‘Japan has a really long history of collecting Chinese painting,’ explains Chinese paintings specialist Sophia Zhou, introducing a group of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Chokaido Museum in Yokkaichi, Mie, about 100 km east of Kyoto in Japan.
The roots of Japan’s visual culture stretch back to China — during the 5th century A.D. Japan inherited China’s system of writing, then in the 6th century Chinese Buddhism and its art reached Japan’s shores.
Over the centuries the influence of Chinese art slowly waned in Japan, but collecting Chinese paintings and calligraphy remained popular, particularly between the 12th and 14th centuries, and then again during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Chokaido Collection was assembled by a Japanese politician and industrialist named Yamamoto Teijiro (1870-1937), who consulted with numerous scholars and sourced works through collectors whom he visited in Fujian, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai, Guangdong, Beijing and Shandong. Once made up of around 2,000 Classical Chinese paintings, the collection still houses ‘some of the finest painting and calligraphy today,’ says Zhou.
Unfurling a hanging-scroll ink painting from the museum, which is just over a metre in length, Zhou explains that it was made by Bada Shanren, a 17th-century prince of the Ming royal family who was forced to live in exile as a Buddhist monk when the dynasty fell.
‘Immediately your eye is drawn to the right-hand side with this swaying, tall lotus stalk,’ she says. ‘This is bookended by the umbrella of lotus leaves on top and a heron perching on a rock at the bottom, which rather unusually creates an empty space right in the middle of the painting.’ Emptiness and the lotus plant are both motifs of purity and enlightenment in Chan Buddhist philosophy.
Another hanging scroll by Bada Shanren from the Chokaido Museum, this one just over one-and-a-half metres in length, depicts a foggy landscape, and was painted on satin some time in the late 1690s. ‘Painting on satin is extremely difficult because the ink becomes very slippery,’ Zhou says.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
The specialist goes on to explain how the work is a clever optical illusion, with the groups of trees and rock forms receding into the distance as your eye moves across the picture: ‘It’s such a great technical feat and so visually pleasurable,” she says.
Other works from the Chokaido Collection being sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 27 May include a landscape scroll and a handscroll of poetry by the Chinese painter Wen Zhengming, from 1544 and 1553 respectively, as well as a landscape by Lan Ying from 1645, and two cursive calligraphy scrolls from 1647 and 1643 by Wang Duo.
The collection, which miraculously survived both the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 and the Second World War, moved to its current location in 1994. Works have previously been deaccessioned to major museums including the Osaka City Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.