Reverence for the Past: Five Treasures from The Leshantang Collection

Reverence for the Past: Five Treasures from The Leshantang Collection

Ahead of The Leshantang Collection (II) on 9 April, we take a closer look at the extraordinary stories behind some of the precious objects gathered by Tsai I-Ming.
Ahead of The Leshantang Collection (II) on 9 April, we take a closer look at the extraordinary stories behind some of the precious objects gathered by Tsai I-Ming.

T sai I-Ming christened his beloved collection “Leshantang”, an epithet derived from the Confucian saying “The wise find joy in water; the benevolent find joy in the mountain” (from The Analects of Confucius). Confucian ethics and morals strongly influenced Tsai, who amassed a breathtaking collection over nearly half a century through a boundless desire to learn more about his heritage. Reverence for the past was a pillar of Chinese thinking for three millennia, and moral imperatives such as filial piety and respect for those who have gone before continue to be a major driver of Chinese society and its diaspora today. Objects of the past were believed to offer access to the thoughts of the ancient, representing a continuum between the past, present and future.

"Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognised moral qualities of men."
- Confucius

For Tsai, one of the most illustrious connoisseurs of Chinese art, Confucian reverence for the past went hand in hand with the Confucian virtues of benevolence and compassion. He spent a lifetime seeking to help, share and educate others about classical Chinese cultural heritage, seeking to gather treasures that embodied its essence and which might otherwise have been lost to the nation. It was with this boldness of vision and benevolence of spirit that The Leshantang Collection was born. Ranging from the finest imperial porcelains to scroll paintings and jades, here are a few of the fascinating stories behind the objects coming to auction in The Leshantang Collection (II) – Treasures of Chinese Art from the Tsai I-Ming Collection on 9 April.

I n 1941, Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) travelled to northwest China to study the Buddhist mural paintings of the Dunhuang Caves where he and his entourage of disciples and monks stayed for approximately three years. On his way, the artist stopped to visit the Yulin Caves, where Zhang painted tirelessly, studying the murals in the caves. In the course of his journey, Zhang would visit the Yulin Caves two more times, the third and final visit lasting more than a month. It is believed that Red Robe Avalokiteshvara was painted during this visit.

Red Robe Avalokiteshvara was one of Zhang’s most treasured paintings, which he kept in his personal collection until Tsai I-Ming’s fateful visit more than three decades later. Executed in the Dunhuang mural painting style, Zhang’s bodhisattva is resplendent in ornate silk robes executed in mineral-based pigments of vermilion, azurite and malachite. With gentle eyes and a serene smile articulated by smooth, dynamic brushstrokes, a practice that characterised Tang Dynasty figurative painting, Avalokiteshvara brings mercy and compassion to Chinese Buddhists. As one of the most popular Buddhist deities, his Chinese name, Guanyin, means “perceiver of sounds”. Choosing to remain on earth instead of ascending to enter paradise, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara aids believers on their own paths towards salvation.

Zhang Daqian, Red Robe Avalokiteshvara | Estimate: 22,000,000 - 30,000,000 HKD

Originally struck by the vivid colour and meticulously detailed style of Zhang’s Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha (1948), which he purchased at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in 1981 (and which came to auction at Sotheby’s again in October 2023), Tsai embarked upon a quest to meet the artist himself and ask him how he had achieved the distinctive red hue in the painting. Zhang shared his secret with Tsai: an ore found near Dunhuang that turned a vivid red once it was ground up. Layers of this particular mineral pigment created the sumptuous effect that had entranced Tsai. Owing to the time and effort to grind and prepare the pigment, Zhang had ceased to use it after leaving China. Tsai’s dedication as a collector deeply moved Zhang, and he showed his guest his treasured Red Robe Avalokiteshvara, painted in parts using the same vivid red pigment. Awestruck by what he saw, Tsai’s passion and sincerity won over Zhang, convincing the master to sell this masterpiece to him.


O riginally a Buddhist emblem, the lotus became so popular in Chinese art that it appeared widely in secular contexts by the Ming dynasty. With untainted blossoms that open high above muddy water, the lotus flower epitomises virtues such as purity, integrity, as well as fecundity. The Neo-Confucian scholar Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073 ) remarked that its scent was so pure that it carried far without the aid of branches and tendrils. Depictions of the lotus carry forth hopes for multiple children. Combined with a pair of mandarin ducks, these dishes symbolise marital harmony and the design often appears on pieces presented to newlyweds.

Handsomely painted in the doucai palette, originating from the early Ming dynasty, this elegant pair of dishes is a superb example of Yongzheng wares. Their fine potting, exquisite lightness, and gentle forms are considered to be a reflection of the refined temperament of the Emperor himself. The Yongzheng Emperor was known for his integrity and commitment to justice. His administration was efficient and effective, paving the way for his son the Qianlong Emperor’s own prosperous reign. An accomplished scholar who excelled in all areas, from calligraphy and painting to art appreciation, he was well-versed in Chinese classics and religious philosophies such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

His admiration for ancient philosophy, art and way of life burnished his own aesthetic approach. As a young prince Yongzheng had cultivated the Jiangrenfang, a workshop of elite handpicked craftsmen housed within his residence. During his reign, he ploughed huge amounts of resources into the imperial kiln, allowing its supervisors Nian Xiyao and Tang Ying to recruit the best craftsmen in the country. Ceramics inspired by the five Song kilns, and the three Ming dynasty reigns of Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua were faithfully recreated by the imperial workshop, and the Yongzheng Emperor personally approved every aspect, from decoration to dimensions. Official records include his instructions such as “refine (to achieve) an elegant presence” and to “make thinner”. Together, the innovative wares produced under the Yongzheng Emperor are a triumphant moment in the history of Chinese ceramics.

