Shaping Chinese Art History: Pang Yuanji and His Painting Collection

by Katharine P. Burnett


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

*Includes color images.

Although studies of collectors and collections are on the rise, the collector in China with not only the largest number of high-quality antique paintings but also the most comprehensive and scholarly record of his collection has largely been left unexamined. Pang Yuanji (1864–1949) is that collector, and this book addresses the situation. Analysis of Pang’s collection reveals not only his personal taste but also how his taste was an expression of the Qing dynasty canon. As such, Pang’s taste is shown to be standard for the time, and then the standard upheld in new collections abroad. When Pang’s renowned collection became a source for object acquisition by U.S. collectors and museums new to Chinese art (especially Charles Lang Freer and the Freer Gallery), this taste was inevitably absorbed and disseminated through museum exhibitions and scholarly research and teaching. The inadvertent effect of this was that the new field of Chinese art history developed around the Qing canon, a canon that survived well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Knowing about Pang Yuanji and his collection thus helps readers better understand some of the forces at work in shaping Chinese art history today.

This is the first study that takes the innovative and unique approach to collection analysis by quantifying Pang’s collection and comparing it to a selection of contemporaneous private collectors. In doing so, it shows how their tastes and interests were all shaped by the same Qing canon. More broadly, it explains that Pang did not merely absorb this canon, but then also purposefully and systematically used it and his collection to protect China’s traditions into an uncertain future.

Moving from collection analysis to an examination of Pang’s life, the book replaces Pang’s commonplace yet reductionist identity as merchant-collector with a more nuanced understanding of his identity as social transformer. Pang’s role as a modernist with a nationalist agenda becomes evident in the technological advancements and new forms of banking that he brought to his businesses, and the science-based medicine and techniques that he instituted in his hospitals. Through these, his philanthropy and civic leadership, and his renowned collection, he became a respected social and cultural figure in and outside of China. This book thus assesses his impact in his time and on the field of art history. Shaping Chinese Art History: Pang Yuanji and His Painting Collection is an important book for readers of Asian studies, art history, and museum and collections studies, and historiography.


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