- James Lin
Born in Tainan County in Taiwan, James Lin first took an interest in Chinese art when he was still a child. Close to his cousins, he spent weekends at his aunt and uncle’s house, and it was there, in the beautiful countryside of South Taiwan, that he first discovered a Chinese landscape painting. Himself a talented artist, Lin studied Chinese calligraphy at school and Chinese painting at National Tainan Teachers Training College, where he won several prizes. He then went on to study History of Art at Chinese Culture University in Taipei and subsequently won a scholarship to the University of Oxford, where he completed a PhD on Chinese jade suits in 2002. A Research Assistant and then Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford from 2000 to 2004, Lin also assisted the British Museum to set up the Selwyn and Ellie Alleyne Gallery of Chinese Jade in 2002. Appointed Assistant Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum in September 2004, it was during his first weeks in Cambridge that he made a major discovery.
‘I had just started to catalogue the jade collection when an ancient nephrite disc caught my attention. Presumably from a high ranking individual’s tomb, it dated to circa the 2nd century BC. I was measuring the size of the disc, appreciating its greyish green colour and examining its exquisite carving, when I noticed an almost invisible inscription on the translucent edge of the disc. I became excited and when I carefully looked again, I realized that it was a poem. I copied it down and saw that it was by the Qianlong emperor (, 1711-1799). It was incised in jin wen style (the style usually found on ancient bronzes), followed by two small seals, which could be read as gu xiang ( - antique sense) and tai pu ( - extremely primitive). There was also a date: , ji chou, which translates as 1769. With this important clue I went to the library to check Qing Gaozong Yuzhishi (), the Complete Set of Poems by the Qing Emperor Gaozong (Gaozong being the reign title of Qianlong), and soon found what I was looking for:
Having read this poem, I was sure that the ancient nephrite disc had been inscribed by the Qianlong emperor. I had seen similar discs in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and knew that what I had in my hand was from the imperial collection, but how did it get to Cambridge?
Bequeathed by Oscar Raphael in 1941, the disc entered the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1946. The museum records do not hold much further information, but an indication that it was bought from Bluett & Sons in London in 1930. This dealer, in turn, is known to have bought from the Tonying / Tongyun Company, which Zhang Renjie () / Zhang Jingjiang () established in Paris in 1902. An adviser to Sun Baoqi (), the Qing government’s ambassador to France, and later a patron of both Sun Yat-se () and Chiang Kai-shek (), Zhang enjoyed an elevated status in China and was able to source high quality works of art directly from the imperial collection. Indeed, in 1933, following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, it was Zhang who oversaw the evacuation of the imperial collection from Beijing to Shanghai. While I have no direct proof that the disc in the Fitzwilliam Museum was traded through the Tonying / Tongyun Company, it probably is a good guess.
Buried in China in circa the 2nd century BC to provide protection in the afterlife, then displaced during the political turmoil of the 20th century, the ancient nephrite disc has travelled a long way. It rather miraculously has survived the whole of China’s imperial history, stretching from the unification of China in 221 BC to the collapse of the Chinese Empire and its replacement by Republic of China in 1911. Looking at the disc again, I see it as a version of Chinese history in miniature.’
Lin lectures and publishes on Chinese jades and painting. He is currently preparing a catalogue of the jade collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum, due for publication in 2009, when the above disc and other jades in the collection will be shown in an exhibition.
James Lin lives in Cambridge.
C. Clunas, Art in China, Oxford University Press, 1997
P. Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge University Press, 1999
J. Rawson, The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, Thames & Hudson, 1996
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