Skip to main content

Past exhibition

Permanent Exhibition
Our Beloved Treasures: The Artistry of Ancient Trees
Have you ever been in an art boutique and stumbled upon an eccentric, whimsically shaped artifact? Or maybe in a museum or gallery, you’ve marveled at paintings where characters, trees, and landscapes all distort and shape-shift, unfolding a captivating imaginary world? How do such unique creative perspectives come to be, and where do they start? How can we approach and appreciate such works?
In the mid-Ming dynasty, the evolution of Chinese landscape painting took an intriguing turn towards distortion and abstract representation. This exhibition features two paintings that represent this transformation, initially encapsulating fresh insights within traditional paradigms, before leading to a revolutionary shift in form. You will see the meticulous observation and gradual abstraction of trees by Ming artists, lending the artworks an enchanting blend of familiarity and innovative charm.
The artifacts featured here illustrate how artists cleverly utilized natural materials, honoring their original shapes and textures, while integrating the artists’ own distinct aesthetics and imagination. The results are exceptional and unique masterpieces. Some artists blazed new trails, employing precise and advanced techniques to conjure up intricate pieces that inspired admiration and wonder, harmonizing the fantastical with the artfully brilliant.
With this exhibition, we invite you to embark on a journey from tangible observation to metaphysical interpretation. Enjoy the myriad interpretations of nature fused with creativity and immerse yourself in the enchanting universe of ancient artists’ imaginations.
Exhibition Information
  • Event Date Permanent Exhibition
  • Location 3F S302
Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Ancient Trees and a Cold Waterfall, Wen Zhengming
Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), born Wen Bi, was widely known by his courtesy name, Zhengming. Renowned as a master of poetry, prose, calligraphy, and painting, Wen was hailed as one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming dynasty.
This painting depicts the gnarled and twisted trunk of an old cypress tree, its branches bursting out in every direction. In contrast, the pine tree’s main trunk extends skywards, as if straining for the clouds. The massive cliff that towers in the background takes up almost the entire canvas, leaving little blank space. Yet, in the midst of this complexity, a waterfall plunges from a height, introducing an unexpected space of serenity.
Painted in 1549 when Wen was eighty years old, this artwork features bold and daring brushstrokes that are testament to Wen’s consummate skill and is one of his most masterful creations.
Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Immortal Under a Tall Pine Tree, Chen Hongshou
Chen Hongshou (1598–1652) was a talented and prolific artist who created an array of literary illustrations. His contributions mark him as a key figure among the Transformist (bianxing zhuyi) painters during the late Ming dynasty.
This particular artwork bursts with vibrant, deeply saturated colors, brought to life by the artist’s steady hand and robust brushstrokes. The composition veers into the realm of the fantastical with its distinctive characters with unusual, even bizarre, faces. Even the depiction of trees and rocks follows an antiquated yet playful pattern, lending a charming, decorative allure to the piece.
On the basis of the inscription, it seems likely that the figure in the purple robe could be Chen Hongshou himself, who signed this work as “Lian Zi”. Thus, this scroll may have served as an implicit self-portrait, which enhances its value and makes it a particularly prized jewel amidst Chen’s rich artistic legacy.
Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Burl Wood Brush Holder in the Shape of Ganoderma Fungus, Collected by Qian Qianyi
This brush holder, ingeniously fashioned from a naturally occurring burl, features a central main branch with an offshoot on the side. To balance the body, three small roots at the base have been preserved. The bark of the main branch is beautifully craggy with a profusion of burls, its end whimsically coiled, much like a rolled-up cloud. In contrast, the side branch boasts a smooth, polished bark, culminating in an oval formation reminiscent of a reishi mushroom. The overall aesthetic is commanding, a testimony to the aging trunk’s resilience, wrapped in a captivatingly peculiar form.
The base is etched in an elegant clerical script with the words “Treasure of the Jiangyun Pavilion” and is further adorned with a vermilion seal script reading Muzhai (Hermitage of the Shepherd). The Jiangyun Pavilion was the personal library of Qian Qianyi (1582–1664), a scholar-official of the Wanli era during the Ming dynasty, and his wife Liu Rushi (1618–1664), a famed courtesan and woman of letters from the Jiangnan area. This intriguing burl wood brush holder once took pride of place in their esteemed collection.
