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Past exhibition

Permanent Exhibition
Our Beloved Treasures: Masterpieces in the National Palace Museum Collection
Under the influence of Confucianism and the civil service examination system, the literati ascended as a vital social class in ancient China, playing a crucial role in politics, economics, technologies, and literature, and leaving a lasting legacy in a wide range of artistic expressions. These creations, which showcase their exceptional talents and ingenuity, have been passed down through generations, shaping the tastes of emperors and commoners alike.
The literati frequently expressed their thoughts on the cosmos, nature, and human existence in words which became timeless literary works. Their social gatherings served as a source of artistic inspiration, and apart from literature they also made significant contributions to painting, leading to the development of the distinct East Asian literati painting school.
Revered as the pioneer of this style, Wang Wei exemplified the ideal of finding “painting in poetry and poetry in painting”—a pursuit followed by generations of subsequent artists. The literati also channeled their profound interest in calligraphy, archaeology, and historiography, reinterpreting them in paintings and artifacts with a rich variety of artistic themes and elements.
This exhibition takes well-known literary works as a starting point to provide visitors with an opportunity to explore the sentimental and artistic world of the literati.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date Permanent Exhibition
  • Location 3F S302
Yuan Dynasty
Picking Water Chestnuts, Zhao Yong
“Picking water chestnuts”, an especially popular activity in the Jiangnan region in summer and autumn when chestnuts ripened, was a favorite theme in the poetry, paintings, and music of the Chinese literati. This Yuan dynasty painting showcases the classic “one river, two banks” composition with varying shades of blue-green pigment and five boats weaving through water chestnut leaves.
Zhao Yong (1289–?), son of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), The two pine trees in the foreground are inspired by the styles of Northern Song painters Li Cheng (919–967) and Guo Xi (c. 1023–1087 or later). The mountains are rendered in the dry brushwork of Juran, a Five dynasties artis, and feature elongated strokes giving the texture of hemp fiber, moss dots, and round mountain peaks. The water’s edge is depicted using long lines, a technique of Dong Yuan (?–962) from the Five dynasties . The elegant color palette and technique resemble Zhao Mengfu’s, exemplifying Zhao Yong’s continuation of his father’s advocacy for reviving ancient painting styles.
Yuan Dynasty
The Fishing Recluse, Wu Zhen
The story of the “Fishing Recluse” comes from “The Fisherman”, a work by Qu Yuan (c. 343–278 BCE) from the Warring States Period, and later evolved into an artistic and literary theme representing the literati’s longing for seclusion amid turbulent times in the hope of preserving their integrity. In the top-right corner of the painting is a poem inscribed by the artist, titled “Emulating the Spirit of the Fisherman”, which describes the joys of singing and drinking as a young fisherman rows the boat, as if reflecting the artist’s own retreat by Taihu Lake.
This work was completed in 1342 by the artist Wu Zhen (1280-1354), one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty. It portrays the waterside scenery of Jiangnan using the common Yuan dynasty “one river, two banks” composition. The mountains and rocks feature the “hemp-fiber” technique, and the surface has been covered with wet ink. The ink’s deep intensity and strong color contrast create a sense of light and shadow reflecting off the waterside and mist flowing through the scene.
Yuan Dynasty
Group of Peaks Clearing After Snow, Cao Zhibai
The Qianlong Emperor’s inscription in the upper-right corner draws from Liu Zongyuan’s (773–819) “River Snow” poem and Tao Yuanming’s (365–427) story of retreating to pastoral life, emphasizing the theme of the snowy landscape to represent the reclusive spirit of the literati.
The artist Cao Zhibai (1272–1355) completed “Group of Peaks Clearing After Snow” in 1350. Composition features the “one river, two banks” The portrayal of the sandy shores was influenced by the “long slope” technique of Five dynasties painter Dong Yuan (?–962). The painting also incorporates the rounded mountains and cold pine forests often seen in the works of Northern Song painters Li Cheng (919–967) and Guo Xi (c. 1023–1087 or later). Useing light ink on the sky and water contrasting with the untouched white space representing the heavy snow on the mountains. Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, has praised Cao Zhibai in an inscription in the upper-left corner, saying that his brushwork is “antique and subdued”, with Wang Wei’s lingering charm. In the lower-left corner, Cao Zhibai has inscribed both his own pseudonym, “Wayingxuan”, and that of Ali Mubarak (?–?), a Western Region Huihui and Yuan dynasty poet: “Lazy Yunwo”. This illustrates the close interaction between Han Chinese and non-Han Chinese literati during the mid-Yuan dynasty and beyond.
Yuan to Ming Dynasty
Bronze Bird Terrace Tile Inkstone
Crafted from a curved roof tile. The imprinted inscription in clerical script at its base shows the year of its creation, 210 AD, the year Eastern Han warlord Cao Cao (155-220)ordered the construction of the Bronze Bird Terrace (Tongquetai), so it is possible this inkstone was made from a fragment of this famous structure that survived its destruction.
Just two years prior, in 208, there took place the Battle of Red Cliffs, a decisive conflict that led to the defeat of Cao Cao and the rise of the Three Kingdoms. With its melodies and rhythms, poetry served as a distinctive medium in which the literati could express their deepest emotions. This refined clay inkstone played a material role in translating these sounds and rhythms into intelligible form.
Upon acquisition by the Qing Court, Despite the doubts about the inkstone’s authenticity that the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) expressed in his own poem, the ministers were moved to reminisce and express their admiration upon beholding it.
