Touring the Art of China's Southern Paradise

Written by
Zhuolun Xie
Jan. 12, 2024

Graduate student Zhuolun Xie, together with Professor Cheng-hua Wang and fellow students, recently visited the Cleveland Museum of Art's exhibition China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta, on view from September 10, 2023 to January 7, 2024.

The exhibition was the first in the West to focus on China's Jiangnan region, the coastal area south of the Yangzi River which includes the famous cities Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing. Historically one of the wealthiest, most populous, and most fertile regions, Jiangnan is also an important region in terms of artistic production and cultural impact. More than 200 objects dating from Neolithic times to the 18th century were on display, including jade, silk, prints, paintings, porcelain, lacquer, and bamboo carvings. 

Xie's impressions follow:

I think the exhibition did a remarkable job demonstrating the varied and profound artistic connotations of the idea of “Jiangnan (south of the [Yangtze] River)” in the Chinese and transnational contexts.

On the one hand, at the exhibition I learned about the different interpretations of Jiangnan culture by Chinese artists throughout history. The curatorial choices highlight the diachronic transmission of pictorial traditions of the arts of Jiangnan, and the divergent synchronic dialogues taking place among Jiangnan artists applying different techniques.

A Chinese scroll displayed on a table

Dong Qichang 董其昌, River and Mountains on a Clear Autumn Day 江山秋霽圖, c. 1624–27 (Photo/Zhuolun Xie)

On the other hand, I marveled at the vibrancy of Jiangnan as a hub of transnational artistic exchange. From a farewell calligraphy brushed by a Chinese Chan master to send off a Japanese monk studying in fourteenth-century Hangzhou, to an eighteenth-century Suzhou workshop’s woodblock prints of Westlake panorama that adopt the hatching techniques of European copperplate prints, the international connection of Jiangnan art is another thread that tightly weaves the narrative of the exhibition together.

A delightful moment at the exhibition for me was seeing a long landscape painting by Dong Qichang—an influential art theorist and artist of the Ming dynasty. It was on display right across a small-sized group portrait, which depicts the young Dong Qichang preaching to a group of elder audience in a poised manner. I was in awe of Dong’s imposing confidence, expressed by both the landscape painting and his own colophon inscription on it, and seeing his portrait allowed me to visualize the creative process and his impactful role in the late Ming Jiangnan art world in a way never so vivid and fresh before. 

Students and professor examine a wide scroll on table

From left to right: Graduate students Yutong Li, Mengge Cao, Professor Cheng-hua Wang, Josephine O’Neil, and Zhuolun Xie examining Zeng Yandong’s Miniature Album with Figures and Landscape, 1822, The Cleveland Museum of Art (Photo courtesy of Zhuolun Xie)