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Burl Wood Brush Washer in the shape of a shell, Rong Chao
This brush washer, ingeniously carved from a piece of burl wood, has a form that is reminiscent of a snail. It has a hollow interior, a spout, and a handle, and stands upon three pronounced feet at its base. The wood grain whirls like eddying water, each individual swirl adding to the mesmerizing pattern. Meticulously polished, the bark exudes a warm and lustrous glow. The design embodies a blend of natural charm and whimsical ingenuity.
Etched into the side is a poignant inscription in regular script by the carver Rong Chao. The verse encapsulates the idea that, just like a horse shedding its coat or a cicada discarding its shell, a snail’s transformation is part of its natural growth, requiring only careful attention to sunlight, water temperature, and the sweet water of spring for the snail’s shell to prosper. Rong Chao remains an enigmatic figure, with little known about his life. 
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Lapis lazuli miniature mountain featuring the symbols of longevity, pine trees and deer
Meticulously carved from lapis lazuli, this sculpture shows a scene of aged pines in the foreground, stalwart and rugged, with three bearded elders each holding a talisman and ascending a winding stone stairway. The path extends into a mountain crevice and over the ridge. On a plateau amongst the ancient pines of the farther mountain, a deer turns its head as if to welcome an approaching crane. The pine branches symbolize longevity, thus completing a picture that harmoniously combines the three auspicious elements of crane, deer, and pine, alluding to the homophonic blessings of prosperity, wealth, and longevity.
These symbolic representations suggest that the three venerable elders represent the Three Star Lords of Blessing, Prosperity, and Longevity, who are making their way towards a palace and bearing good wishes. Enriched by the intricate details of overlapping mountain peaks and a few old pine branches, this piece radiates a profound abundance of blessings.
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Wood Root Immortal Mountain with Jade Shakyamuni Buddha
In this striking piece, a decaying tree root has been masterfully transformed into a captivating rocky cavern miniature. Meticulously stripped and shaped, it showcases an undulating terrain with caves and plateaus, contrasted by a precipitously rising reverse side, and constitutes an extraordinary, otherworldly creation that transcends the realm of the everyday.
Within this grotto a jade figure of Shakyamuni Buddha stands in serene contemplation. His distinctive top-knot signifying his spiritual wisdom, the whorls of hair, long ears, broad forehead, and a face of tranquil composure, as well as his sweeping kasaya robe that reaches down to his ankles, are all features characteristic of Buddha depictions from the late Ming to the early Qing periods.
In 1924, the Republican government established the Committee for the Disposition of the Qing Imperial Possessions. Over a period of roughly six years, this committee catalogued the remaining artifacts in the Qing palace, and during this extensive process, they named this particular piece “The Immortal Mountain”.
Qing dynasty, 18th century
Burls sculpture of Laozi riding a water buffalo
Featuring the legendary Laozi atop an ox, this piece skillfully brings the scene to life from a single contorted piece of tree root. The artist has embraced the innate contours and imperfections of the wood, making minimal adjustments to create a figure of incredible character and charm, a fine tribute to the beauty that lies within the flawed and the unconventional. The figure of Laozi, with his long beard, domed forehead, and elongated ears, exudes an air of serene wisdom. Clad in a loose robe and holding a ruyi scepter, he sits comfortably astride the ox, which stands alert, horns up, ears pricked, as if poised to step forward. The scene unfolds with a rustic elegance and tranquility.
Laozi, who lived between 571 and 471 BCE, was a visionary philosopher and a significant voice of ancient wisdom, best known for his seminal work the Tao Te Ching, which contains over 5,000 words. Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, written during the Western Han dynasty around 90 BCE, tells us that Laozi served in the Zhou dynasty’s royal court, where he was entrusted with the preservation of historical documents and books. Laozi is said to have left his post and ridden an ox into the western wilderness to find seclusion, his whereabouts thereafter shrouded in mystery. Over time, reverence for Laozi grew and he was eventually deified, imagined as an immortal sage and celebrated as a key Taoist patriarch.