Monday, April 30, 2012

Superfluous Things, Connoisseurship, and Online Auctions

"People in high places are so proud of their connoisseurship,
they will keep on buying with all the money they have.
How many authentic antiques can there be?
No wonder the market is filled with forgeries."

from "Bogus Antiques"
- Shao Changheng (1634-1704)*

Antiquities Market, Suzhou
from the Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll #6
Xu Yang, 1770
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ask anyone: the Chinese art market is hot right now.  A growing Chinese economy has empowered a generation of nouveau riche Chinese businessmen and women to dabble in the art market.  Increasingly, they are showing a hunger for high quality works of Chinese art.  Prices on the ground in mainland and Taiwanese galleries have risen exponentially.  Fakes are also plentiful.

Scholars of Chinese history know that a similar phenomenon emerged in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644).  At that time, a booming economy empowered upwardly-mobile merchants to purchase the trappings of elite literati taste in an attempt to pass as entrenched noble families.  Fat pocketbooks in hand, they bought calligraphy, paintings, ceramics, bronzes, lacquerware, and other luxury goods.

For those without a developed sense of taste, there was even a helpful book by a gentleman named Wen Zhenheng.  Wen was the great, great grandson of a Ming literary paragon named Wen Zhengming, an established scholar in his own right, and a devoted servant of the Ming dynasty.**  His book, Superfluous Things, helpfully laid out the characteristics of the most desirable works of art and decorative goods and ranked them in terms of desirability.  In essence, it was a guide to Ming dynasty "brands".

Such a guide was an obvious boon to those with fat pockets seeking to prove their cultural sophistication.  However, it was also an aid to forgers and cheats.  With such a high demand for famous artists, works bearing these famous names appeared on the antiquities market in Suzhou.  In some cases, new pieces were made and then artificially aged.  In other cases, old paintings by unknown artists were given new identities.

Returning to the present day, modern collectors are obsessed with famous names for a slightly different reason.  With such an exponential growth in Chinese art prices, collectors seek some kind of stability and guarantee against a loss of value.  Only the most desirable names, it is thought, can hope to hold their value in the long term.

But here is where it gets interesting.  Authentic Chinese art may now be found far beyond the stalls of the Suzhou marketplace.  After the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, a large amount of high quality Chinese art was exported, both legally and illegally, from China.  Strange and interesting items were brought back as curios by soldiers, missionaries, and diplomats of western powers.  With the prices of Chinese art rising, many westerners are rooting through their attics in search of bits of orientalia that can be sold at auction.

Many local auctions are available online and savvy Asian bidders watch them like hawks, eager to swoop down on the best deals.  And yet, many auctioneers are largely ignorant (or affect ignorance) about the works they have for auction.  Take this interesting example:


The piece is listed as a "Chinese Qing Dynasty Ink and Color on Paper Hanging Scroll".  Its description is equally vague:

"Hanging scroll with two separate images.  A fan with butterflies and a second image below depicting figures in a landscape.  Attributed in pencil on the outside: fan by Chou-I-Kuei Landscape by Chia-ting ts'un." (sic)

Let's examine this painting a bit more carefully, starting with the inscription.  The original Chinese inscription reads, "Peach blossoms and butterflies by Zou Yigui and flying cranes in the peach grove by Jiao Bingzhen.  An exceptional work."

In fact, the English attribution isn't very helpful.  It uses the antiquated romanization system of Wade-Giles to transcribe the names of both artists and even gets one wrong!  But who are these artists, anyway?  In fact, both men are most famous for their connection to a third man, the Qianlong Emperor.  Both Zou Yigui (1686-1772) and Jiao Bingzhen (1689-1726) were professional court artists producing works of the highest quality for the emperor's personal use.

Jiao Bingzhen was an interesting character.  He studied with Jesuit artists in the Qing court and became skilled in the use of perspectival rendering.  He is known for architectural landscapes with figures of beautiful women.  Some scholars believe that he was a member of the team that produced a stunning series of portraits of beautiful women for the Yongzheng emperor.  Interestingly, perhaps, Jiao was not very well known until fairly recently, when his hybridized depictions of space became interesting to a group of scholars studying artistic exchange.

