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Memories of Xu Bangda


Blog: Memories of Xu Bangda

This one belongs properly among my Reminiscences, but I post it here to ensure wider readership. I learned last night that the great Chinese connoisseur Xu Bangda had died, about two weeks ago, on February 23rd. (See the formal photograph of him reproduced here as Illustration 1.)Born in 1911, he was (by Chinese count) 102  years  old. . To be truthful, I had no idea that he had lived so long--my last meeting with him was many years ago, in the 1990s, and when I tried to get from him an answer to a question that concerned me about something that happened in the distant past, by having a friend who was visiting him pose the question, the friend came back with the report that he was too old and bedridden, unable to remember and answer such questions. (For that non-event, see below, quoting from my Responses and Reminiscences  no. 67, titled “Ask Old People Things While They Still Can Answer”--I included as such a case my failure to  ask Xu, while I could have, an important question about the selection committee that chose the paintings sent by the Chinese government to the 1935-36 London exhibition--he was a member.) What follows will be some random memories of him, what I heard about him before we met, our significant comings-together after we first met in 1977. These are not intended as solid biographical information--I will include hearsay and second-hand stories of a kind too sloppy for that. And the incidents I’ll relate will not all be in proper chronological order. But here, with no apologies, are my remembrances of Xu Bangda.

I heard about him long before I met him. He was, along with C. C. Wang, one of the two principal disciples of the Shanghai collector-connoisseur Wu Hufan--subject of a fine recent book by Clarissa von Spee. (No, this isn’t a learned article with biblio. citations--look it up for yourselves.) Wang came to the U.S. in the 1940s; Xu stayed behind in China, and rode out the bad Mao years with difficulty. He was chosen--I believe it was by Zheng Zhenduo, who then occupied a Minister-of-Culture-like position--as one of a team to bring together a national collection of paintings for the Palace Museum in Beijing, to replace the great collection that Chiang Kai-shek’s people had  carried off to Taiwan. (Another on the team was the great Shanghai collector Zhang Congyu, who reportedly came to a bad end in jail.) One story had it that Xu Bangda was in trouble because he had arranged for a woman friend to go out from China with money to buy back paintings in Hong Kong and elsewhere,  and she had simply taken the money and absconded, leaving Xu in a bad situation.

In any case, whatever the truth of that story might be,  Xu Bangda was in political trouble in the 1960s-70s. Before our “Archaeology Delegation” made its trip to China in 1973, I was warned by Cheng Chi, then living in Tokyo but keeping up with art events in China through constant communication, not to ask about Xu while we were there. And I, of course, being as politically naïve as I was, went ahead and inquired about him when we were in Beijing, and was told that he was ill and couldn’t see us. (News of my blunder somehow got back to Cheng Chi, who chastised me for it, quite properly--I deserved it.) On our 1977 Old Chinese Painting Delegation, chaired by myself, we didn’t have to ask--Xu Bangda turned up at one of our viewings in Beijing, and greeted us warmly, chattering away with our Chinese-speaking members, looking as excited and happy, I wrote home at the time, as an animal released after spending a long time in a cage. He was with us for later painting viewings, and seemed in good spirits and good standing.

Move ahead about a decade, to my long stay in China in 1986, living at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in the center of Beijing (near Wangfu Jing, before their move to the new campus far out near the airport.) Late one evening, after the lights had all been turned off, there was a knock on the door of my room (on the 8th floor, where foreign guests lived) and when I opened it, with a flashlight  or candle, I can’t remember which, there was an attractive woman who wanted to come in and talk with me. And I, never averse to seeing what might happen in such a situation, welcomed her in. She identified herself (I forget whether we talked in English, Chinese, or some combination of those) as Teng Fang, an actress and Xu’s longtime companion and lover. (In the obituaries she is identified as his wife--but his real wife never allowed a divorce, and I don’t think one can have two wives in today’s China.) She had come to convey Xu Bangda’s invitation for lunch at the Beijing Hotel. Of course I accepted--I had been meaning to get in touch with him.

