67. Ask Old People Things While They Still Can Answer!

67. Ask Old People Things While They Still Can Answer!

What I mean by the above injunction will be made clear by two instances in which I failed to do it, and lost—forever?—information I would like to have.

Readers of my various writings on Chinese erotic albums, such as. on my website, CLP 37: "Painted Illustrations for Jin Ping Mei and Chinese Erotic Albums," or my articles "Where Did the Nymph Hang?"  in Kaikodo Journal VII, 1998, and "The Emperor's Erotica" ibid. XI, 1999, know my somewhat hypothetical account of how the four albums containing the series of 200 large illustrations for the erotic novel Jinping Mei. "The Plum in the Golden Vase," which I believe to have been painted by the early Qing Suzhou master Gu Jianlong, were plundered from the Manchu palace by the "warlord" Zhang Zuolin during the 1920s and ended up in the possession of his son Zhang Xueliang, who spent most of his later life (55 years!) under house arrest in Taiwan. From various scraps of information from different sources, I surmised that Zhang Xueliang had taken the albums with him to Taiwan, and there broken them up into groups of leaves which he sold or gave away as political and other gifts. But I needed confirmation, and the person from whom I could best get it was, of course, Zhang Xueliang himself. As it happened, Zhang moved to Honolulu for his last years, after being freed at last in Taiwan, and lived in seclusion there under the care of relatives. As it happened also, I myself moved to Honolulu around the same time, and set about to get access to Zhang so as to ask him my crucial questions while I still could. I came to know his niece, one of his caretakers—not for this reason alone, she is an interesting woman in her own right—and she agreed to put this question to him. (Direct access to him by an outsider was completely impossible.) She did ask him, but it was too late: he was either too old to remember, or chose again not to reveal the story. (A large difficulty confronting anyone doing research on erotic art is the reluctance of many owners to acknowledge what they have, out of an old-fashioned belief that it would hurt their reputations.) Zhang died in 2001 at the age of 100. I was able to view only his embalmed body, at the memorial service. My conjectural history remains that. If anyone has better information, either first-hand or
from reading, to corroborate or alter my account or to fill it out, I would appreciate learning it.

My second failure to get information from old people while I could involves a belief I have formed, but cannot (so far as I know) test in published writings, about the Chinese government's selection of paintings to send to the great exhibition of Chinese art held in London in 1935-36. (The published catalog of that is International Exhibition of Chinese Art, London, 1935-1936. Illustrated Supplement (Painting and Calligraphy). Anyone really familiar with the Manchu imperial collection, then kept in China, knows the great and acknowledged masterworks—many of them were shown in our 1961-62 exhibition Chinese Art Treasures, and are to be seen in the catalog of that title. (Many of them are also in my 1960 book Chinese Painting, since C. C. Wang, Li Lin-ts'an and I were permitted, two years earlier, to go through the collection stored then in Taichung and make selections for my book, which later figured heavily in the selection for the exhibition.) But then, when we look back at the published catalog of paintings from China included in the 1935-36 London exhibition, we find that almost none of these masterworks is to be seen there. In their places are, one after another, later copies and imitations and wrong attributions—the "wrong" Fan Kuan, the "wrong" Guo Xi, an obviously Ming handscroll instead of the great Xia Gui "Pure and Remote View," the Ming copy of Huang Gongwang's Fuchun Mts. scroll (the one defaced with all the inscriptions by the Qianlong Emperor, who fortunately acquired the copy first and wrote all over it), and so forth. (The "right" Ma Yuan was included, but only because it was generally considered in China at that time to be the "wrong" one.)

Whenever this faulty selection has been mentioned in print at all, it has been taken to be the outcome of honest mistakes made by those who made the selection. According to one account (see von Spee reference below) the British planners of the exhibition had themselves requested two of the bad paintings, the "Xia Gui" and "Huang Gongwang" scrolls. When questions were raised about the selection by English specialists of the time (Arthur Waley wrote that "The pictures come near to being a fiasco"), John C. Ferguson admonished them in print for questioning the superiority of Chinese connoisseurship. (I write about these matters mostly from memory, without time or facilities to track down references. A good brief account is in Clarissa von Spee, Wu Hufan: A Twentieth Century Art Connoisseur in Shanghai, Berlin, 2008, pp. 49-51.) My own more-than-suspicion, firm belief, is that the committee appointed by the Chinese government to make the selection was made up of connoisseurs—Wu Hufan among them—far too keen-eyed to have made such a consistently wrong selection except by intent. They either had private instructions from on high not to send the great masterworks abroad, out of fear for their safety and a belief that the foreigners mostly weren't going to appreciate them anyway (both beliefs well founded), or had made this decision on their own—in any case, that the failure to send the best paintings to the London exhibition was deliberate. And the question is of some art-historical importance: think how greatly the study and connoisseurship of Chinese painting in the West was set back by this substitution of fakes and misattributions for the real masterworks, and how differently our field would have developed over the intervening decades if the great early paintings had been better known and studied. But how to confirm my belief?  It obviously was not a decision that the Chinese selection committee would admit to in print, so that the answer wasn't likely to be found in some text..

The right course, once more, was to attempt to get the truth from the horses' mouths—from, that is, survivors of the original selection committee, which had met first in Beijing and later in Shanghai where the former Imperial Collection paintings were stored. One of them, Wang Chi-ch'ien or C. C. Wang, I knew very well—he is a frequent figure in my Reminiscences and other writings. But I never thought to ask him, and he died before I could put the question to him. The other, whom I know less well but have spent time with over the years, is Xu Bangda, still living in Beijing. 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 BJ 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.

I will conclude this Reminiscence, as I did the previous one, 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 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."

I could write more about Xu Bangda, both out of admiration (entirely sincere) and out of love of telling stories; but that will be left for another time. Just so it isn't left too late.

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