Zou Yigui, on the other hand, has long been famous as a painter of flowers and butterflies.  His work was often commissioned by members of the imperial family.  Many of his paintings were mounted as fans.  Others were collected into album books.  Take, for example, this outstanding album of peonies.

"Golden Corseted Peony"

In each album leaf, Zou renders a peony with meticulous detail.  There are faint outlines surrounding the stems and leaves.  Each layer of leaf and petal is rendered crisply, giving each painting the appearance of a pressed specimen.

Returning to the painting up for auction, let's examine each of its parts individually beginning with the Zou Yigui painting above.  Unlike the painting above, the peach blossoms are rendered in a "boneless" style.  That is, branches and flowers are not surrounded by an outline.  This style gives the painted flowers a softer, flowing, and almost impressionistic appearance.  Whether the brushwork, calligraphy, and seals on this painting fit within the canon of Zou Yigui is a difficult question indeed.***

However, like the album of peonies shown above, this painting bears an imperial seal; in this case it seems to be one of the Qianlong emperor.

Trained connoisseurs know that seals are often necessary but never sufficient grounds to authenticate a work.  In this case, for example, a little knowledge about the collection habits of the Qianlong emperor casts this painting as a whole into doubt.  While this one seal would be appropriate for a small fan (especially one that seems to have been actually used), the fact that no imperial seals appear on the work below is strange.

A closer look at the painting below shows that it bears a title by the artist, "Flying Cranes in the Peach Grove" and a Chinese cyclical date corresponding to either 1686 or 1746.  This is unfortunate for the painting's authenticity, as Jiao was alive for neither of those dates.****

The subject of the painting appears to be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who is known to have enjoyed drinking at a "Flying Crane Pavilion."  Here he is shown beckoning to a group of cranes while his attendant watches.  Su is identifiable here from his characteristic scholar's cap, which is somewhat floppy and loose.

These paintings, then, were not paired during the eighteenth century.  A closer look reveals that they were mounted together at a later date.  Tellingly, the Zou Yigui fan was cut down to match the size of the Jiao Bingzhen panel.  See?

Second, the mounting material is uncharacteristic of a Chinese painting.  The silk is too bright. What's more, a picture of the scroll's exterior shows the telltale futai - two hanging strips of fine silk that are incorrectly wrapped around the scroll instead of folded inside.  It seems that a Japanese collector (whose name is illegibly preserved on the outside seal) collected these two works and had them mounted together.  This would have been an appealing proposition because both shared an explicit seasonal reference to peaches.  For a Japanese collector, this would have been a perfect scroll to display in the springtime.

Or, of course, these two works could have been packaged together to bilk a foreign buyer!  How ironic, then, that this work will likely return to Asia.  The brands of Zou Yigui, Jiao Bingzhen, and, of course, the Qianlong emperor resonate deeply with Chinese buyers, especially as Zou's works are selling for record amounts.  If the fan is, in fact, a true work by Zou Yigui, then this scroll is a value (nay, a steal!) at $700.

And yet, we must be equally wary of the possibility that the only truth to the entire scroll is its ability to deceive.  To return to the advice of Shao Changheng,

"Trust your ears and ignore what you see -
All sad things in the world are just like this."

* as quoted in Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things (Polity Press: Oxford, 1991), p. 111
** When the Manchus overthrew the Ming, Wen Zhenheng opted to starve himself rather than submit.  A succinct overview of Wen's life can be found in Clunas, 1991.
*** And it's a question that I won't answer here.  If you're interested in buying the piece, you should do your homework (or hire me to do it for you!)
**** It is possible, albeit unlikely, that the accepted dates of Jiao Bingzhen's life are incorrect.  He is still a somewhat mysterious figure.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The House of Bitter Tea (苦茶之家)

The House of Bitter Tea
(Chang'an Road Branch)
苦茶之家: 長安總店
244 Chang'an Road (corner of Chang'an and Chongqing roads)

I've always been a fan of old-fashioned Chinese sweet shops.  There are a bunch in Hong Kong that look like time capsules from the early 1960's.  The best of the bunch successfully combine neon lights, bright colored plastic fixtures, and delicious sweets.  The best time to go is right after work in the late afternoon.  It feels delightfully wicked to spoil your dinner.

