interlocking circle on its lid. The wine container was a luxury object circulated among aristocrats during the Han period, but it also carried the values these sacred creatures symbolized, such as wisdom, nobility, peace, and perseverance. Many other pieces show a high level of sophistication, reflecting that of the ancient culture.

Establishing the Central Kingdom

Besides inspiring a sense of refined artistic taste, the exhibit also shows the cultural diversity within the unified empire that was based on Taoist, and later Confucian, moral principles. The Qin and the Han dynasties were seminal in establishing an overarching Chinese identity that has encompassed over 50 ethnic groups.

The king of the far western state of Qin, Ying Zheng, conquered six rival states and created a centralized government in the territory. He was the first to proclaim himself Shihuangdi (First Emperor) of Zhōngguó (the Central Kingdom), which is still the name for China in Chinese today.

During his rule, the First Emperor traveled throughout his empire not only to address his subjects and to inspect newly conquered territories, but to communicate with cosmic forces at sacred sites, “by performing rituals and erecting steles that proclaimed his merits and accomplishments,” the exhibition catalog states.

Standing archer, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Standing archer, Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.). Earthenware, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Qin Dynasty only lasted 15 years (221–206 B.C.), but it established the administrative, political, and intellectual institutions that were carried on further and consolidated by the Han (the main Chinese ethnic group) and all subsequent Chinese dynasties for the following 2,000 years.

The terracotta army of the Qin demonstrates the military might of that dynasty, which was necessary for unifying the territory. But its emperors could not continue to rule by force alone. “That would have been an impossible task,” said Sun, while giving a tour of the exhibition.

The Qin had to develop a new administrative system of communication to control the enemy states it had conquered. “They standardized weights and measures, and money. But most importantly, they standardized the written language,” Sun said.

After Xu Xuan, Chinese, 916–991. After original (dated 219 B.C.) by Li Si. Inscriptions from the Stele of Mount Yi (rubbings). China, date of stele: Song dynasty (960–1279). Ink on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seymour and Rogers Funds. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

After Xu Xuan, Chinese, 916–991. After original (dated 219 B.C.) by Li Si. Inscriptions from the Stele of Mount Yi (rubbings). China, date of stele: Song Dynasty (960–1279). Ink on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seymour and Rogers Funds. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“With the standardization of the written language, the same characters could be understood across hundreds of different dialects,” Sun said. “Government policies and orders could be issued and could be understood by everyone in the empire, even though the people could not communicate verbally.”

The Qin also built a highway system of some 4,250 miles, which surpassed the 3,740 miles of roads of the Roman Empire when it reached its prime (circa A.D. 150). Forming an empire also entailed establishing strong borders. The greatest public works project built by the Qin was the construction of China’s Great Wall, stretching 2,150 miles. They connected and extended walls previously built by the former six warring states into a single boundary to protect the empire from the nomadic peoples of the northern steppes.

When the Han Dynasty took over, it adopted many of the reforms the Qin Dynasty initiated. Even though the standardization of currency and weights and measures was initiated by the Qin Dynasty, it would take several decades to fully take root in the country, Sun said.

The Han Dynasty also adopted Confucianism as its intellectual basis, Sun said. The emperor held supreme authority through divine mandate. The Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu, who wrote the “Three Discourses on Heaven and Humans” for Han Emperor Wudi, explained why emperors must abide by the Confucian principle of benevolent governance (renzheng in Chinese), which effectively kept their power in check.

Confucian values such as filial piety became law during the Han Dynasty. Slips of wood with imperial edicts written on them, displayed in the exhibit in thin glass tubes for preservation, specify the privileges given to seniors under the Han.

“According to the edict, seniors, officially recognized as such at age 70, were exempt from sales tax and free from prosecution for minor offenses. In addition, a person who was willing to support a widowed senior was absolved of taxes and corvée labor [a feudal labor tax] , which was probably the earliest form of social welfare in China’s history,” reads the description for the “Slips With Imperial Edit” in the exhibit.

