Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Famous people

I have been given the opportunity to work with a local collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, and received a handwritten list of works in the collection to start with. I decided to put it into a database so I could figure out what was there.

I haven't seen any of the works yet but the list of names is a who's who of China's long process of modernization: from Lin Zexu, the Qing official who confiscated and burned (with lime) all the British opium in Guangzhou, thus precipitating the First Opium War, to the three generals who put down the Taiping Rebellion, to the reform officials, including Kang Youwei, who authored the Guangxu Reforms, to the Empress Dowager, who resisted them, and poor old Puyi himself, the last emperor of China. There's the first chancellor of Peking University and the first president of Shanghai University, the first prime minister of Manchukuo, the great Peking Opera singer Mei Lanfang and several of his colleagues, two or three of the epigraphers who first deciphered oracle bone characters, and, oddly enough, the first translator of the Enuma Elish into Chinese. There's an important author of May Fourth Movement vernacular fiction; the first Chinese oil-painting teacher to introduce nude models in a life-drawing class; and the author of the first modern history of Chinese philosophy (still widely read). Add to this some works by major Ming and Qing painters and it's quite a collection of characters, all told.

Obviously I have to see the works to figure out whether they would make an exhibition, but it seems like the thing they all have in common is that they were all made by people who were in one way or another involved with the great question of the 19th and 20th century: how was China going to become modern? It's a question over which wars were fought, so it wasn't a purely academic one.

So it seemed just the icing on the cake, so to speak, that the last piece on the list was a work of calligraphy by the 19th century General Tso (sometimes called, in dialect, General Gau). Of General Tso's (General Gau's) chicken.


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