In Taipei, the best sweet shop I've found is called the House of Bitter Tea.  The original shop is located in a strange little shopping wasteland north and west of Taipei Main station.  It's a pleasant walk from the underground K-mall, the Zhongshan MRT, or even Ximending.  If you're approaching from the south, you can see the old Qing dynasty guard tower that stands ignored and unloved beneath the highway.  I've always thought that it would be an awesome place to squat.  If someone tried to evict you, you'd be in a guard tower - right?

Bitter tea is a cooling beverage.  In Chinese medical/food theory, certain foods are 陽 (yang) "hot"; they will add heat to your body, keeping you warm in the winter or helping when you've developed a cold-based illness.  There's an interesting list here that helpfully explains which fruits (papaya, dragon eyes, lychee, betel nut) vegetables (garlic, certain mushrooms, hot peppers), spices, and meats (basically all red meat, including dog) qualify as yang.

Similarly, there are other foods that qualify as 陰 (yin) "cool".  There are many cooling fruits, such as watermelon, bitter melon, citrus, grapes, and strawberries.  Honey and yoghurt are also cooling, as are many kinds of fish.  Bitter tea, known as 24 herb tea in Hong Kong, is considered to be a powerfully effective cooling beverage.*

But why is this such a big deal?  Well, for those that subscribe to the theory of hot and cold foods, an imbalance of heat is bad - especially for women.  Hot foods are thought to be especially bad for the skin.  A big meal of red meat can cause digestive problems and unsightly breakouts!

In Hong Kong, bitter tea stands dot the streets of Central.  At night, elegant, willowy women form lines in front of these shops.  Each cup is poured from a large metal canister into a small porcelain bowl and consumed at the counter.  When things aren't so very busy, bowls of tea are pre-poured and covered with a thin pane of glass.

Although I've been to the House of Bitter Tea at least a dozen times, I've never seen anyone order the bitter tea.  Well, except me.  It's fine, I guess.

But the desserts are quite excellent.  A personal favorite is the 四季寶 (sijibao) "Treasures of Four Seasons":

I reckon that the white wood ear mushroom represents winter, the cherry spring, lotus seeds represent summer, and the preserved date is fall.  The whole thing is served in a sweet soup - either hot or cold.  It's delicious.  I've also had a variant with sweet potatoes.

Another delicious choice is the 洛神湯 luoshen tang.  My web research has yielded the fact that luoshen hua  洛神花 is an old-fashioned name for rose fruit.  This is used in some recipes for the more ubiquitous 酸梅湯 suanmei tang (sour plum tea).  My guess is that luoshen tang is a rose fruit-based drink.  In any case, it's tart and delicious with a color akin to a deep merlot.  Plus it comes in this cute cup:

Interestingly, the mascot for the shop is a Luohan.  Luohan, also known as arhats, are mystical figures in Buddhism.  Often hiding in caves or other isolated places, they appear to travelers as deformed, mad hermits.  In stories, an arhat will confound/annoy their visitors to the point where they say an unkind word or otherwise offend them.  At that point, they suddenly display their magical powers.  Sets of luohans became a popular theme in Chinese and Japanese art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Those with exaggerated features like the gentleman shown above are in the tradition of the monk 貫休 Guanxiu (832-912).

Although luohans and their trippy transmogrifications have long ceased to occupy the imaginations of most Chinese and Taiwanese people, the logo has endured.  It is a remnant of another era - not so surprising as the shop was founded in 1928.  With no website to be found, I'm not sure whether it has always been in the same place, but the romantic in me hopes so.  The shop is on the edge of the Dadaocheng neighborhood.  Although it is a bit inconvenient now, it was a lively shopping district during Japanese occupation period Taipei.

As the summer rains and their associated heat begin to descend on Taipei, it's not hard to imagine the shop eighty years ago.  In my mind's eye, I can see lines of elegant ladies in summer yukata (浴衣, ゆかた) or cotton qipao lining up for a quick cup of bitter tea after dinner. Of course, we men would still be sweating.  But we'd probably be wearing hats.

*By the way, 24 herbs is also the name of a Hong Kong rap outfit.  I'm a big fan of their remix of Roman Tam's "Middle of the Laser Light".