Gu Kaizhi (around 346–407), Nymph of the Luo River (Northern Song copy), detail, Northern Song dynasty, 11th or 12th century. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk© The Palace Museum

HONG KONG.- As the Hong Kong Palace Museum enters its second month after its grand opening, the Museum is presenting the second rotation of the special exhibition “The Making of Masterpieces: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Palace Museum” in Gallery 8. Visitors to this exhibition have the rare opportunity to view fifteen precious early art treasures, including the highly anticipated masterpiece Nymph of the Luo River attributed to the Eastern Jin dynasty painter Gu Kaizhi (346–407), a towering figure in the history of Chinese painting. Another iconic work on display is the Copy of the Orchid Pavilion Preface in Running Script attributed to the famed Tang dynasty calligrapher Yu Shinan (558–638).

The fifteen masterpieces featured are all grade-one national treasures, some of which are over 1,000 years of age. In the Palace Museum’s collection of over 1.86 million works, they stand out as crown jewels. In order to protect these time-honoured and fragile treasures, they will be displayed at the HKPM for the duration of one month until 4 September, after which they will be returned to the Palace Museum and placed in storage for at least three years before they can be put on public view again.

Jointly organised by the HKPM and the Palace Museum, “The Making of Masterpieces: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Palace Museum” is one of the HKPM's opening special exhibitions. Thirty-five paintings and calligraphic works from the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties were carefully selected from the Palace Museum’s prestigious collection to explore how these works came to be “masterpieces” from the perspectives of art, culture, history and more. The exhibition comprises three rotations, each lasting some thirty days. The fifteen works on view from 3 August are all works by renowned artists or copies of important early works in the history of Chinese painting and calligraphy. These national treasures not only reflect the outstanding achievements of early masters, but also tell important stories of how they were created, transmitted, and appreciated over centuries. Some of them were collected and treasured by emperors.

To celebrate this inaugural special exhibition, the HKPM announced its first Chinese language publication titled The Making of Masterpieces: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy from the Palace Museum 國之瑰寶——故宮博物院藏晉唐宋元書畫, which is now available for sale at the Museum’s pop-up store at LG floor. Jointly edited and published by the Palace Museum and the HKPM, and produced by the Palace Museum Press, the publication explores how the 35 paintings and calligraphy works have become such highly collectible masterpieces after thousands of years. Written by a team of leading experts from the HKPM, the Palace Museum, and around the world, this scholarly publication includes eight essays and thirty entries that delve into how these works became “masterpieces”. It also contains transcriptions of all inscriptions and seals on each work. The English language catalogue of this exhibition, jointly published by the HKPM and the Palace Museum, will be available soon.

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Gu Kaizhi (around 346–407), Nymph of the Luo River (Northern Song copy), Northern Song dynasty, 11th or 12th century. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk. © The Palace Museum

This painting is based on a classic poem by Cao Zhi, a prince who lived during the Three Kingdoms period. The poem tells the story of a romance between Cao and the nymph of the Luo River, and inspired many works of painting and calligraphy, including a painting possibly by Gu Kaizhi of the Six Dynasties period that served as a model for later artists.

This handscroll is believed to be a Northern Song copy of Gu’s painting. One of the oldest surviving illustrations of poem, this painting with a continuous composition depicts many scenes in the poem, from the moment Cao Zhi and the nymph meet until their parting. The rich colours, silky lines, and out-of-proportion figures perfectly reflect the artistic styles of the Six Dynasties period.

The painting became one of the Qianlong Emperor’s favourite works after it entered the Qing imperial collection in 1741 and was recorded in the Treasured Boxes of the Stone Moat, a catalogue of important works in the Qing imperial collection. The emperor composed a frontispiece and several colophons expressing his admiration for the work and ordered the court painter Ding Guanpeng to make a copy of it. He viewed the original as superior to other versions and had it stored in his Imperial Study. In 1922, the painting was removed from the Forbidden City by the last emperor, Puyi, who bestowed it upon his brother, Pujie. It was later purchased by the Changchun Antique Shop before it was ultimately returned to the Palace Museum.

