From Depot to Museum: Recovering a Monumental Masterpiece from Qing Dynasty

The art historian and curator Ching-Ling Wang recently published a book on a very unique piece of art: Ding Guanpeng’s monumental “The Buddha Preaching” from the collections of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, SMB. In this conversation, Wang and his colleague Ning Yao reflect on the story of this masterpiece, on museum practices and provenance research.

Ning Yao and Ching-Ling Wang in conversation

Ning Yao: Ching-Ling, first of all, congratulations. You recently published your book Praying for Myriad Virtues: On Ding Guanpeng’s The Buddha Preaching in the Berlin Collection. It’s the third volume in the book series of the fellowship program “Connecting Art Histories in the Museum” (CAHIM), and the first extensive research on the Qing court painter Ding Guanpeng’s large-scaled painting The Buddha Preaching. Could you briefly tell us a little bit about the painting and its historical background?

Ching-Ling Wang: Praying for Myriad Virtues: On Ding Guanpeng’s The Buddha Preaching in the Berlin Collection. Dortmund: Verlag Kettler, 2017

Ching-Ling Wang: Thank you. My book is a monograph on a painting in the collection of the Berlin State Museums. The book talks about the painter, Ding Guanpeng, about the circumstances of the painting’s production, and thinks about how it ended up in Berlin. The painting itself is a Buddhist painting, depicting the Buddha preaching to his disciples and various gods. It was produced under imperial patronage by Emperor Qianlong to be placed in one of his temples in the Imperial West Garden in Beijing. He commissioned the painting in 1770 on the occasion of his 60th and his mother’s 80th birthday. Basically, the whole book tries to discuss every single aspect of this painting.

Yao: Could you tell us something about the functional context of the painting?

Wang:  The painting was placed at the central altar of the Wanshandian temple in the Imperial West Garden. It is a rather special temple, one could say, since it is the only Chan-Buddhist temple in the imperial city and it was the location, where the Qing court hosted the Buddhist Water Land Ritual Ceremony. This ceremony is about the transcending the dead into paradise.  Both the living and dead benefit from this ceremony, since it can mean salvation for the dead, but it is also a chance for the living to collect blessings. The painting therefore depicts a kind of paradise.

Yao: What sparked your interest in this painting?

Wang: Well first of all, its painter Ding Guanpeng happened to be one of the most important court painters in the Qing dynasty, and then of course there is the sensational size. The painting is huge! It is over ten meters wide and thus one of the largest paintings that has been produced in the 18th century in China. Lastly, the painting is located in Germany today. The follow-up question therefore should be: How did it come to Germany? And when?

Yao: Considering all this, why has there been no study on the painting yet? Would you say it’s understudied?

Wang: Yes, that’s a very interesting question. I think this might be related to the collecting history and the institutions involved. The painting entered the Berlin collections in 1902. Back at that time it was displayed in the Völkerkundemuseum. Due to World War I and II, the painting was taken down and placed for safekeeping in storage. It was in 1985 when the Beijing Palace Museum displayed parts of its collection for the first time ever overseas in West Berlin. There was a complementing exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau at that same time. It was called Europa und die Kaiser von China (Europe and the Emperors of China). In this exhibition The Buddha Preaching was displayed for the first time after the Second World War. In 1986 there was another exhibition where it was shown. And that was the last time the painting has been exhibited. I think the lack of research is linked to the circumstance that the painting has been in storage for the past 30 years and also that the painting entered the Berlin collections in the early 20th century as an ethnological object and not as a work of art. This is mirrored by the fact that the painting was placed in the collection of the Ethnological Museum and not of the Museum for Asian Art.

Yao: Will the painting be exhibited again in near future? And if so, where and how? How would you curate this painting?

Wang: Yes, there’s a plan to permanently exhibit the painting in the future Humboldt-Forum in a gallery designed by the renowned Chinese architect Wang Shu. The gallery will be dedicated to Chinese court art, and therefore places the painting in a certain narrative. Of course objects like this painting have many facets and could be read in different contexts. This painting, for example, is also a Buddhist painting and could be read in the context of religious art. And the painting‘s techniques show influences of oil painting techniques introduced by the European missionaries that served at court. Therefore, one can also put it into the context of East-West interaction – this is another aspect. Curators place objects in discourses for the museum visitors to read them in, and this is crucial. I think it’s important to keep in mind that there is a variety of stories an object can tell and not a single true narrative. In my opinion there are no bad objects, only bad curators.

Yao: And how did you come across this painting? Did you have any memorable archive moments?