Mirror, Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Bronze, diameter 7 5/16 inches, National Museum of China. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mirror, Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). Bronze, diameter 7 5/16 inches, National Museum of China. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

But perhaps the piece that is most symbolic of the birth of China and its consolidation under one empire is the elaborately decorated Han Dynasty mirror, which is displayed at the very end of the Tisch Galleries.

The inscription cast on its border says: “The sages made this mirror with the essence of the five elements. The images and designs are derived from the fundamental principles. Its brilliance is like the sun and moon, and its character firm and clear. When you see your face reflected here, this mirror dispels all harms and woes. May the Central Kingdom [China] be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come, by following the great law that governs all.”

Two women look at the Han Dynasty mirror on display at the “Age of Empires” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Milene Fernandez/Epoch Times)

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NEW YORK—Two men clad in lather and fur stand side by side with their legs wide and firmly planted on the ground, next to a Bactrian camel. All three stare straight at the camera. You meet their gaze, transcending time and place.

The world has changed so fast of late. We forget it was only about 150 years ago that photographers started to capture images, such as of these two tough and weathered men, traveling the Silk Road with a rather cheerful-looking, two-humped camel. You can start to imagine the trials and tribulations they must have faced carrying goods from perhaps as far from China as the Mediterranean.

The photograph was taken around 1890 by Sanshichiro Yamamoto, a Japanese photographer who established his second photographic studio in Beijing. It is one of 15,000 photographs in Stephan Loewentheil’s private collection of early Chinese photography.

“A Bactrian Camel in Peking,” circa 1890, by Sanshichiro Yamamoto. Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection)

Loewentheil exhibited about 30 of his photographs, as part of Asia Week New York (March 9–18). That Asian art extravaganza included at least 50 international galleries, five auction houses, and major museums, including The Metropolitan. Loewentheil’s exhibit, “Masterpieces of Early Chinese Photography” was the only exhibition of rare photographs, and they were not for sale.

These photographs of exquisite taste and quality, give you a glimpse of a lost world. The invention of photography at the time of the Qing Dynasty—the last imperial dynasty of China—allowed the depiction of traditional images of a country that looks dramatically different today. The photographs hold clues and remnants of a world we can still learn from and treasure.

Loewentheil chose to collect photographs, in part, because they communicate nonverbally. “It spans nations, it spans languages, and everyone can appreciate it. … They were made to speak without words,” he said in his gallery at PRPH Books on East 64th Street.

Very few photographs showing remnants of China’s ancient past have survived, rendering Loewentheil’s collection invaluable.

“Woman and Child,” circa 1870–1879, by Pun Lin. Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection)

“Due to cultural phenomenon inside of China, there was a long period in the 20th century where representation of prior cultural manifestations were deemed bourgeois and undesirable, and in many cases they were either ignored or sometimes destroyed,” Loewentheil said.

As a professional book and manuscript dealer, Loewentheil often comes across photographic albums. He buys most of his photographs privately from dealers, and sometimes from major auction houses.

Almost all of his photographs of China were originally owned by travelers, merchants, missionaries, or delegates from other countries, among other kinds of visitors and migrants. “They wanted to bring home images of where they were—the wonders of China. So they bought these photographs and brought them out of the country. Those are the ones that survived,” Loewentheil said.

Moments in Time

A photograph by the Chinese photographer A Chan (Ya Zhen) shows two men casually conversing in front of a small pagoda. A narrow bridge leads to the small structure, which has its entrance and windows wide open to the outside. The pagoda blends perfectly with the trees surrounding it, giving a sense of serenity. The photograph is beautifully composed and in incredibly good condition. The details of the image are very crisp, yet the photograph’s artistic merit is even more commendable.

“Summer House at Longevity Temple, Canton,” 1870s, by A Chan (Ya Zhen). Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection)

Chan operated a studio in Canton (Guangzhou). Not much more is known about him.

“This is an art that stands up to any photograph that was taken anywhere in Europe or America at a similar time,” Loewentheil said of Chan’s work. “There were Chinese photographers who are as great as the great photographers in the West, and it’s very important that we realize that,” he added. 

