Facing up to the past

Updated: Sep 6, 2022 By Lin Qi China Daily Print
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The National Museum of China is showing historic portraiture from its collection, including a portrait of Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Du Fu. [Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

Another painting on show depicts Mingrui, an 18th-century general favored by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. Mingrui hailed from a prestigious aristocratic Manchu clan held in high esteem. His aunt was Empress Fucha, the most beloved wife of Qianlong, and Mingrui's uncle was Fuheng, a major figure serving in Qianlong's court. The two characters and their glorified family backgrounds are detailed in Story of Yanxi Palace, a hit 2018 costume drama series.

"The exhibition also shows dozens of group portraits that depict ya ji, or 'elegant gatherings', a recurring theme in Chinese paintings," Zhu says. "Such parties were attended by members of the literati who enjoyed music, dance and landscape art or a space adorned with cultural objects."

Painters not only documented gatherings of their time, but also created imagined salon scenes featuring historic figures. For example, a work by an anonymous Ming painter on show depicts a known gathering in the 9th century that was attended by Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Bai Juyi.

Painters also reproduced master works as a study of techniques and to pay tribute to predecessors and the cultural atmosphere of previous dynasties. The exhibition displays a Ming copy of the 10th century scroll painting, Han Xizai Gives a Night Banquet, a well-known Chinese painting.

"It is an exhibition where every portrait tells a unique story that deserves audiences' attention, so they can think of the past," Zhu, the curator, says.

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