Vice President of Christies Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department Ruben Lien. Photograph by Jingya Liu

What I’ve learned: Ruben Lien, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art specialist

The Vice President of Christie’s Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department on a career-defining discovery, life in Hong Kong and ‘handling terrific art every day’

When you encounter your own culture in a foreign country, that somehow makes it more intriguing. As an overseas student in London, I spent lots of time wandering around institutions such as the V&A and Tate Britain. 

I was surprised to see how much Chinese art there was in the British Museum, especially the ceramics in the Percival David Foundation. That piqued my interest.

My love of art goes back to a cabbage. In the National Palace Museum in Taipei, there’s a famous piece of jadeite — green and white, and carved to look like a cabbage. It is astonishingly real and it wowed me the first time I saw it, on a school trip. Rumour had it that a treasure map was hidden inside the carving if you could just break it open.

Jade has special meaning for Chinese people. It was once considered the essence of the universe, a conduit between God and man. 

My grandmother has a jade bangle that always captivated me. It’s not expensive, but it has a beautiful greyish-green colour that is even and translucent. She says it was part of her dowry. I guess maybe my love of jade started there: you are influenced by what you touch and hold when you are young.

‘I know collectors who will go to Hollywood Road and buy something every single day, because they just have to’ — Ruben Lien

Symbols are important to historians in China. Our art involves lots of abstractions, and they are not obvious. The way Western artists represent what they see in the world is different — much more realistic. In China, tradition counts too. 

There is a lineage that extends all the way to artists such as Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013). I’m thinking, for example, of his works based on Shang-dynasty oracle-bone script. Even his brushstrokes are rooted in Chinese painting, and that heritage is part of why he is important just now.

In my field, signatures are very rare until the 16th century. After that, more artists were celebrated for their craftsmanship and became known in their own right. But those artists were laymen, not employed by the imperial household. 

When artists were drafted into the court, their work became anonymous. That is a shame, because it means there are many amazing works that we cannot put a name to.

For some people, collecting is an urge — or even an affliction. I know collectors who will go to Hollywood Road and buy something every single day, because they just have to. 

I don’t have that impulse, but then I get to handle terrific art every day without having to accumulate. That is one of the great things about working at Christie’s.

Ruben Lien with pieces from the jade collection of Mr Robert Chang, to be exhibited at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2020. Photograph by Jingya Liu

Ruben Lien with pieces from the jade collection of Mr Robert Chang, to be exhibited at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2020. Photograph by Jingya Liu

I worked on the sale of the Van Hemert jar — Yuan dynasty, porcelain. The family kept their DVDs in it. It is a 14th-century piece, blue and white, and painted with a narrative band of a bald man being drawn in a carriage by a leopard and a tiger. I had to try to identify the story.

It was about three years after my MA. I went to the SOAS Library in London and got very lucky because I found an identical illustration in a manuscript, also from the 14th century. 

It was a magical moment, matching the print to the porcelain artefact. The jar sold in London for £15 million, at the time a record for an Asian work of art at auction.

Hong Kong has the most crowded streets you have ever seen. London is like the countryside in comparison. And the built-up areas here are extremely dense: everyone can practically see you in your shower. 

After six and a half years, I am starting to get used to the place. You never have to travel far for anything because it is all there — shops and restaurants right outside your door. The radius of life is small: tell a Hong Kong person they have to travel 20km and they act like they are off to some distant land.

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The Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto is one of my favourite places — a 12th-century hondo, or long hall, filled with 1,001 statues of the Guanyin bodhisattva. It is a wonderful space, impressive but calming at the same time. 

You gaze into the faces of the sculptures, and each one is individual. It is like looking at real people — but people with the godlike ability to care for humankind. To go there is a spiritual experience.

Many of the works I love are Buddhist-related. We just sold a large Medicine Buddha that for years was on display in Gump’s department store in San Francisco. When I first saw it up close, I was awed by its presence. 

The face is so peaceful and beautifully proportioned. But it is also huge, so you have to look up to it. The statue glows even in a dim light; you feel its presence. It has gone back to China, to a museum.