The Scottish photographer John Thomson was the first to create serious photographic work in China’s interior, traveling by boat up the river Min. He created a book of 80 prints, “Foochow and The River Min” (1873). Only seven sets of his photographs have survived. Thomson was not a government official or missionary, but a professional photographer. He used the collodion process, an early photographic process whereby the exposure was made onto a glass negative with highly flammable chemicals. He, therefore, had to travel with many crates to carry his equipment, which included a portable darkroom tent.

“Yuen-Fu Monastery Cave” from the book “Foochow and the River Min,” circa 1873, by John Thomson. Carbon print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection)

The photograph by Thomson, “Yuen-Fu Monastery Cave,” in Loewentheil’s collection looks rather eerie and mysterious. The monastery is perched on a cliff against a black sky. The details of the image are highly defined and crisp. It shows the sensitivity and skill of Thomson who was known for his “photo-journalistic” style of capturing the lives of people in an unassuming way.

Preserving a Legacy

Loewentheil’s photographs of early China are rarely shown to the public and only on occasion to scholars. For preservation, the photographs are mostly kept shielded from the light in boxes, or behind UV plastic when displayed for short periods of time.

Loewentheil’s son Jacob with the help of Stacey Lambrow is currently working on producing a book of the photographs of Thomas Child, the first to systematically photograph Peking (Beijing) in the 19th century. 

“The Dragon Boat,” 1870s, by A. Chan. Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection)

Beijing, as with other major cities in the world, has undergone dramatic change in the growth of newer, bigger, and taller buildings. The growth resulted to a large extent in the disappearance of a way of life—the people, the architecture, monuments, and culture—that Child captured with 200 photographs in the 1870s.

Child lived in China for 20 years. He worked at the Imperial Maritime Customs Service as a gas engineer, and practiced photography as both an amateur and professionally.

“No. 192 Mongolian Lama,” circa 1870–1879, by Thomas Child. Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography Collection)

“Child learned the language, he loved the country. He was very good friends with many of the people in Beijing, which gave him exposure to places that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see,” Loewentheil said.

So far, they have acquired 150 of the 200 photographs by Child and they expect to have the book published and available to the public for sale in a couple of years.

Stephan Loewentheil has been collecting photographs for over 30 years. His collection includes 7,000 albumen prints from before 1850 to 1912, and 8,000 photographs taken in the 1920s to the 1940s focusing on architecture in China, as well as an extensive collection of American photography of the 19th century.

“I felt that it would be interesting to preserve the photographic culture, in part, because I think those of us who love beauty and art and truth have an obligation to preserve that which is important,” he said.

“A Chinese Actress and Actor,” circa 1870, by Lai Fong. Albumen silver print. (Courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Photography of China Collection)

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It is not often that a Chinese painting on rice paper survives over 1,000 years so that we can view it intact, in all its splendor.
One such masterpiece is Night-Shining White the painting of the imperial horse by the same name painted by Han Gan (742–756) during the Tang dynasty (618–907). Dated circa 750, the work is part of the grand exhibition titled Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the MET’s Department of Asian Art which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
The exhibition encompassing 110 works of the brush arts of China, dating from the Tang dynasty to the present has undoubtedly drawn the attention of collectors and Chinese art connoisseurs.
Night-Shining White one of the most important paintings in Chinese history and one of the most precious paintings in the world, I believe.— Tony Dai, Chinese fine art dealer/collector

