A Lesson from an Art Literati
It was a chilly late autumn day in Beijing when I met Xirong Liu for the second time, after our brief encounter in London. Just as I remembered, he paraded with a lofty proud gait and exuded a scholarly aura. It was nearly impossible to postulate that he is over sixty years of age. We first met through work. I was impressed by his knowledge in Chinese art history, especially on one occasion when he put the House Manager of a famous English country house in shame –the House held a small but impressive collection of Imperial Chinese porcelain, many of which were gifted by the Dutch royal family. Liu patiently explained the history of each object and suggested methods of curating and preserving -few appeared to have deteriorating conditions- the artefacts. At the end of the House visit, Liu gifted ink paintings, painted by him, to the English hosts. After our short but impressive encounter in London, Liu invited me to his studio in Beijing and we had a five-hour-long conversation about art, collecting and cultural heritage.
I arrived at Liu’s studio after an exhibition opening. With books bursting out from shelves, ink paintings hung in every corner and relics sporadically laying on tables, it looked as if I walked into a room of some ancient Chinese literati, though the modern flooring and concrete white-washed walls brought me back to reality. Liu sat me down on his sofa bed which resembled the ones placed in an emperor’s chamber. He then made tea for us on a tiny stove with imperial engravings -it was a Han dynasty artefact. After a sip of the hot Chinese tea, I was more than ready to hear about his stories.
Almost every precious item in Liu’s studio is frequently used, and in turn, he gives each object a new life and purpose. By immersing in a literati lifestyle, Liu and his artefacts have an intimate relationship. They teach him about their eras, characteristics and stories, which deepen Liu’s understanding of a certain dynasty culture. The fascinating yet more intimate relationship I have discovered is that Liu often leaves his remarks on the artefacts. Whether carving an ancient Chinese poem on a precious wood he won at an auction, or adding calligraphic inscriptions onto a recently collected painting, Liu communicates with his collection in an uncommonly way. It reminds me of a story of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In Rauschenberg’s notorious series of erasing de Kooning’s paintings, the works are not complete without Johns’ inscriptions onto Rauschenberg’s erased works. The creativity of the artist couple and Liu derives from a passion for preserving ideas and beauty. In doing so, it also reveals their intimate relationships with their subjects.
For me, Xirong Liu is no different from Rauschenberg or Imperial literati. He acts as a witness and restorer of our time. Liu mentioned that art and culture require intensive research and scholarly documentation to be preserved for future generations.
About Xirong Liu Among his many names, Xirong Liu is known as one of the last Shidafu or literati- a title often associated with scholar-bureaucrats of imperial China. Liu earned the recognition through intensive research, catalogue publications and lecturing experience on a particular Imperial Chinese artefact, known as the Xuande furnace. As a pious patron of Chinese art history and cultural heritage, Liu started collecting stamps at the age of fourteen when he surrounded himself with rare pictorial history. Graduated with a degree in Chinese Language, followed by diverse work experience in the fields of mechanics, finance and politics. Liu is one of the humblest men I have ever met. He disregards any title and refers himself as an ordinary Chinaman who is interested in collecting.
Liu now owns the largest collection of Xuande Furnace. Liu believes that the Xuande furnace signifies a renaissance of China’s copper culture, especially its correlation with the industrial civilisation- starting from porcelain techniques since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is named after Emperor Xuande of the Ming Dynasty, who was crafty at making copper stoves –a story interested the young Liu. The now-scarce object was once commonly used as incense appliance in the chambers of emperors and empresses during Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1912) and in temples for god worshipping, the history of Xuande furnaces can be traced back to Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) with the emergence of foundry techniques in ancient China. Besides his collection of Xuande Furnance, Liu’s collection of artefacts spans from as early as Han Dynasty. He is a publisher of books and scholarly papers on Chinese art history and ancient etiquette. Liu is also a frequent lecturer to prestigious Chinese universities and advisor to museums and auction houses.