Distinguished scholar Wang Shixiang's talents and interests cover a broad spectrum of traditional Chinese culture from raising pigeons, crickets and goldfish to collecting and researching old furniture, lacquer ware, music, bamboo carvings, and pigeon whistles. He has long been renowned as a connoisseur and collector of a wide range of cultural relics and artifacts.
"Wang Shixiang is unique, because he has delved into the two polar points of traditional Chinese arts and crafts - from the very sophisticated to the very mundane," said Tian Jiaqing, a researcher known for his studies of classical Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) furniture.
Prince Claus Award winner
On December 3, 2003, the Prince Claus Award was granted to Wang Shixiang in recognition of his expert and innovative research into the crafts of China. The prize of 100,000 euros from the Dutch royal family is given to prominent individuals who have made distinguished cultural achievements. Wang was the first Chinese to win the prestigious award and he donated all the money to the Hope Project, to help build a Sino-Dutch Friendship School in a poverty-stricken county.
"The Survival and Innovation of Crafts" was the theme of the awards in 2003, focusing on new approaches to traditional techniques and handmade products. The president of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development said, "Wang is expert at studying the design, techniques, and history of Chinese furniture and has a lot of unique collections. It is his amazing collections that have encouraged the museums, craftsmen, and scholars all over the world."
A prolific author
Now ninety-two, Wang started to publish books when he was approaching 60. He continues to churn out new books not only in Chinese but also in several foreign languages through international publishers. His books such as Pigeon Whistles of Beijing, Bamboo Carvings of China, and Classic Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties are recognized as very important in their fields. Classic Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties covers furniture construction methods, types of precious hardwoods used, stylistic variations, and the ingenious joinery techniques of Ming and Early Qing dynasties.
A cultured life
A large part of what Wang has written and published was gleaned from his personal life and hands-on experiences. Wang was born and brought up in a family whose forefathers served in the Qing imperial courts for three generations.
From the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to the early years of the People's Republic of China (1949 - present), his father Wang Jizeng was a Chinese envoy first in France and then in Mexico and remained with the Foreign Service until his retirement. His mother, Ji Zhang, and his uncles all had fine classical Chinese upbringings, and studied abroad.
As a result, his childhood straddled the cultures of both East and West. While attending US schools, Wang also learned ancient Chinese classics, practiced calligraphy and painting among other things, with private tutors.
"But I was a boy who loved outdoor games more than books," he said, although researchers today say those outdoor games laid a solid foundation for his later research into the very mundane but strong elements of traditional Chinese cultural life.
Bred to have refined taste and a skilled eye for classical Chinese culture, Wang was nevertheless infatuated with folk arts and crafts when he was still a student at Beijing's Yenching University. He also indulged in games traditionally played by street people, like cricket-fighting, raising pigeons and training eagles.
These passions and hobbies laid a solid foundation for his distinguished studies into a broad extent of traditional cultural legacies, ranging from the classical and elegant, like Ming Dynasty furniture, to the mundane, like the making of gourds for crickets.
As a child, he wrote about his beloved pigeons in English compositions for several weeks running until his teacher threatened to mark all his papers about pigeons 'poor'.
Personal highs and lows
When the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) ended, Wang took the job of retrieving precious artifacts from Japanese and Germans who had stolen them from the Forbidden City, the royal palace of several Chinese dynasties
"This was one of the most important tasks I've accomplished for my country," Wang said.
The job took him not only to the Northeast China provinces and to Tianjin but also to Japan. He was a connoisseur, a detective and a diplomat. He successfully retrieved about 2,000 to 3,000 relics and rare books, some of which are still considered unique national treasures
When he returned to Beijing and the Palace Museum in August 1949 after a year studying the art and history museums of the US and Canada, Wang wanted to become a life-long guardian and curator of the precious relics he had helped to save,
But he was wrongly jailed for 10 months and expelled from the Palace Museum in 1953. In 1957, he was branded a "rightist," a political stigma he had to carry for 21 years. During the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to work as a farmer in a village in Central China's Hubei Province from 1969-1973.
But he survived this humiliation, with the help and company of his beloved wife Yuan Quanyou. Wang researched and wrote whenever time and chances allowed, and Yuan made a lot of sketches to go with his manuscripts.
In 1985, he won a Ministry of Culture award as one of the most distinguished individuals in the fields of culture, history and museum studies. He became a member of the prestigious Central Research Institute of Culture and History and a member of the top national advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
For public benefit
Wang wrote in the preface of his volume Self-Cherished Treasures of Twin-Pine Studio that in times of difficulty, "we were confident that in 10, 20 or 30 years we could present something that would be recognized as worthy and that we could obtain a just and impartial judgment from the people".
As their ages advanced, Wang and his wife decided to ensure their collections were better taken care of. In 1993, they donated all the Ming Dynasty furniture they had spent half a century collecting, repairing and preserving to the Shanghai Museum.
The around 140 artifacts detailed in Self-Cherished Treasures of Twin-Pine Studio were auctioned on November 25, 2003 in Beijing.
The money raised was donated to Hope Project, a program helping children from poor families to complete their school education.
"The value of human life is not what you possess, but what you observe, enjoy, and then what you discover, study and elevate into knowledge so as to help further the cultural development," Wang said.
(chinaculture June 2, 2006)