Among them is New York based Chinese fine art dealer and collector Tony Dai who spoke to Epoch Times about some of the most memorable works in the exhibition and their historical significance.
1,300-year-old Original
The show presents a rare opportunity.
“Night-Shining White one of the most important paintings in Chinese history and one of the most precious paintings in the world, I believe,” said Dai.
Dai mentioned that many of the paintings haven’t been shown to the public for a long time, and the exhibition allows for people to get a better understanding of classical Chinese painting from the Tang dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).
Night-Shining White, for instance, is over 1,300 years old. Painted on rice paper, it is a vivid depiction of the favorite steed of Emperor Xuanzong (who reigned 712–756) by Han Gan, who was renowned for his paintings of horses.
According to Dai, when it comes to many works that are purported to be from the Tang dynasty, experts believe that they are copies of Tang paintings done in the Song dynasty. But in this instance, the experts agree that Night-Shining White is from the Tang dynasty, painted by Han Gan himself.
The multitude of red stamps on the painting are an indication of the number of collectors who owned it—one of the seals being that of Emperor Qianlong (who reigned 1735-1796) during the Qing dynasty, who has been documented as having owned the painting and treating it as a very important piece in his collection. Other seals, according to Dai, are from art connoisseurs who added their stamps during the Ming (1368–1644) or Qing dynasties thus authenticating the work.
When Chinese artists learned painting, their masters would teach them how to be a good person in society first, before actually learning the technique.— Tony Dai, Classical Chinese art collector

The horse is also the subject in three other well-known paintings that are part of the exhibition. The three works are known as Grooms and Horses painted during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) by artists from the same family, one of the artists being the legendary Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322).
A selection of works from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) includes Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, a rare masterpiece and celebrated 15th century work depicting in sumptuous detail the life of Ming nobles and literati.
All in ‘Narcissus’
A much emulated and reproduced Chinese painting is Narcissus—a handscroll filled with swaying and overlapping flowers that is charged with historical meaning. Painted by Zhao Mengjian (1199–1264), a member of the Song imperial family, not long before the fall of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), it has come to be associated with loyalty to the fallen dynasty.
Dai also pointed out that for Chinese scholars, the narcissus represents high morality as well as immortality because in Mandarin the pronunciation of the flower name is the same as the word for immortality.
The final gallery is devoted to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Two massive handscrolls from the Qing imperial court that document inspection tours of the southern part of the empire taken by two emperors, Kangxi (reigned 1662–1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1736–1795) fill the entire wall more than 50 feet long, providing a rare opportunity to view them side by side.
The scroll is dated 1698 and painted by Wang Hui (1632–1717) and his assistants depicting Emperor Kangxi’s Tour from Ji’nan to Mount Tai. Its significant is not just for its artistic merits, but also because it was commissioned by one of China’s most revered emperors.
The Visual Legacy of Emperor Kangxi
As the second emperor of the Qing dynasty, Kangxi is known as China’s most learned and cultured emperor. Historical texts document that he was able to read by the age of five, and when he ascended the throne at the age of eight, he became even more dedicated to his studies.
Emperor Kangxi’s 60-year-long rule brought stability to the country, Chinese literature and art flourished, and he was meticulous about keeping historical records. This extended to compiling what is regarded as the greatest Chinese dictionary to date—the Kangxi Dictionary. Kangxi also undertook many tours throughout the empire, which served to stabilize Manchu rule throughout the country, but also to map much of China.
Walking alongside “Picture of the Southern Tour” and viewing its scenes in sequence is an almost cinematic and touching experience.

The scroll that is on display provides a glimpse of the emperor’s journey from Ji’nan to Mount Tai. It is part of a set of 12 scrolls called “Picture of the Southern Tour.”
Most of the scroll is rolled up, but what there is to see of it is a rich, visual record showing a well-ordered and harmonious society.
Walking alongside it and viewing its scenes in sequence is an almost cinematic and touching experience.  Imbued with a sense serenity and divine order, it invites the viewer into a world that is vividly captured in minute and colorful detail. There is a crispness and contrast to the colors that is quite different to the works from the previous centuries. 
Overall, the exhibition is an irresistible invitation to get to know traditional Chinese culture because, according to Dai, “to try to understand Chinese painting you must understand Chinese culture.”
He went on to explain that “when Chinese artists learned painting, their masters would teach them how

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October 6, 2015

Enver Tohti (left), a former cancer surgeon in China, stands in front of the painting “Illegal Organ Harvesting” on the opening night of the Art of Zhen Shan Ren International art exhibition at the Proud Archivist, London, on Sept. 1, 2015. (Xiaomin Pang)Enver Tohti (left), a former cancer surgeon in China, stands in front of the painting “Illegal Organ Harvesting” on the opening night of the Art of Zhen Shan Ren International art exhibition at the Proud Archivist, London, on Sept. 1, 2015. (Xiaomin Pang)

LONDON—A prisoner of conscience sits, serene, with a sense of courage. Despite intense persecution, he has not lost his inner-strength.

