Wou Kiuan and the creation of the Wou Lien-Pai Museum

By Sotheby's

Dr Wou Kiuan (1910-1997)
Diplomat. Collector. Founder

The uniquely comprehensive collection was formed by Wou Kiuan (Wu Quan, Heng Zhi), son of the Republican politician Wou Lien-Pai (Wu Jinglian, Wu Lianbo) (1873-1944). Wou Kiuan was born in Xingcheng, Liaoning Province in Northeast China on 25th June 1910, entering the world mere months before the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, which brought an end to China’s two thousand years of continuous Imperial rule. Educated at Zhendan University in Shanghai, Wou Kiuan studied French language before he moved to France at the age of twenty to study law at the University of Grenoble and was awarded his doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Wou Kiuan, Paris, November 1939

Appointed Secretary-General for the Overseas Chinese Committee at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1937, Wou embarked on an illustrious career in diplomacy. In 1939, he joined the newly-formed Chinese government Foreign Affairs Service at the French embassy in Paris; before moving to London in 1941 where he worked for the Chinese embassy in London until 1947 when he was recalled to China to serve in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs until his retirement in 1952.

Visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to the Chinese Embassy at the Court of St James, London, 1945. Dr Wou Kiuan standing fourth from right.

Settling back in London, Wou devoted his retirement to the study of Chinese archaeology and art. He developed a close friendship with the Cambridge-based scholar of Chinese art and archaeology, Professor Cheng Te-K’un (1908-2001), who was instrumental in nurturing Wou’s passion for Chinese art and who guided him in his early collecting journey.

Wou was a collector of the truest sense. Before turning his attention to Chinese art, he had collected stamps and books, and he applied the same meticulous approach to their acquisition as he later would to Chinese antiquities. His study brimmed with volumes on Chinese history, archaeological journals and annotated auction catalogues – evidence of how rigorously each and every work that entered the collection had been researched.

It was no doubt fortuitous that Wou’s years of collecting coincided with an abundant availability of exceptional Chinese art on the London market. From the mid-1950s to late 60s he was able to form a collection of well over 1,000 works that together represented virtually every category of Chinese art. A cursory scan through the lists of buyers at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions in London through the 1960s sees the name ‘Wou’ appear repeatedly between the more familiar names of the leading dealers and collectors of the era: Bluett, Tai, Sparks, Simon, Moss, Clayton, etc….

A ruby-ground reticulated vase, Seal mark and period of Qianlong, acquired by Dr Wou Kiuan from the Fonthill auction at Christie’s London, 18th October 1971, lot 56, illustrated in Soame Jenyns, Later Chinese Porcelain, London, 1951, pl. CVII, no.1.

His early foray into the world of Chinese art collecting focused on archaic bronzes and other works of historical significance. As one of the very few Chinese collectors active in the salerooms at the time, Wou had the distinct advantage of being able to read the inscriptions found on some important bronzes, jades and sculptures. As a result, the collection is particularly rich in epigraphical works.

Whilst Wou was able to acquire works from the sales of some of the most prominent collectors of the early 20th century – Sir Percival David (1892-1964), Brenda Zara Seligman (1882-1965), Henry Knight (d. 1971), Nellie Ionides (1883-1962) and H.R.N. Norton (d. 1961/2) - no name is perhaps more evocative of the great period of collecting in Britain than that of Alfred Morrison (1821-1897), whose legendary collection was housed at Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. The ‘Fonthill Treasures’, as they came to be known, included some of the most important porcelains and enamels to have been produced for the Qing Emperors of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1965 and 1971 auctions of works from the Fonthill Collection, Wou was able to acquire no less than five Imperial treasures, which today rank amongst the most important works in the collection.

Dr Wou Kiuan with Sir Michael and Lady Villiers at the Wou Lien-Pai Museum, July 1968

Dr Wou Kiuan at the Wou Lien-Pai Museum, circa 1985

At the heart of Dr Wou Kiuan’s drive to collect was a burning desire to preserve the relics of China’s rich historical past scattered across Europe, and to promote Chinese art and culture. It is unclear when Wou conceived of the idea to create a museum to house his collection, but in 1968 he opened the doors to the Wou Lien-Pai Museum, named in honor of his father. The collection was arranged chronologically, with the objects displayed in wood-framed vitrines, each accompanied by typed and handwritten didactic texts. Over the years the Museum became a destination for collectors, academics, visiting dignitaries and those ‘in the know’, and Wou would delight in leading his visitors through the galleries, recounting stories of China’s glorious history. To this day the Wou family has remained a conscientious custodian of the collection, loaning works to exhibitions and publishing a two-volume catalogue in 2011, thereby continuing to educate future generations.

Wou Lien-Pai (1873-1944)
Statesman. Leader. Reformer

Wou Lien-Pai (Wu Jinglian, Wu Lianbo) (1873-1944) was one the leading political figures of early 20th century China, remembered for his role as speaker and leader of parliament during the turbulent years of the Republican era.

Wou Lien-Pai, Chairman of Fengtian Provincial Assembly, 1909

Born in Xingcheng, Liaoning province on 18th March 1873, Wou Lien-Pai was awarded a fugong degree at the state level examination at the Imperial Institute in Beijing in 1897, and in 1907 he graduated from Imperial University of Peking with the highest honors, the juren degree, specializing in education. Upon his return to Liaoning, he embarked on a career in educational reform, establishing the Fengtian Normal College by 1908, and later becoming president of the Provincial Public Education Committee and director of the Constitutional Law Institute. By 1909, Wou was elected major of Fengtian, and chairman of the Fengtian Provincial Assembly. Wou Lien-Pai used this new platform to demand constitutional change, eventually moving to Shanghai to join other provincial representatives in a national political movement as anti-Qing sentiment was rising across the country.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, a Republican government was established in Nanjing, with Wou elected as the first member of the Provisional Parliament of the Republic.

National Day, 10 October 1923, announcing the first constitution of the Republic of China. Wou Lien-Pai seated center

In the years that followed, Wou played a seminal role in the formation of the government that would rule China during the early 20th century, seeking to establish a constitutional system. He served as Deputy Chairman to Sun Yatsen’s (1866-1925) new political group, the Kuomintang (Guomindang); opposed the advances of Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) to restore hereditary monarchy to China with himself as the Hongxian Emperor; and was elected head of the Zhongyiyuan, House of Representatives and later leader of the Lower Chamber of Parliament. Finally, on 10th October 1923, the first Constitution of the Republic of China was promulgated. Throughout his political career, Wou demonstrated infallible moral integrity and acute determination to establish constitutional rule amidst the dangerous chaos of the early 20th century.

As an accomplished calligrapher, it was perhaps only natural that Wou would develop friendships with well-known painters and calligraphers of the time, such as Chen Qishi, Qi Baishi and Zhang Jian, many of whom dedicated works to him. This interest in China’s rich artistic heritage no doubt influenced his son, Wou Kiuan, whose legacy of the Wou Lien-Pai Museum is celebrated today.

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