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Attributed to Yu Shinan (558–638), Copy of the Orchid Pavilion Preface in Running Script, Tang dynasty, 7th century. Handscroll, ink on paper. © The Palace Museum

In 353 during the Eastern Jin dynasty, the calligrapher Wang Xizhi attended a gathering at the Orchid Pavilion and wrote a preface in running script to the poems composed at the event. In the Tang dynasty, Emperor Taizong acquired this calligraphy and recorded it in the Inventory of Wang Xizhi’s Calligraphy. It is alleged that the emperor took the original to his grave, but his decree to copy the work preserved it for future generations, and the Northern Song scholar Mi Fu later hailed it as “the best calligraphy under Heaven”.

Yu Shinan’s version is one of only a few surviving copies from the Tang period. The ink of the calligraphy has dulled with age and shows signs of mending, with occasionally hesitant execution. During the Ming dynasty, the connoisseur Dong Qichang attributed it to the Tang calligrapher Chu Suiliang, but later decided it could be the work of Yu Shinan—an attribution that was widely accepted by connoisseurs of the Qing dynasty.

Held in the court collections of the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties, the calligraphy passed through the hands of various private collectors in the Ming dynasty, when it was recorded via rubbings and documented in catalogues. After reentering the court collection in the Qing dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor recorded it in the Treasured Boxes of the Stone Moat, a catalogue of important works of painting and calligraphy in the Qing imperial collection. He also had it engraved on a stone pillar in the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Here it joined other versions of Orchid Pavilion calligraphy from the emperor’s collection, which were inscribed on seven other pillars.

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 Attributed to Zhao Boju (around 1120–1162), Autumn Colours over Rivers and Mountains, Southern Song dynasty, 12th century. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk© The Palace Museum

Although this landscape is unsigned, it was identified as a work of the Southern Song painter Zhao Boju by Zhu Biao, son of the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Zhao Boju was a distant member of the Song imperial family. His distinctive blue-and-green landscape paintings were influenced by the style of the renowned Tang dynasty painter Li Sixun and his son Li Zhaodao.

The mountains in this painting were first contoured with lines, then accented with “small axe cut” texture strokes to create depth, and finally finished with colours. Majestic and imposing, they are comparable to those of Northern Song painting, but with subtle colours that resemble the literati ink paintings and lyrical landscapes of the Southern Song period. These features were particularly admired by later connoisseurs such as Dong Qichang, who described Zhao’s paintings as having “exquisite workmanship with a scholar’s touch”.

Once in the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the painting bears the seal marks of the Qianlong, Jiaqing, and Xuantong emperors. In 1922, it was removed from the palace and brought to Changchun. After the liberation of Northeast China, it was housed at the Dongbei Museum (now the Liaoning Provincial Museum). It was transferred to the Palace Museum in 1959.

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Ma Yuan (active late 12th or early 13th century), Water, Southern Song dynasty, about 1222. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk © The Palace Museum

Ma Yuan, a native of Hezhong (present-day Yongji, Shanxi province), was born into a family of painters. He served at the Southern Song Painting Academy during the reigns of Emperor Guangzong and Emperor Ningzong and was deeply beloved by the imperial family. His landscape paintings have a distinctive one-corner composition, for which he received the nickname “One-Corner Ma”.

This handscroll brings together twelve waterscapes from different seasons, times, and locations, reflecting the Song imperial family’s fondness for works related to nature and the four seasons. Ma’s “one-corner” composition, together with concise brushwork and the intelligent use of blank space, skillfully depicts an expansive span of flowing water.

The handscroll was probably commissioned by Empress Yang, the wife of Emperor Ningzong, with each painting bearing her inscription and seal. It was collected by the Southern Song court, and later by the prominent Ming and Qing collectors Wang Shizhen, Geng Zhaozong, and Liang Qingbiao, before it entered the collection of the Qing court. In 1922, it was removed from the Forbidden City when the former Xuantong Emperor Puyi gave it to his brother, Pujie. Later collected by Zhu Guang, who became mayor of Guangzhou after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it was donated to the government by Zhu before returned to the Palace Museum in 1953.