T he late Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqian, 1899–1983) has been applauded by art historians as “surely one of the most versatile, prolific, best-trained, and well-travelled artists in the history of Chinese painting.” He was further regarded as “a pioneer in transforming the artistry of antiquity into the modern medium.” So much has been written on his life and his works already that any effort I may make to add to this field of knowledge will seem hardly worthwhile. My only possible contribution may lie in the fact that as a young child I was favoured by Professor Chang – a friend of my parents and a frequent visitor to our home – who had encouraged and nurtured my appreciation of traditional Chinese painting. Without intending to offend the sensitivities of my elders, I would like to record here the long friendship between Professor Chang and my parents, and at the same time to introduce the distinctive qualities of The Mei Yun Tang Collection.
Chang Dai-chien and my parents met in the mid-1930s in Nanjing. My parents had been travelling throughout Southwest China to escape the invading Japanese forces, from Kunming in Yunnan to Chongqing and Chengdu in Sichuan (the former was part of Sichuan until the late 20th century). Professor Chang, a native of Sichuan, returned to the province in 1938 and embarked on a journey to Dunhuang, where, for more than two years, he copied meticulously the wall paintings of the famous caves. In January 1944, these renditions of the Dunhuang paintings were exhibited in Chengdu to great critical and popular acclaim. My parents, who were interested in art and had many friends among contemporary artists, became much closer to Professor Chang.
The progression of the relationship between Professor Chang and my father can be discerned from the album leaves presented to Father at this time and from paintings Father had acquired later. The salutation to Father on Lotus, “To My Elder Brother”, is the same as that on Excursion to Mount Huang, painted in March or April of 1944. This form of address denotes a polite relationship, friendly but hardly intimate. By the summer, however, the form of address turned less formal. Professor Chang was 46 years old at that time, and Father was 32 years old. Father was addressed by Professor Chang as “Dear Younger Brother” in Boating, that within a few months, their relationship had developed into a comfortable and informal one. In their subsequent correspondence, Professor Chang addressed Father as “Number Four Younger Brother while my father addressed him as “Number Eight Elder Brother”. In the inscription on White Turtle Dove and Red Leaves, dated 8 August, 1944, Professor Chang mused:
The leaves of Qingcheng, turning red before frost descends, are as glorious as morning glow. I set the jade-white turtle dove that I keep on a twig. The white sheen and red glow set off each other, like a painting by Teng Changyou before my eyes. It is a pity that Ling-mei has not come to take photographs for me.
In the Chinese tradition, referring to a person by his given name without a title truly reflects an extraordinarily close relationship. Father was one of the few professional photographers in China during the 1930s and 1940s. He and Professor Chang each appreciated the other's mastery of a technique to recreate a scene visually.
In 1944, my parents began to collect Chang Dai-chien's paintings. Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden and Record of the Painting of the Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden, both executed in 1945, were important acquisitions at the time. Father was a real admirer of Professor Chang's art and Professor Chang found in Father a boon companion, so he gave Father one of his best paintings, Musical Performance, as a Chinese New Year present in 1945.
After the war ended in 1945, my parents took their children back to Nanjing, their native city, while Professor Chang stayed with his family in Sichuan. Professor Chang held exhibitions of his works in Nanjing and Shanghai during the ensuing years, so he and Father continued to see each other regularly. It was a time of rampant inflation and the value of money depreciated very quickly. The price of each of Professor Chang's paintings in the 1947 Shanghai exhibition was in the millions of Chinese dollars. By 1948 the price had multiplied a hundred times. A contemporary observer marvelled: “Such high prices and still in such great demand by the collectors, there is nothing like it before or since.” During this time, my parents continued to build their collection. Lotus and Mandarin Ducks and several other of Professor Chang's works from the 1940s were acquired at prices quoted in gold. Meanwhile, in acknowledgement of Father's steadfast support, Professor Chang presented him the exquisite work Children Playing under a Pomegranate Tree, painted as a compliment of Father's large family which had grown to include six sons and two daughters by that time.
