The Shanghai Museum has bought back four volumes of the Chunhuage Tie (Model Letters from the Imperial Archives in the Chunhua Reign) calligraphic collection, which dates back over 1,000 years, at a hefty price of US$4.5 million from a US collector.
Calligraphy, archaeology and Chinese ancient history experts unanimously regard the collection of being worthy of the price as far as a treasure of this nature is concerned.
"The return of Chunhuage Tie is the most significant event in the history of cultural relics preservation since 1949," said Qi Gong, a renowned calligrapher and historian of the art.
Experts working at the Shanghai Museum are also hard-pressed containing their excitement over obtaining such a valuable collection.
"Having such a treasure back, we can fill in some of the blanks concerning Chinese calligraphy history," said Wang Qingzheng, vice director of the museum.
Wang explained that Chunhuage Tie is the only collection of works by many distinguished calligraphers living before the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that has survived over 1,000 years.
According to the experts, in the early Northern Song Dynasty, Emperor Taizong (AD 939-997) ordered that a comprehensive selection of rubbings be made from masterpieces of calligraphic letters in the imperial archives.
In AD 992, the assortment of 400 masterpieces by 100 calligraphers from antiquity through the mid-Tang Dynasty were engraved in wood blocks, and subsequent rubbings from those blocks appeared in 10 volumes, which comprise the Chunhuage Tie series.
The rubbings were at one time considered special gifts from Emperor Taizong to honor his top-ranking officials.
Unfortunately, the wood blocks and the original masterpieces by the calligraphers were destroyed in a fire about 100 years later.
"The rubbing collection is prestigious and influential in Chinese history," said Shanghai Museum director Chen Xiejun.
"Three of the returning four volumes are works by Wang Xizhi, one of the most influential calligraphers in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420)."
Shan Guolin, chief of the Chinese Calligraphy and Painting Department of the Shanghai Museum, added that the four volumes are crucial for studying the development of engraving and the reprinting history of calligraphy.
Numerous engravings and reprints were produced between the 11th and 19th centuries.
"Judging from the number of engravings which were generated soon afterwards, it definitely contributed to the great interest in the study of calligraphy in later periods," said Wang Qingzheng.
The Shanghai Museum has been tracing the whereabouts of Chunhuage Tie soon after the founding of China's new government in 1949.
Chunhuage Tie appeared once in the city in the early 1940s, but disappeared mysteriously.
In the 1980s when the collection surfaced at an auction in Hong Kong, a US collector bought it for US$300,000.
"At that time, we also wanted to buy it back, but the lack of funds made it impossible," Wang said.
In 1996, when the collector held an exhibition to show Chunhuage Tie in Beijing, the Shanghai Museum negotiated with him for buying back the four volumes. He was asking for US$6 million, but the Shanghai Museum refused the asking price.
Recently, curators got news that many museums from the United States, Japan and Belgium had also shown interests to purchase the collection.
After many rounds of negotiations, the museum and the collector reached an agreement at the price of US$4.5 million.
According to Shanghai Museum experts, Chunhuage Tie will be shown to the public once there has been sufficient time to study the collection.
(China Daily August 4, 2003)