When patriotism is about art

2019-3-8 Source:Chinadaily

Zhang Boju (left) watches Pan Su painting at their home in Beijing in the early 1980s. The couple collected a quality array of classic Chinese paintings and calligraphic works and donated them to the country. [Photo provided to China Daily]

An ongoing exhibition shows how a husband-and-wife team sacrificed everything to protect national treasures.

Zhang Boju (1898-1982) and Pan Su (1915-92) are acknowledged as a model of a happy couple in modern China. They both hailed from well-connected families, shared an interest in the arts, and were known as charismatic and learned.

More importantly, the late couple is remembered for assembling a quality collection of classic Chinese paintings and calligraphic works over a period of three decades that they donated to the country in the 1950s. Their generosity allows people today to appreciate the magnificence of Chinese cultural traditions through these vivid legacies.

But building up such a great assemblage of art not only cost the couple-who were both painters and calligraphers themselves-almost all of their wealth but also sometimes put them at risk.

Zhang once said: "It is not necessary that I should keep what I've collected all my life. Only I hope they will stay in my country forever and be passed down through generations."

The couple's devotion to traditional Chinese art can be traced back to their comprehensive educations. They were well-versed in painting, calligraphy, poetry, classical music and opera.

Previous exhibitions through the decades have showcased many artworks from their collection. But an ongoing exhibition, Admiring the Noble Character with Reverence, also focuses on their accomplishments in ink painting, calligraphy and literature, including letters to such friends as art master Zhang Daqian.

An ongoing exhibition at Tsinghua University Art Museum shows Pan Su's A Landscape in Fall. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The exhibition at Tsinghua University Art Museum, or TAM, runs through Jan 13, coinciding with Zhang's 120th birth anniversary.

Zhang didn't follow in the foot-steps of his father, a statesman, successful banker and politician. His love of arts, however, ushered him into communities of artists and opera performers.

His many paintings at the exhibition revisit the subjects of plums, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums, which symbolize high morality in Chinese culture. And his writings show a distinctive calligraphic style with the grace of a flying bird's feathers.

Pan, meanwhile, was dedicated to the mountain-and-water genre of painting. She excelled at the meticulous gongbi brushwork. Her works demonstrate a sophisticated layering of blue and green shades.

Du Pengfei, TAM's deputy executive director, says that through their works, one can see the couple's integrity and how they loved the culture and the land they were born into, and why they sacrificed so much to protect the national treasures they came across.

An ongoing exhibition at Tsinghua University Art Museum shows Pan Su's Plum Blossoms and Bamboos. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhang bought his first piece, a calligraphic inscription by emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when he was around 30. And it ignited a passion for buying classic art.

While serving at the bank his father founded, Zhang spent the bulk of his fortune collecting art.

Zhang said: "People who know nothing about me say that I'm so daring to lavish so much on these ancient objects. But (they do not know that) I've gone through many hardships. And, some of the time, I fail."

He also said he bought art not to resell it and make a profit but to make sure that it stayed safely in China.

Zhang accumulated most of his art at a time when the country was torn by chaos, and antique art was being transported abroad.

Zhang said: "It is easy to make a fortune, but there will not be a second chance if one loses a national treasure."

The couple's holdings featured works by great artists that are worth a lot of money today, both at home and abroad.

Among the pieces donated to Beijing's Palace Museum is Pingfu Tie written by Lu Ji, who lived between the late third and early fourth centuries.

The 1,700-year-old piece is one of the earliest examples of Chinese calligraphy.

Zhang made several attempts to purchase the piece from its previous owner, Pu Ru, a member of the outgoing Qing imperial family, before he was successful.

An ongoing exhibition at Tsinghua University Art Museum shows Pan Su's Orchid. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhang struggled to get Pu to sell him the piece as the man had previously sold Tang Dynasty (618-907) painter Han Gan's noted work Night-Shining White to a dealer, who later took it abroad. It is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Zhang offered Pu a great sum of money to buy Pingfu Tie in 1937.

Among the other prominent works donated by the couple is Stroll About in Spring, a color painting on silk attributed to Sui Dynasty (581-618) artist Zhan Ziqian.

Zhang sold a courtyard that he owned in Beijing to raise money for it in 1945.

How passionate Zhang was about his art can be seen from an incident when he was kidnapped in Shanghai in 1941.

He told his wife that he would rather die than be freed at the expense of his art collection.

Pan was a loyal supporter of Zhang when it came to collecting art. And she sold her jewelry and other personal belongings to help finance his acquisitions.

Also, when the family was escaping from the Japanese during the wartime, she sewed the artworks into clothes to protect them.

The couple donated more than 100 works to the country after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and declined compensation of 200,000 yuan ($29,000).

Zhang Chuancai, Zhang's daughter, who is in her 80s now, says: "People didn't understand why my father sold his house, exchanged it for a piece of art and donated it. But I understand him.

"He loved his country. He believed these artworks should belong to his nation. And he would do whatever it took to keep them at home."