Wang Hui (1632-1717) Majestic Snowscape After Li Cheng (919-967) Shen Zhou (1427-1509)  The Bamboo Villa

Wang Hui was a master of the art of scroll painting. But, under the patronage of the Qing dynasty, he also would help to heal a nation, as Matthew Wilcox explains

In 1644 China's dilapidated Ming dynasty succumbed to the Manchus, a half-civilised and barely literate tribe from the northern steppes – now Manchuria.

This catastrophe seemed to herald the end of Chinese civilisation itself. Why was the collapse so traumatic? The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was the last period when China was ruled by emperors from its own Han heartlands.

This gilded era for Chinese civilisation was marked by stunning technological leaps in agriculture, printing, and navigation that transformed China into a global superpower. No less revolutionary were its developments in the arts, led by visionaries such as Shen Zhou (1427-1509), a distinguished work by whom will be offered at Bonhams Hong Kong sale of Fine Classical Chinese Paintings in April. Shen's work epitomises the bold experiments with form and colour that transformed Chinese painting from the more cerebral, staid work of the Song and Yuan dynasties. The prosperity of the Ming era had liberated artists from state patronage, allowing them to pursue innovative and daring new styles.

Following the takeover by the northern barbarians and the stablishment of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), all this seemed to be under threat.

Prominent intellectuals refused to kowtow to Manchu authority and retired to their hometowns. The imperial workshops fell into disrepair. The great works in the palaces of Beijing and Nanjing were barely held together, maintained by a skeleton crew of devoted but nameless artisans. To make matters worse, many of the era's most talented painters sniffily refused to serve as court painters to the new regime.

Over time, the Manchus realised that their legitimacy would only be established by engaging with traditional Chinese culture. Having come to the throne at the age of six, the Kangxi emperor (reigned 1661-1722) fought to overthrow the regents who exercised imperial authority in his name during his youth. He shrewdly strengthened his shaky grip on power by cultivating the Chinese intellectual elite through his patronage of the arts, effecting a reconciliation between the Manchu court and the Han intelligentsia and thereby evoking the ideal of the traditional Confucian monarch.

When the Kangxi Emperor embarked on his Southern Inspection Tour, aimed at consolidating his authority over southern China and demonstrating his deep appreciation of Han culture, the Emperor appointed the brilliant young painter Wang Hui to record his procession. The stunning results of this act of patronage helped heal the divisions between court and country.

A superlative piece of work by Wang Hui will also be offered at the Bonhams Hong Kong sale in April. The work, a reinterpretation of the early Song era master Li Cheng's Majestic Snowscape, epitomises the reverence of this brilliant generation of painters for their forebears. They demonstrated in their work a deep knowledge and appreciation of the classical Chinese art of the Song and Yuan periods and, in this fusion of traditions, a brilliant new epoch of Chinese painting sprang from the ruins of Ming civilisation.

Matthew Wilcox writes on art for national publications.

Sale: Fine Classical Chinese Paintings from
the Zhen Shang Zhai Collection
Hong Kong
Tuesday 3 April at 2pm
Enquiries: Iris Miao +852 2918 4321

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