LI HUANG WAI
Founder, Zhiguan Museum
Translated by Guoying Stacy Zhang
FOUNDED IN 2016, the Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art is located at 12 Jinyu Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing. The site was where the famed Xianliang Monastery (Monastery of the Worthy and the Virtuous) was historically situated and affords a view of the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace. Having a long-standing connection with Buddhism, this place also had a thriving cultural scene where many luminaries and dignitaries met.
The original architectural compound was constructed at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), it served as the mansion of Yunxiang (168–-1730), the thirteenth son of the Kangxi emperor. After the conclusion of the lengthy Kangxi reign, when the Yongzheng emperor ascended the throne in 1722, he bestowed on Yunxiang the title “Prince Yi” and named his mansion “Residence of Prince Yi”. When Yunxiang passed away, the Yongzheng emperor converted his residence into a monastery in accordance with his will and named it “Xianliang” (the Worthy and the Virtuous). In an imperially commissioned stele for the Xianliang Monastery, Yongzheng praised Yunxiang’s “achievements in the prosperity of the state and beneficence in the welfare of the people”, and he was “indeed Shengzu’s very filial son, and my beloved younger brother and loyal minister”.
Following the Huayan Buddhist school, Xianliang Monastery attracted many practitioners and pilgrims. Until the Republic of China (1912–1949), it still preserved fine wall paintings of luohans. Owing to its proximity to the imperial palace, the monastery also provided temporary accommodation for regional governors when they travelled to Beijing to pay homage to the emperor. Several high-ranking officials in the late Qing dynasty stayed at Xianliang Monastery, including Zeng Guofan, Zhang Zhidong, Zuo Zongtang, Li Hongzhang, Yuan Shikai and Kang Youwei. Among them, Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) resided there for almost forty years. According to Wangfa Wenxin Mulu, the correspondence archives between the Japanese Legation and the Qing Board of Ministers for Foreign Affairs, 1874–1899, Xianliang Monastery functioned as a State guesthouse for foreign envoys. Today, only part of the eastern side of Xianliang Monastery has survived the vicissitudes of the last century. The site was revitalised in 2010 and converted into the Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art, occupying an area of 4000 square metres.
About fifteen years ago, I started collecting ancient art with a focus on Chinese imperial jades. My interest in Buddhism began in 2000, kindled by a trip to Tibet. In 2015, I came across a statue of Vajrabhairava at an auction in Europe. Without knowing its date or function, I was immediately fascinated by the imposing presence and unique sense of beauty. That was the first piece of Tibetan art that I collected, and since then, I have never turned back. Over the years, I have reflected on my enthusiasm and commitment in collecting Buddhist art. To me, Buddhist art is the most precious tangible remains of the emotional and spiritual connection between humans and divinity; it is an art from heaven to comfort the heart of us mortals on earth. As a Buddhist master once said, what these Buddhist statues represent is Buddha-nature, that is clarity and tranquility of complete enlightenment, free from all defilements of the mundane world.
The collecting history of Buddhist art in China only dates back about twenty years, which is a relatively short period. There are cultural and historical reasons for this. Buddhist statues had long been regarded as the focus of worship in China, and were rarely appreciated from the perspective of sculptural art. Moreover, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), many Buddhist sites and arts were unfortunately destroyed. I have never formally studied aesthetics. My ongoing education is acquired through the process of collecting Buddhist art and visiting great museums around the world. Among all the art forms, I think Buddhist art is the art of perfection because of its beauty and sacredness. The more time one dedicates to Buddhist art, the more joy one can find, which keeps one motivated to study tirelessly for a lifetime. While many Chinese collectors regard Ming and Qing imperial statues as the epitome of Buddhist art, I personally appreciate early Tibetan and Himalayan art, which excel in both artistry and religiosity. Those sublime Buddhist images are the most pure and sincere expression of devotion. Each statue contains boundless cultural information in form and spirit for us to explore.
Since its inception, the Zhiguan Museum was established as a professional institution specialising in the collection and research of Himalayan art. The museum is further dedicated to promoting Tibetan and Himalayan art and culture, and to strengthening the community of museums, private collections and educational institutions in the field. We are willing to provide a bridge for communication and exchange between international museums and scholars of Himalayan art. With this mission, our goal is continuously and methodically to add the finest Himalayan art to the existing collection, and to build a museum collection that is of a modest size, yet of exceptional quality. In terms of sculptures, the current collection includes examples from Gandhara, northern India, Swat, Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet and fine exemplars made in the Imperial Workshops in Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The painting collection covers excellent examples of various styles and materials. Meanwhile, we regularly organise exhibitions and scholarly exchange, promoting the understanding and appreciation of Buddhist art, and presenting the unwavering vitality of history and culture passed clown by craftsmen from the ancient past.
The Palace Museum is housed in the Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing emperors. It is not only a palace of traditional Chinese cultural treasures, but also a venue to present accomplishments of the world’s diverse cultures. In October 2018, the Zhiguan Museum was honoured to collaborate with the Palace Museum on the exhibition, “The Light of Buddha”, which assembled 112 examples and sets of Buddhist sculpture dating from the 4th to the 15th century. The exhibition illuminated the origin and development of Tibetan art, by tracing the two routes of transmission and transformation: one from northwestern India to western Tibet, and the other from northeastern India and Nepal to central Tibet.