He came to the lunch along with Yang Xin, then his principal disciple. (This  was long before Xiao Ping, identified as his chief disciple in the obituaries, came on the scene.) We talked about lots of things, including meeting for painting viewings at the Palace Museum. I was just then blessed with the possibility of inviting a Chinese scholar to spend a year at the University of California in Berkeley--some foundation had granted us the funds for this--and I took this opportunity to invite Xu Bangda.  Alas, he replied, he wasn’t free to come--I forget now what his reason was. On the spur of the moment, without thinking of consequences, I then invited Yang Xin, who agreed enthusiastically. This proved to be a move with heavy consequences--another specialist with whom I had been more closely associated, and with whom I had traveled--he will remain nameless here--was deeply offended over not having been offered this year in Berkeley, and became (and still is) a kind of enemy. Yang Xin spent a happy year in Berkeley and traveling around the U.S. to see collections and study museum practice; it was partly this experience which not long after his return got him chosen as the Director of the Palace Museum. It also gave him a year away from a somewhat deranged and vindictive wife, left behind in China, while in Berkeley Yang Xin--but no, that’s another story for another time.

Out of chronological order, but I’m fitting it in here anyway: at the first international symposium on Chinese painting to be held in China, the one on the Anhui (or “Huangshan”) school held in Hefei in 1984, I was invited to be the opening-night speaker, because our “Shadows of Mt. Huang”  exhibition of 1981 and its catalog had largely inspired this event. I chose, for reasons  little understood at the time but clear in my mind, to present a paper (with double slide-projection, new to many of those present) demonstrating that a major work supposedly by the leading master of the  school, Hongren,  an album of Huangshan scenes that was one of the treasures of the Palace Museum, was not by Hongren at all, but by his lesser contemporary Xiao Yuncong. (That paper will appear before long on this website, when we have solved the problem of matching illustrations to text.) I was responding to what had happened during the visits by eminent Chinese connoisseurs, with Xu Bangda prominent among them, to see U.S. collections--their frequent pronouncements about some of our treasures that they were not genuine--I wanted to show that we could also play that game. The paper caused a consternation that dominated the rest of the symposium (PROFESSOR CAHILL HAS CHALLENGED CHINESE CONNOISSEURSHIP!). Xu Bangda told me privately, when we were alone in the garden during a break, that he didn’t believe the  album was by Hongren either, although he hadn’t thought of Xiao Yuncong as the real artist. Nevertheless, whatever his real opinion, he was reportedly marched off the next morning to the museum by his Director, Yang Boda, to look at the album together and prepare a talk arguing for its being an authentic work by Hongren, which he delivered the next day, speaking haltingly and with evident discomfort before an audience that knew or suspected what was going on. I was sorry to have subjected him to this. We remained friends, and spent time together during the trip around Anhui that followed the symposium. (See Illustration 2, the two of us together with Wang Shiqing, our guide, and my close friend Takehiro Shindo.)

Various comings-together with Xu Bangda continued during the following years, when I was spending a lot of time in China and he was a prominent figure in the painting world there, publishing important books and continuing in his position at the Palace Museum. The next notable meeting with him that I can recall was when Jeannette Shambaugh Elliott, writing her book on the history of the Palace Museum collection (inspired by conversations with myself, after she heard me lecture about how such a book needed to be written while so many of the participants were still alive--I  have a thick file of correspondence carried on with her during the writing--the book was left incomplete at her death, and was finished and published by her nephew David Shambaugh)--when Jeannette Elliott, to get back to my narrative, “commissioned” my wife-to-be Hsingyuan Tsao to interview Xu Bangda about his role in this great story. Hsingyuan’s interview was incorporated into the book--I remember only sitting and listening while she and Xu talked in Chinese far beyond my comprehension. (Again, you can find the book--highly recommended--for yourselves.)