Wang: Ok (laughs), let me tell you how I discovered this painting. It all started with my dissertation. I came to Berlin in 2008 for my PhD. Back at that time I was working on something completely different. One day I was reading an article. It was an exhibition report from the Chinese curator of the 1985 exhibition of the Beijing Palace Museum’s collection. When he came to Berlin he saw The Buddha Preaching in the parallel exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau and described it. Since Ding Guanpeng, the painter of this artwork, is one of the most important Qing court painters and since the piece is so remarkable in its dimensions, I was wondering how it was possible that I’ve never seen it in the museum nor have ever even heard of it. So I traced down the 1985 catalog and tried to figure out, how the painting looked like. Unfortunately there were only 3 or 4 detail images published, which made me really curious about finding out more. Basically, one can say, that’s where I started: from zero. Since the painting belongs to the imperial court context, my first idea was to search the archives of the imperial workshop. Luckily enough, I found the documents that helped me reconstructing its original context.

Art Histories and CAHIM Fellows at a presentation of The Buddha Preaching by Ching-Ling Wang at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. ©Luise Illigen/Art Histories

Yao: You first read about the painting in 2008. When did you actually see it for the first time?

Wang: I immediately ordered archival photos of the painting, but it took me three more years to actually see the painting. That was in January 2011. This might sound like a long time, but it was actually really difficult finding a space to unroll a painting of this size!

Yao: You said the painting entered the Berlin collection in 1902. Do you know how it travelled from China to Germany?

Wang: Yes, the provenance… This is actually an important chapter of the book. We only know that the painting was owned by the German emperor Wilhelm II in 1902. This is where the secured provenance ends. I therefore relate this painting to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, when the German troops camped very close to the temple that hosted the painting. With these historical circumstances in mind, I would label the painting as possibly looted during the Boxer Rebellion. The painting might have been presented to the German emperor as a kind of trophy.

Yao: Do you think the Peoples Republic of China might want it back once it is exhibited at the Humboldt-Forum?

Wang: Who knows? I think that there is no legal claim for restitution, since the painting was owned long before the exhibition of 1972 by the German emperor and then given to the Ethnological Museum. There is only the moral guilt. But honestly, since I am not involved in any of the institutions, I don’t really feel entitled to comment further on this.

Yao: You say it is likely that the painting was looted, but that there is no actual proof of it. How did it “appear” in 1902?

Wang: Well yes, that loot during the Boxer Rebellion was a big mess. Not only the foreign troops looted the imperial collections, but also the Chinese people. How the stolen objects then circulated is another question. I try to present my research with clarity as far as possible, but all research has its limits. There is no archival material or solid evidence that this is actually the story of the painting’s travel from China to Germany. Therefore I can only suggest what I believe most likely. But for now, we cannot know for sure. The chapter’s title thus has a question mark.

Yao: Will your research be visible to the future Humboldt-Forum visitors? Do you think these aspects you uncovered will play a part in the display, in the object’s exhibition text or in the museum pedagogics?

Wang: The painting will be placed in the exhibition hall within a curatorial concept. Therefore, there is a specific focus and discourse highlighted. I think as long as provenance information is easily accessible, it doesn’t necessarily need to make demands in the exhibition concept. But making this information transparent is a museum’s duty, I think. It is important to contextualize an object in the exhibition, but at the same time not all the aspects I am studying in the book can possibly be addressed in one museum display. I hope the curious museum visitors can benefit from my book in that respect.

Yao: So, is the duty of the museum to provide transparency then fulfilled with your book?

Wang: (Laughs) Well, I wouldn’t say the job is done. It merely just started. This is just a first step in the study of this painting, I think.

Yao: As curator for Chinese Art at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, can you tell us something about restitution politics in the institutional framework?

Wang: The Rijksmuseum has a rather strict policy regarding the provenance of objects that enter the collection. In short, we don’t purchase nor accept the donation of objects that have no clear provenance before 1972. For every acquisition or donation the provenance is thoroughly investigated beforehand. Currently we initiated a working-group among the curators investigating the objects’ provenances in the colonial contexts. This is developing right now. During my employment at the Berlin State Museums, I also did some provenance research on the Portraits of Meritorious Officials and related works from the Qianlong reign that are – and used to be – in the Berlin collection. I had planned to do more, but the time of my service in Berlin came to an end. Provenance research, I think, is one of the fundamental aspects of the understanding of an object in a museum collection.

Yao: Praying for a Myriad Virtues was published within the series of the Berlin-based research and fellowship program “Connecting Art Histories in the Museum” (CAHIM). Since you were a fellow of this program that bridges academic and museum research with curatorship, could you tell us something about your experiences within this framework?