This pair of dishes also represent another important link with the past, originating from the personal collection of the legendary collector Edward T. Chow (1910-1980). A carefully curated selection of pieces from the collection was featured in a 1959 article delving into the study of imperial Qing porcelain. Co-authored by Professor Frederick S. Drake, the chosen pieces – including this pair of dishes – were described in his own words as embodying “perfection in every detail”. These dishes remained in the Edward T. Chow collection for six decades until their landmark 1981 sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, and later found their way into The Leshantang Collection, where they have remained for another four decades.

"Study the past if you would define the future."
- Confucius

I mperial power, legitimacy and command of history are all expressed in this meticulously painted, fiery copper red moon flask with its dynamic composition of nine dragons striding among scrolling clouds. Extremely rare and outstanding in its execution, it reveals the magnificent aesthetic tastes of the Qianlong Emperor and the achievements of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen under his talented superintendent Tang Ying (1682-1756).

Dragons became a significant imperial symbol under Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, who proclaimed himself “the Emperor of the Dragon Throne” and “master of the waters”. According to legend, upon his death he transformed into a dragon before ascending to Heaven. His descendents have styled themselves the “heavenly son of the real dragon”, and decorated imperial rooms, clothes, utensils, and tombs with dragons to align their reign with its symbolic blessings of power, wisdom and imperial authority. The motif of the nine mythological sons of the Dragon King also references another vital imperial symbol – the number nine. Prized for its tonal resonance with "long-lasting", as the highest single digit it represents the maximum level of mortal happiness, longevity and fortune. Most notably, the Forbidden City is often said to have been built upon this symbolism, with 9,999 rooms in the complex (though it is closer to 9,000 in reality) – just one shy of 10,000, the number for infinity.

Tang Ying is known to have consulted the court collection to find inspiration, and the flask draws on 15th century early Ming dynasty prototypes, in particular the form of an early Ming dynasty moon flask and a 'nine dragon' motif from the Xuande period. Copper red pigment, prized for its dazzling hue, was was invented in the Yuan dynasty, becoming more systematically employed in the early Ming dynasty before being virtually abandoned after the Xuande period due to its high failure rate. Tang Ying exerted his efforts towards mastering the notoriously temperamental pigment, and Qing court archives document fewer than 10 underglaze-red moon flasks with dragons produced throughout the Qianlong period, all within the first decade of the reign. Only one other moon flask of this size, form and design exists, which is thought to be the pair to the present vase.

A serendipitous encounter between a grand master and a disciple who never met in their lifetimes is at the heart of the story of these two albums. Literati painting was conceived as a mode through which the Confucian junzi (noble person) expressed moral self-cultivation, communing with the beauty of nature and embracing a spiritual resonance with great masters of the past.

The most celebrated painter of late 17th-century China, Wang Hui (1632-1717) was bestowed the title "Clear Brilliance of Landscape" by the Kangxi Emperor. His exceptional landscapes garnered widespread attention for their remarkable ability to emulate yet reinvigorate antiquity, with Zhou Lianggong’s "Critique of Paintings" noting: "Many people in the lower Yangtze River region commissioned him to create paintings, which were often adorned with fake inscriptions to cater to the taste for antiquity. Despite being experienced, people were still unable to recognize them as works of contemporary artists." These 16 album leaves feature graceful ink wash landscapes inspired by Tang, Song and Yuan dynasty poetry as well as imitations of Song dynasty paintings. One of the leaves features a painting titled Xu Rong’s “Eight Cedars Cottage”, Xu Rong (1662-1735) being Wang Hui’s student and to whom Wang Hui initially gifted this album. (Dai Xi later commented on this in the album’s colophon, noting Wang Hui’s sincere intention to instruct his disciples through adopting these different styles.) Wang Hui’s close friends Zhu Yizun (1629-1709) and Xu Yi (1636-1708) also added their own reflections and comments into the album, creating a multi-faceted dialogue between multiple masters.

Wang Hui, Landscapes | Estimate: 3,000,000 - 5,000,000 HKD

In 1852 the then-owner of the album, Jiang Zhongli, brought it to Hangzhou to show Dai Xi (1801-1860), the accomplished poet, calligrapher and painter whose sobriquet was “Pure-Minded Scholar”. Dai Xi was enraptured by Wang Hui’s work, praising the artist for capturing the essence of nature. He managed to copy just 10 of the album leaves before having to return the album to Jiang, who was departing Hangzhou. Dai Xi’s meticulous brushwork captures the essence of Wang Hui’s style whilst embellishing some of the finer details, faithfully imitating the compositions, placement and number of seals, and calligraphy, down to Zhu Yizun’s “Southern Hill” inscription on the album page.

Dai Xi, Landscape after Early Qing Master Wang Hui | Estimate: 1,000,000 - 2,000,000 HKD

Three years later Jiang returned, this time asking to swap Wang Hui’s original album in return for Dai Xi’s copy. Dai was delighted, affectionately recording this exchange on a titleslip which he added to Wang Hui’s album. Both albums fortuitously found their way into the hands of the same collector in the early Republican period, and in 2007, at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction, they were bought by Tsai I-Ming for the The Leshantang Collection.

Such stories of virtue and reverence for the past are part of the fabric of The Leshantang Collection. May this sale honour the semicentennial partnership between Sotheby’s and Tsai I-Ming and contribute to the next chapter of each precious object of The Leshantang Collection.

Chinese Works of Art The Hong Kong Sales

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