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Los Angeles Exhibit Highlights Family's Six-Generation Chinese Art Collection


Works from one of the world's great private collections of Chinese art are on display at The Huntington Library near Los Angeles. The collection is owned by Chinese American Wan-go Weng. It shows the importance of art in China and in one Chinese family, in particular.

The story of this collection isthe story of a Chinese family - the Wengs - and their fortunes during 150 turbulent years of Chinese history. The most prominent family member was Weng Tonghe, a court official who tutored and advised emperors Tongzhi and Guangxu in the waning days of imperial China. Like many scholar-officials, Weng was an art lover and he greatly expanded the collection started by his father.

Wan-go Weng, his 91-year-old great, great grandson, lives in the U.S. state of New Hampshire. His rural home has attracted lovers of Chinese art for several decades. A retired producer of educational films on Chinese history and culture, Weng is himself a collector, poet and artist. And he says he continues his family's love of art and sense of history.

"If you don't have a sense of history, why do you keep the things so long? That sense of history is most important in keeping a collection for six generations or maybe longer," he said.

Forty-one works are on display - all drawn from the family collection. One of the most impressive is a 16-meter scroll by the 17th century painter Wang Hui. Called "Ten Thousand Li Up the Yangzi River," it imaginatively traces the course of the famous Chinese river over thousands of kilometers. The oldest work is an ink scroll by Liang Kai, a 13th century court painter in the Southern Song Dynasty.

There are also works by the family collector Weng Tonghe and his 91-year-old Chinese American great, great grandson.

Many of the works blend painting, poetry and calligraphy, which June Li, a curator at The Huntington Library, calls the high art forms of China.

"China, we know, has beautiful porcelains, has beautiful lacquers - a lot of other beautiful art, but those are not the high arts. The high art is actually something called the "three perfections," which is painting, calligraphy and poetry," she said.

Wan-go Weng left China in 1937 to study in the United States and returned to retrieve his collection in 1948, during the final days of China's civil war between the nationalists and communists.

Nine years ago, he sold the family's rare book collection to the Shanghai Library. And last December, he exhibited 50 paintings and scrolls at the Beijing World Art Museum.

He is determined to preserve the collection. He says many of the works are priceless, but that they are part of a legacy, apart from their monetary value.

"I always tell people, 'Do not try to ask me how this is worth. That's meaningless for me. As long as [I have] enough money to live on, I don't consider anything to do with money with my collection," he said.

Weng's son, Hugo, is the seventh-generation of the family entrusted with the collection. Born in 1952 in New York, he works in Hollywood as a sound editor on films and says he marvels at the new interest in the United States in things Chinese.

"Because I don't think these works were as valued by the American public certainly when I was a child, and even, I think, in China at that time because of the political situation this kind of heritage wasn't as appreciated then. And so it's just a series of circumstances now - the prominence of China in the world and the changes in the political situation there have all kind of come together. And now finally, this kind of work is more recognized," he said.

Visitors to The Huntington Library can also get a glimpse of Chinese culture in a traditional garden modeled on those of Chinese scholar-officials. The first phase of the project, built by craftsmen from the Chinese city of Suzhou, opened last year, complete with an artificial lake, bridges, pavilions and scenic views. The project eventually will cover nearly five hectares.

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