Ye Xin, Snowscape (leaf from Album for Zhou Lianggong), c. 1650

by Douglas Penick

Art collectors today are investors. They have paid advisors to guide them in the savvy accumulation of objects which will surely increase in value, which can be hidden in free-ports, which can be used to realise tax savings. Art and money are inextricable.

Works of art survive by moving from place to place. They may touch our hearts, but they themselves are heartless. Their beauty is timeless and so their allegiance to those in time is inconstant. They survive by giving themselves to those who can afford to seize and protect them. Once upon a time, collectors wanted a place in the tops of society, a reputation in history like that of a Maecenas, a Medici, a D”Este, a Francois I or Jules II. A collector was admired for having an understanding of art, its history, a knowledge of the other owners through which the works he held had passed. Collectors, until recently, sought to be admired in the way someone who had a beautiful and famous lover was admired, admired and feared as was the vulgar businessman, Onassis who could show how he might seduce but was not seduced by art or artist. The fatal beauty of art always hid its vulnerability in the guise of being ‘timeless’. But it never was.

It is a great and poignant contrast to look at someone who viewed himself as a servant of the art he loved and the culture of which he was part. Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672) was a celebrated connoisseur of all arts, a patron of painting and esteemed government official. This was always a valued combination in China, even as the Ming Dynasty collapsed. When Li Zicheng’s rebel army took Beijing and the emperor hung himself in shame, many residents tried to find refuge to the west and south of the country, more hid in their houses to see how things would go, fewest went out and greeted the new rulers. Zhou was among the second group. He was then imprisoned for a while as a loyalist, but then released. He hid the treasures he’d accumulated and made his way to the Southern Capitol, Nanjing. Again, he was imprisoned, this time by Ming loyalists and was accused of collusion. By that time the Manchu armies were taking control of the empire and had installed one of their own as Emperor.

Liang decided to return to Beijing and see if he could find a place in the new government. Many felt this was disloyal, but he believed that it was his duty to protect traditional Chinese culture especially now under Manchurian rulers. The Manchus, as it turned out, had a great appreciation of Chinese bureaucratic methods, and used them to the full in ruling their new-won empire. They did not hesitate to make use of Chinese scholar-administrators. Zhou was therefore sent to Fujian as a magistrate and from there he resumed his contacts amongst painters/poets and scholars all over. A decade later, enemies and rivals had him accused and convicted on invented charges of bribery and other forms of malfeasance He was imprisoned for three years, convicted, and sentenced to death, but was later proved innocent of every charge. Nonetheless, he was brought back to Beijing and jailed there. During his incarceration, important people tried to force him to sell them his famous art collection. Several companions were imprisoned with him, and together they eased their time by painting, reading and writing.

One of his prison poems says:

No leaves, branches bare, the tree you painted was twisted by cold.
It did not know how much it wished to die and it could not. [1]

When an Imperial amnesty finally secured Zhou’s release, his steadfastness, personal loyalty and scholarly refinement had made him well known to scholars and literati throughout the empire. He spent his remaining years writing, corresponding with friends and commissioning paintings from artists he admired. But in his last year, he wrote:

All the events that happened in the past are like an old dream in a past life. Now I just drag on day after day. As for the rest, though cold comes and goes and heat too, these are only fits of pain or a sudden itches. I just look at myself, that is all.

Nature built this theater, and it can only hold one puppet show. The puppets here all lack real feeling, otherwise they would have beaten their breasts in grief and long ago fled the stage. I now have little patience left to watch this show. [2]

After his death, Zhou Lianggong’s work enjoyed great renown, but it fell completely out of favour a century later when, at the emperor’s prompting, officials found it no longer to their taste. Now, in a small way, he’s back. Many of the surviving works he admired are in museums or in the collections of the newly rich. His interest in an artist’s work is now part of the provenance that ensures that it’s a good investment.


[1] The Life of a Patron – Hongnam Kim, China Institute of America 1996 – adaptation – p.105

[2] Kim, ibid. adaptation p.144

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.

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