Curated by Professor Luo Wenhua, with great support from the Palace Museum, this groundbreaking exhibition attracted almost one million visitors in two months. Leading experts on Himalayan art flew to Beijing, joined by scholars, artists and collectors from across China. Thanks to the strong economy, Chinese collectors have been able to engage actively in the art market, especially in the categories of Chinese ceramics and works of art, modern painting and calligraphy, and contemporary art. As a collector of early Buddhist art, I always wanted to make a contribution, not just in collecting circles, but to society at large. I sincerely hoped that through this exhibition, more people could see the development of art collecting in China, the importance of Buddhist art to the public, and the support of the Chinese government. When I saw visitors venerate, or even prostrate in front of, the statues in the exhibition, I was even more convinced of the spiritual power of Buddhist art.
In March 2019, the exhibition, “Treasures from the Zhiguan Museum”, took place at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition presented seven objects from the Zhiguan Museum collection, which are highlights from north-eastern India, Kashmir, Tibet and the Chinese Imperial Workshops dating from the the 11th to the 18th century. The Rubin Museum of Art is a world-class museum dedicated to the collection, display and study of the art of the Himalayan regions. Opened in 2004, the pre-eminent collection includes over 3800 objects spanning more than 1500 years to the present day. We were very privileged to be the first Chinese private museum that the Rubin Museum of Art invited for collaboration.
In July 2019, “Cultural Exchange Along the Silk Road: Masterpieces of the Tubo Period (7th–9th Century)” opened in Dunhuang, Gansu province. As the world’s first major exhibition on Tubo (the Tibetan Empire), it brought together 140 artefacts from thirty-one international museums and cultural institutions. The exhibition was very significant for the study of Silk Road civilisations, and the history, culture and arts of Tubo and Central Asia. At the invitation of the organiser, the Dunhuang Academy and the Pritzker Art Collaborative, the Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art was honoured to participate in the “Development of Buddhism in Tubo” section.
On November 12th, 2019, the Zhiguan Museum donated to the Tashilhunpo Monastery a gilt-copper statue of the Fourth Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen dating to the 17th century. With an inscription in Tibetan, “this portrait was consecrated by the venerable and omniscient Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen Pelzangpo himself’, it is the earliest known statue from the Tashilhunpo Monastery, which has been the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama lineage. Present at the donation ceremony were Sitar, deputy director of the Central Committee Co-ordinating Small Group for Tibet Affairs, Panchen Erdeni Chökyi Gyalpo, vice president of the Buddhist Association of China and president of the Buddhist Association of Tibet, experts from the Palace Museum, and representatives of the Tashilhunpo Monastery and the Zhiguan Museum.
We also organise academic lectures and salons for cultural exchange, covering a wide range of topics related to Himalayan art. In conjunction with the “The Light of Buddha” exhibition, a forum took place where Dr Christian Luczanits, Senior Lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at SOAS University of London, Dr Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, and Wang Yuegong, Deputy Director of the Palace Museum, gave three interesting talks. In another lecture, titled “Oḍḍiyāna: The Hidden Valleys of Buddhist Treasures in Swat”, Miangul Adnan Aurangzeb, prince of Swat, Professor Luca Maria Olivieri, Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, Dr Badshah Sardar, an archaeologist from Pakistan, and Professor Li Xiguang, Director of Tsinghua Centre for Pakistan Cultural and Communication Studies, introduced the latest archaeological discoveries in Swat and new understandings of its history, unveiling to the audience this mysterious and sacred Buddhist site.
Furthermore, publications are an important part of our work, as a means to introduce systematically Tibetan and Himalayan art to a wider audience. The exhibition catalogue, The Light of Buddha (co-edited by the Palace Museum and the Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art, Palace Museum Publishing House, 2018), contains two insightful papers: “From the Indian Subcontinent to the Himalayas: The Origins of Tibetan Buddhist Art” by Professor Luo WenIma and “Tracing the Development of Early Himalayan Sculpture” by Amy Heller. The museum catalogue, Zhiguan (edited by Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art, Wenwu Press, 2019), includes more contributions from renowned scholars, such as Professor Xie Jisheng, Dr Xiong Wenbin and Dr Zhang Changhong in China, and from the international scholars, Professor Michael Henss, Dr Jane Casey and Dr David Pritzker. We also have an online platform that provides regular news updates about the museum and international events. Through these efforts, we hope more people will be inspired to study, love and advance art.
Finally, I would like to thank Robin Markbreiter, publisher and editor of Arts of Asia for producing this special issue. I also wish to thank Luo Wenhua, Claudine BautzePicron, Ian Alsop, Karl Debreczeny, Joseph Houseal and Elena Pakhoutova for their contributions. On this occasion, I would also like to express my deep gratitude to all the friends and colleagues, who have helped, supported and cared for the Zhiguan Museum of Fine Art since its inception. We look forward to the display, sharing and exchange of our collections with more museums around the world.