In 1948 my parents took us to Taiwan and in the next year Professor Chang came to visit Taipei from Hong Kong. It was Father who organised his first show in Taipei, which was a great success. Recognising the deteriorating political situation in China, Professor Chang brought his family to Taiwan. Both families then came to Hong Kong together. While our family settled in Hong Kong, Professor Chang and his family went overseas, relocating to Argentina, Brazil and California, in America. During these years, he travelled extensively and showed his works throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Professor Chang's relationship with Hong Kong began in 1938, when he passed through the territory on his way to Sichuan from Shanghai. While in Hong Kong, he met a number of local artists. Sometime in late 1948 and early 1949, he again visited Hong Kong and a show of his paintings was organised. He stayed at Zai Shan Lou owned by Jian Qinzhai (1888-1950). Shimmering Lake and Mountain Colours was painted in this studio. During the 1950s and 1960s, each time Professor Chang visited Hong Kong, Father would be his host and sometimes he would stay at our home. All of us, by then numbering eleven children, were still very young. We would crowd around this man with a red face and a beautiful beard, whom we called Uncle, as he wielded his brush. When Uncle was so disposed, he would give a child an unexpected present.
As far as I remember, the apartment was always full of guests when Professor Chang was visiting. Professor Chang would hold court, discussing all kinds of issues energetically while stroking his beard, always the centre of attention. After the guests departed each night, the family would fall into bed in total exhaustion, but Professor Chang would sit and read under a lamp. As we were awakened to go to school in the morning, with our eyes still half closed, he was already painting. Perhaps through osmosis, by being so close to this great creative genius from time to time, I developed a fondness for traditional Chinese art. When I began to learn to paint in secondary school, Professor Chang naturally provided invaluable guidance. At the time, Father was engaged in compiling Professor Chang's Discourses on Chinese Art. The painting manuals which he produced for that book were given to me as learning material.
As my creative talents fell somewhat short of my artistic ambitions, I turned to the study of art history. In this area as well, I am the beneficiary of Professor Chang's knowledge and insight. When I was working on my doctorate at Stanford University, Professor Chang and his family were living in nearby Carmel. I was able to visit him and study his valuable collection of paintings. I was also fortunate to learn from him the basics of the connoisseurship of Chinese painting.
Father had organised numerous exhibitions for Professor Chang in Hong Kong and in Taipei, lending various paintings from his own collection to enrich these exhibitions. One memorable exhibition was presented to celebrate Professor Chang's 60th birthday in 1958. Several thousand visitors endured a long wait in queues in order to see his paintings. In 1962, a special show of Professor Chang's works were mounted to inaugurate the opening of Hong Kong's City Hall Art Gallery and many of these paintings were on loan from my parents' collection. During the succeeding three years, Father organised exhibitions of Professor Chang's paintings from his collection to tour Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, thus introducing Professor Chang's art to new audiences throughout Southeast Asia. Father's compilations of his friend's works, including Chang Dai-chien's Paintings (1967), Portfolio of Chang Dai-chien's Paintings (1968) and Painting and Calligraphy by Shih Tao: A Chronological Study (1978) were well received. Particularly noteworthy is Chinese Painting: with the Original Paintings & Discourses on Chinese Art by Professor Chang Dai-chien (1961), which has been considered a valuable reference for understanding Chinese painting as well as Professor Chang's art.
A close friendship and camaraderie between Professor Chang and Father can be discerned further from the paintings Professor Chang gave to Father as gifts now in The Mei Yun Tang Collection. Spring Desires was painted lightheartedly on a wintry evening in 1944, among friends engaged in small talks by the fire. With a few dashing brush strokes, the image of a semi-nude enticing beauty was captured. Mushrooms, painted in February 1958 and Poets in Landscape are both rendered in the xieyi style (literally “writing the idea”, using free and spontaneous brushwork). He sent the paintings, together with a long inscription to announce the good news to his old friend that he was feeling better following a six-month recovery from ruptured capillaries behind his retina that prevented him from painting.
The Mei Yun Tang Collection also includes a number of Chang Dai-chien's works recording the good times that he and Father enjoyed together. One example is Herbaceous Peony, painted to chronicle their visit to Tokyo in 1959 when they saw some peony bushes which they considered to be extraordinarily beautiful. Their 1963 visit to famous sights in Malaysia was also commemorated by several paintings.