A surgeon stands still, next to the victim. He is taking part in forcible organ harvesting. He has a moment of realisation.

This literal painting called “Illegal Organ Harvesting” stood out to George Major, the Pearly King of Peckham, who opened the Art of Zhen Shan Ren international exhibition at the Proud Archivist gallery in East London on September 1.

“It makes you feel that you want to stop it,” said the 78-year-old Londoner. “I can’t cry but my heart cries for them.”

All the artists in the exhibition are practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that has been persecuted in China since 1999. Through realist painting, each scene captures in vivid detail a moment in a story that is still ongoing.

While some paintings show the serenity of the traditional meditative practice, others depict the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners – a harsh reality that some of the artists have experienced first-hand in China.

For Enver Tohti, a Uyghur, “Illegal Organ Harvesting” brought back a deep-rooted sense of reality.

Tohti drives the 168 and the 265 bus in East London. Back in China, he used to be a cancer surgeon. It was his first time seeing the paintings.

He spoke at the opening night, recalling an event that is still fresh in his mind today. It was a morning in 1995 when he was asked to perform surgery outside the theatre.

“You don’t have a schedule today, please wait at the gate of the hospital at 9 a.m.,” he was told.

Under the chief surgeon’s orders he drove for about 40 minutes with two assistants and an anaesthetist. They had arrived at the Western Mountain execution grounds.

The chief surgeon said, “When you hear a gun shot, come in.”

They drove over the hill and Tohti saw that every 6 to 10 metres there was a corpse. He was told to go to the right one, the last one.

The chief surgeon said, “Take his liver and kidney as quick as you can, you have 30 minutes.”

He did it in 25.

Afterwards he was told by the chief surgeon: “Now go home, nothing happened today.”

He felt that the victim was not dead during surgery. Investigators have found that victims are often given a non-lethal gunshot, so that body is still functioning when taking out the organs.

At an event in parliament in 2005, Tohti spoke about his experiences.

“I still pray for that man today,” he said. “It’s always in my mind.”

Tohti’s first-hand experience features in the book The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem written by Ethan Guttman.

“The UK needs to stop organ tourism and have no involvement with the Chinese market, just like Israel, Taiwan, and Spain,” said Guttman during the exhibition.

“This is the destruction of lives.”

Researchers, including Guttman, have found that prisoners of conscience, particularly Falun Gong practitioners, have been targeted for organ harvesting – without their consent and while they are still alive, albeit shocked by a gunshot. The Chinese regime knows that Falun Gong practitioners abstain from drinking and smoking, so they have healthy organs.

Mei Ying Song, a practitioner of Falun Gong, was imprisoned in a forced labour camp for her belief from 2010 to 2012.

“They took my blood test in the prison every six months,” she said.

As a prisoner of conscience Song was treated as a potential donor; if required her organs could have been forcibly removed.

Her personal experiences are similar to those of the artists who went through persecution in China.

“I sat on a small plastic stool for 18–20 hours every day, they didn’t let me wash my clothes or shower, and I had 1 or 2 minutes to brush my teeth,” she said. “And my lawyer’s licence was cancelled.”

The painting “Tiger Bench” shows a man imprisoned; in contrast to the officer torturing him, he looks peaceful.

It’s a painting that Kelly Hammond, a photographer based in Shoreditch, was particularly struck by.

“Each picture is telling a story,” she said. “They are very literal. There’s a meaning beyond the art work.”

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