1739, Qing Dynasty / Qing Dynasty
Ivory Table-screen Decorated with a Scene of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering, Huang Zhenxiao / Jade Table-screen of “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion”
This exquisite ivory table-screen, crafted by Huang Zhenxiao (fl. 1737-1744) on the orders of the Qianlong Emperor in 1739, The exterior design takes inspiration from a bamboo wrist rest, complete with carved bamboo nodes on the lower section and the distinctive curve of a bamboo stalk on the back.
Wrist rests were common stationery items in Ming and Qing dynasty literati studios, where they were used to support the wrist or forearm during writing or painting. Given the Qianlong Emperor’s passion for calligraphy, it is no surprise that the scene depicted on the screen is taken from the famous work “Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion” (Lantingji Xu), written by the master calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361) in 353 AD.
This table-screen’s slender, flat surface features a winding river that runs from top to bottom, seamlessly linking a variety of scenes. Skillfully carved from subtly different angles, the figures, trees, and stones in the upper, middle, and lower sections create a sense of depth and perspective. This artful technique vividly captures the enchanting mountain landscape eloquently described by Wang Xizhi in his work.
Qianlong Period, Qing Dynasty
Songhua inkstone with lid featuring fisherman under the moon
The inkstone, a quintessential item in a scholar’s study, exudes an unmistakable air of erudition.The idea of “learning to excel in order to serve” was deeply rooted in the hearts of the literati. However, individuals may have felt various emotions during periods of civil service and seclusion. The theme of the inkstone cover appears to draw inspiration from the renowned Tang dynasty poem “River Snow” by Liu Zongyuan (773-819), which expresses feelings about being exiled to the frontier. Or it may depict the wisdom of ancient Chinese politician Fan Li, who attained success and then withdrew from public life.
The designer has skillfully used the stone’s natural variations in color. The parallel placement of light-gray distant mountains, sandbars, reeds, a small boat, and a fisherman in a straw cape creates a sense of vastness. The mingling of yellow and white hues is reminiscent of swirling winds, evoking a sense of loneliness akin to the emotions captured in the works of Tang poet Du Fu. The small moon hanging in the upper-left corner casts a reflection on the reeds, creating a poetic atmosphere of solitude. The inkstone cover masterfully encapsulates boundless space within its limited dimensions, making it a truly exceptional work of art.
Early to Mid-Qing Dynasty
Jade Brush Holder with a Scene of Mountain Travel
Although this brush holder has been crafted from single hue of deep-green jade. Carved on the brush holder are jagged cliffs and gnarled ancient maple and pine trees, transporting viewers to a secluded, intricate landscape of mountains and rivers. However, faint stone steps lead up behind the pine tree on the left, suggesting dwellings deep within the white clouds of the mountains. A person can be seen sitting in a carriage at the foot of the steps.
This scene is evidently inspired by the famous poem “Mountain Journey” by the Tang poet Du Mu (803-852). No wonder the Qianlong Emperor inscribed the title “Pausing at the Maple Forest” on the brush holder.
Qianlong also inscribed a poem on the rim of the brush holder. The first two lines underscore the reference to “Pausing at the Maple Forest” and allude to the opening lines of the famous poem “Qujiang” by the Tang poet Du Fu (712-770). But in a twist the poem’s sorrow over spring’s transient beauty turns into joy over autumn’s invigorating air, reminiscent of spring itself—a transformation truly worthy of admiration.
Early Qing Dynasty
Bamboo Brush Holder Carved with the “Red Cliff” Motif by Su Dongpuo
In 1082, Song writer Su Shi (1037-1011) composed two timeless masterpieces, The First Ode to the Red Cliffs and The Second Ode to the Red Cliffs, which had a profound impact on later scholars and which supplied the theme of this brush holder. Although it is difficult to determine which Red Cliffs prose poem is more closely, but leaving room for the viewer’s imagination, much like the poetry of the literati.
To create a sense of depth on the flat surface, a large blank space has been carved into the front of the brush holder. Su Shi and his two friends are depicted in the lower part of the scene, sailing through the interconnecting cliffs. The serpentine branches extending from the top of the cliff and the small moon at the treetop bring the scene to life.
The back of the brush holder is unadorned, connecting with the large blank space on the front to create an endless, intertwining space where water and sky merge. This ingenious yet unpretentious scholarly rendering allows the three protagonists on the boat to enjoy what the First Ode describes as the exhilaration of “soaring with a single reed, lost in the vastness of the world”.
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Jadeite Cabbage
The Jadeite Cabbage, one of the most beloved artifacts at the National Palace Museum, is in fact made from a material that was itself far from perfect. The ingenuity of its creator transformed the jadeite’s naturally green parts into leaves and the mottled white parts into stalks, while the stone’s cracks and blemishes give the cabbage its unique texture. The lifelike locust and katydid carved at the leaf tips create a sense of vitality, almost as if one can hear them buzz. This piece is an exquisite example of exceptional craftsmanship, displaying the artisan’s skill in transforming flaws into true beauty.
The legendary Jadeite Cabbage is believed to have been a part of the dowry of Emperor Guangxu’s consort, Lady Jin, and was originally displayed in her residence, the Yonghe Palace. The whiteness of the cabbage is thought to represent the bride’s chastity, while the locust and katydid at the leaf tips symbolize fertility.
In the Forbidden City, the Jadeite Cabbage was displayed upright in an enamel basin as part of a bonsai landscape. Later, it was displayed in a tilted position. How do you find the different visual aesthetics?