During his years in Argentina and Brazil, the gregarious Chang Dai-chien longed for the company of his old friends. At that time he was building a villa which he had named Bade Garden (Garden of Eight Virtues). He repeatedly invited his old friend to come, writing to my parents that he had built a house for them on the grounds of the Bade Garden. In 1966 he sent my parents An Invitation to Rusticate, using the splashed-ink-and-colour technique to render an alluring landscape. On the painting is this inscription:
Break no more your word and fail the streams and hills; Ten years had passed, the pines are overgrown with vines, I beckon you anew to share [with me] the mountain colours; The only worry is the dusty world will not let go.
The inscription, dated the seventh lunar month that year, also carried this message:
In the seventh lunar month of the bingwu year, I painted the Mogi Garden, Sao Paulo, and sent it to you, my “brother” Lingmei, knowing that I have been looking forward to [your visit].
Finally, Father arrived in early 1968 and the two friends enjoyed this reunion. One morning, Professor Chang rose particularly early and painted Reading under Autumn Trees as a present to Father. In this painting, the tree is rendered in the splashed-ink and splashed-colour technique whereas the figure under the tree was portrayed with fine linear draughtsmanship. The figure, appearing to be full in face and figure, is Professor Chang's portrait of Father in the attire of ancient times.
Another work in which Father appears, Leisure in the Qiongfeng Villa, is a screen of three panels, painted in 1959 in honour of Father's 47th birthday. The sketch for this painting was quickly rendered with ink splashed at will. The left panel portrays two male figures, representing two friends who loved each other like brothers. The older one is Professor Chang, and the younger one is Father.
Yi Junzuo (1898-1972) wrote about the friendship between Professor Chang and Father: “Although [Professor Chang's] older brother Shanzi is no longer alive, he still has two beloved younger brothers. One of these two, who does not share his surname, is Kao Ling-mei. The other, who does share his surname, is Zhang Muhan (1900-1980). The friendship and affection savoured by the three men are of such depth that it is difficult to imagine anyone not touched by their regards for each other.”
The founding of Mei Yun Tang signifies that my brothers, sisters and I are willing to take up the mission begun by our parents, to foster the advancement of Chinese culture, and to do our share in furthering the appreciation and study of the art of Chang Dai-chien.
Mei Yun Tang was jointly established by the eleven children of the Kao family to commemorate the deep-rooted friendship between their parents and the artist over half a century. In 1993, the inaugural exhibition of “The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien” was held at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum. The exhibition presented a comprehensive selection which showcased Chang’s artistry with exceptional quality and served as a testament to the profound relationship between the collectors and the artist. It greatly expanded the horizons of its viewers and subsequently toured to Japan and Singapore, garnering widespread acclaim within international collectors.
In 1995 and 1997, Mei Yun Tang held the exhibition “The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien” at the Shoto Museum of Art, Tokyo, and the Singapore Art Museum respectively.
The Mei Yun Tang spares no effort in promoting cultural education and has donated funds to support the construction of student dormitories at New Asia College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, benefiting students. In commemoration of the deep friendship between the parents and Chang Dai-chien, the dormitory is named Mei Yun Tang and provides 300 accommodation places. It is equipped with a multi-purpose activity hall, shared spaces, and activity rooms. It has been fully operational in the 2023/2024 academic year.
- The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien
- The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien – A Master’s Secrets Unveiled
May 2011In May 2011, Sotheby’s Hong Kong held the monumental sale of The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien, featuring 25 prominent paintings from this prestigious collection. Masterpieces spanning the 1940s to the 1960s, the paintings comprise different subject matters and styles, ranging from the traditional styles of fine brush paintings in Chang’s early years to the bold splashed ink and colour in his later oeuvre. The 25-lot sale commanded a stunning total of HK$680,740,000 in an hour, achieving a triumphant white glove sale. The star lot was Lotus and Mandarin Ducks, which ealized HK$191,060,000 and smashed the artist auction record. It still stands as the most valuable elaborate flower-and-bird painting by the artist ever sold at auction.
May 2013Following the record-breaking sale in May 2011, Sotheby’s Hong Kong was once again entrusted by The Mei Yun Tang Collection to offer 25 works by Chang Dai-chien in May 2013. Titled “A Master’s Secrets Unveiled”, the sale was centred on works especially created for the seminal publication – Chinese Paintings with the Original Paintings & Discourses on Chinese Art by Professor Chang Dai-chien published in 1961. The sale achieved a spectacular total of more than HK$330 million with 21 out of 25 lots sold above high estimates.