Wang: It was a great experience for me. During my fellowship, thanks to CAHIM and the museum, I was able to curate several exhibitions on Chinese painting and calligraphy. The fellowship was a door opener for me, introducing me into the museum world. I had the opportunity to present the results of my research on the Berlin collections in exhibition format. This was very important for me. I owe this fellowship a great deal and think that without this fellowship I would not have gotten my position as curator for Chinese Art at the Rijksmuseum in the first place, and then later the position as curator for Premodern Chinese Art at the Berlin Asian Art Museum. Although I didn’t stay as long in Berlin as I would have liked to and returned to Amsterdam, the Berlin experience and the fellowship taught me many lessons, both in museum practices and life. It really changed the way I look at things.

Yao: Your academic career is very remarkable, Ching-Ling. Let me sum it up quickly. At Taiwan University you were student of Prof. Shih Shou-chien and Fu Shen, two very important Chinese art historians. Then you finished your PhD at Free University in Berlin, you were a fellow of “Connecting Art Histories in the Museum” in Berlin, you were the Curator of Chinese Art at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and later the Curator of Pre-modern Chinese Art at the Museum for Asian Art in Berlin – while also in charge of the Chinese collection of the Ethnological Museum. Since July 2016 you are back at the Rijksmuseum. You have been attending in various high-qualified international conferences on East Asian art history in Europe, the U.S., China, and Taiwan since many years. Can you tell us about your impressions on the development of Chinese art history in different regions? How do Chinese art historians in Taiwan deal with issues such as Eurocentric and colonial art history? In mainland-China, for instance, my impression is that there is little problematizing. Many scholars still focus on art historians like Heinrich Wölfflin, Ernst Gombrich or Giorgio Vasari, these classical figures in the West.

Wang: I don’t think I can speak for all the Chinese art historians in Taiwan. In the field of Taiwanese art history, colonial art history is, of course, a very important topic, due to Taiwan’s colonial history. Your question is not easy to answer, the whole field of art history is Eurocentric, the methodology is developed from the context of European art history. Maybe all East Asian art historians share this anxiety about Eurocentrism. But on the other hand you can say too, that the art historical field in China can also be very sino-centric. There are many voices in the field anyways, and in my opinion all these different voices make the field alive and more interesting. I don’t think that Wölfflin or Vasari are completely valueless for us. After all, the whole field of art history is built on these foundations. Art history as a discipline was introduced to China only decades ago; it still needs time to digest.

Yao: Your book is published in English. Do you think it will be read in China or Taiwan?

Wang: Well, I wrote this book in English for practical reasons, so that most of the people can understand. And of course the painting will be shown in Berlin, the Western world so to speak. But it is true that the discourses in East Asian art do not always meet. Not all scholars of Chinese art in the Western world read Chinese papers, and vice versa. I think a Chinese version might be a good idea for that reason.

Yao: And would you let someone translate it or…

Wang: I would write it myself of course!

Yao: This is why I’ve heard you don’t sleep. (Both laugh) Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your book, Ching-Ling.

Conversation edited by Lucy Jarman and Moritz Buchner.

Ching-Ling Wang is curator of Chinese art at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. He previously worked as curator of pre-modern Chinese art at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, also being in charge of the Chinese collection of the Ethnologisches Museum, both Staatliche Museen zu Berlin ‒ Preußischer Kulturbesitz. From 2012 to 2013 he was research fellow of Connecting Art Histories in the Museum, a joint research and fellowship program of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. His research interests focus mainly on Chinese literati painting, Ming and Qing court art and questions concerning visual, material, cultural and artistic exchanges between China and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Ning Yao obtained her doctorate in East Asian Art History from Heidelberg University in 2013. She has been a postdoctoral research fellow in the Connecting Art Histories in the Museum fellowship program since 2016, where she worked together with Prof. Dr. Klaas Ruitenbeek on the 2017 “Faces of China” exhibition at the Berlin Kulturforum. Prior to joining the program, she was a postdoctoral researcher and taught Chinese art history at Erlangen-Nüremberg University. Later on she continued teaching at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Ning’s research interests focus on portrait painting in Late imperial China and incense burners in China and Korea from the 17th to the early 20th century. She is a recipient of several awards, which include the Heinz-Götze scholarship for Chinese Art History in 2011, and the “Graduate Student Best Paper Prize” from the Association for Asian Studies in 2012.


Citation: “From Depot to Museum: Recovering a Monumental Masterpiece from Qing Dynasty – Ning Yao in conversation with Ching-Ling Wang”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10465.


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