Xu Bangda did come to the U.S., of course, invited by others for a tour of  museum collections along with the equally famous Shanghai artist-connoisseur Xie Zhiliu and several younger specialists who accompanied those two. According to reports, the two masters were forever arguing about the authenticity of paintings they saw, one insisting that it was genuine, the other that it was a fake. I have used this report sometimes to make the point that even the best connoisseurs aren’t right all the time--they couldn’t, after all, both be right, however sure of themselves they might sound. (That, as I have recounted elsewhere, was part of the basic act of the Chinese  connoisseur, from Dong Qichang onward: to stand or sit in front of a painting and pronounce a judgment on its authenticity and quality, a judgment that was made to sound as though it had been sent down from heaven.)

Xu Bangda was himself a painter, capable of traditional styles (learned, presumably, while in the circle of Wu Hufan) but hardly a distinguished one. C. C. Wang, who started with a similar traditional grounding but went on to become a much more original and important artist, attributed Xu’s failure to develop to his being out of touch with developments in art outside China, and the strong political discouragement of any move toward “modern” styles by artists during the bad Mao years.

Xu Bangda’s notable longevity, living to over a hundred, gives hope to someone who feels already over-the-hill at 85. Still, Xu’s passing removes from the world another of the people I most respected. But one can also outlive his period of real capability. That Xu had already declined markedly some years ago in his ability to think and speak coherently I know from the report of the friend who visited him, charged by me to get from him the answer to my question about the selection committee for the London Exhibition. On that, let me simply quote my Reminiscence (no. 67):

“Realizing that he is very old and that I probably wouldn't be seeing him again myself, I asked a good friend who was going to visit him and his beloved companion—now wife?--Teng Fong to put this question to him, and she promised to do that. But after her return, she wrote:

"’Dear Jim, We had a good visit to Beijing last week. Teng Fong arranged for us to see Mr Xu in his room resting in bed. He could utter sounds but not words. I didn't raise the question of the 1936 exhibition in London as I didn't think his memory would go very far. Well, for his age, he is doing well and being well looked after.’

“Too late again. Now the point of the admonition in my title should be clear: don't wait too long, we don't live forever, and our memories may fail toward the end. I am myself trying to set down a lot of old stories and information in these Reminiscences and elsewhere without waiting to be questioned, but I will also try to respond to any really interesting questions to which I can give unembarrassing answers of moderate length. “

And I ended that Reminiscence, and will end these Memories, with an anecdote I heard about Xu Bangda:

“I will conclude this Reminiscence.. . with a sad and funny story. This one verges on gossip, something I heard and perhaps shouldn't be passing on. But posterity must be informed, even at the cost of proper discretion. Divorces are more difficult in China than here, and several of my Chinese colleagues have remained bound to wives long after their warm marital relationships had in reality ended. Xu Bangda was one of those; I came to know his lovely companion, now (I believe) his wife, Teng Fong, when I first met him in Beijing. She is a former movie star and a cultivated woman of great charm. Some time after the opening of China in the 1980s, Xu Bangda was invited by a U.S. institution for a year's stay, so that he could see collections and impart some of his connoisseurial wisdom to students and scholars here. He wrote back accepting, but asking whether he could bring Teng Fong with him. But—tragicomically—the postage on foreign mail had recently gone up a penny or so, and his letter was returned for insufficient postage. Whereupon, of course, it was opened and read by his real wife--and goodbye to foreign stay. He was able to come for shorter visits in the company of other scholar-specialists, but the happy and productive year was lost, ‘for the want of a [Chinese] penny.’ “

Final thought: with C. C. Wang and Xu Bangda both gone, who now can claim the title of the world’s leading connoisseur of Chinese painting--the one who can identify the most artists by their styles, and the most paintings by seeing them, in wholes or details, in slides or photos or reproductions? (I mean, of course, a visual connoisseur, not one who reads inscriptions and deciphers seals etc.--he is something else.) Who can now claim that title?  Opinions will differ, but in the opinion of Your Old Blogger, it is none other than--

But no, modesty prevents me from ending that sentence. As a clue to how I might have ended it, let me simply sign,

James Cahill, March 10th, 2012

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