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Exhibition showcases centuries-old Chinese culture

By Minlu Zhang in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-15 09:39

Two Mandarin ducks, a bouquet of narcissus and a few stalks of bamboo were represented in a birthday gift painting from ancient China hundreds of years ago.

In the Western world, narcissus is associated with self-obsession, whereas in ancient China it represented nobility because of its fragrant nature. Similarly, bamboo signifies celebration in Chinese culture. In the painting in question a gathering of gods and goddesses joyously celebrates longevity, making it a thoughtful birthday gift, said a guide at the China Institute in Manhattan.

This birthday gift is one of more than 100 individual pieces of masterworks by 59 artists in an exhibition at the China Institute Gallery, Flowers on a River: The Art of Chinese Flower-and-Bird Painting.

Spanning more than 500 years from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the exhibition unveils collections sourced from the Tianjin Museum in Tianjin and Changzhou Museum in Jiangsu province.

The China Institute held a special dinner on Thursday in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and a private tour of the exhibition, which is the first one in the new gallery of the institute.

"The China Institute is all about bringing understanding to Chinese culture," said Yue-sai Kan, co-chair of the institute. "The China Institute is one place that is really doing that really well, and we've been doing it for 97 years. That's really something that no one else can say."

Flower and bird painting is one of the three major genres of Chinese painting. In the exhibition catalog, Yao Yang, director of the Tianjin Museum, said it is "an important genre with distinctive Chinese aesthetic characteristics that have created a world of its own".

The Flowers on a River exhibition is the first major one in the US to systematically examine both the stylistic and cultural manifestations of this genre, the China Institute said.

Richness of art

The China Institute Gallery is the only art organization in the US that exclusively showcases the richness of China's 5,000 years of art on a regular basis, Willow Weilan Hai, exhibition lead curator, project director and senior vice-president of the China Institute, said in a preface to the exhibition catalog.

The paintings of the exhibition cover three subjects: "Precious Plums of the Palace: Academicism and Court Artists"; "Fragrant Plums in the Wild: Literati Art, Painters, and Painting Schools"; and "Vitality of Nature: Flower and Bird Painting and Social Customs".

The exhibition includes well-known Chinese painters such as Tang Yin, courtesy name Bohu, a Chinese painter, calligrapher and poet of the Ming Dynasty, and Wu Changshuo, a Chinese calligrapher, painter and seal artist of the late Qing Dynasty.

Through symbolism and imagery, these paintings reveal a unique view of nature, life and art, which combined with other forms of art such as poetry, calligraphy and seals create a powerful aesthetic effect characteristic of East Asia, Yao said.

"I therefore believe this exhibition will provide an opportunity for constructive dialogue between different cultures."

The China Institute, according to its website, was founded in 1926 by US educators John Dewey and Paul Monroe, and Chinese diplomats Hu Shi and Kuo Ping-wen. It is said to be the oldest bicultural, nonprofit organization in the US to focus exclusively on China.

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