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January 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1450

China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta

Reviewed by Lihong Liu

Cleveland Museum of Art 10th September 2023–7th January 2024 

A vivid photograph of a lotus pond ushers visitors into this ambitious exhibition on the arts and culture of Jiangnan. Lying to the south of the Yangtze – its name literally means ‘south of the river’ – this part of China includes such major cities as Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. Curated by Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art and the James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), this is the first exhibition outside China to present an encyclopaedic view of the cultural history of this historically affluent region. 

Installed across six rooms at the CMA, the choice of 240 objects from the Neolithic period to the 1800s – including paintings, prints, musical instruments, furniture and tapestry, as well as jades, bronzes, silks, ceramics, lacquer and bamboo carvings – challenges the commonly held assumption that art and commerce flourished in Jiangnan relatively late, when it was promoted by Ming–Qing literati and by the Kangxi (reg.1662–1722) and Qianlong (reg.1735–96) emperors on their southern tours. The exhibition instead retraces Jiangnan’s arts and culture from prehistory to the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), treating the region as a dynamic nexus of natural resources, artistic production and the circulation of material culture. It highlights the importance of migration from the north, especially during the fourth century BC and across the second millennium AD, while also demonstrating the connections between Jiangnan and Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and Europe. At the same time, the exhibition foregrounds Jiangnan’s special geographical conditions, its water-rich ecospheres and deep traditions of agriculture and sericulture, which undergirded its artistic and cultural outputs. 


The route through the exhibition combines a rough chronology with thematic sub-narratives. It begins in a small room showcasing samples of Neolithic jade carving, rice and silk as well as metalwork from early to medieval China; indeed, metalwork in the form of bronze, such as a bull-shaped lamp from the Eastern Han dynasty (cat. no.11; Fig.2), is one highlight of the exhibition. Room 2 includes a section that brings to life patriarchs of Chinese literati culture during the Six Dynasties (220–589), such as the Seven Sages – a group of scholars, writers and musicians – and the cultural figures Tao Yuanming and Wang Xizhi. Portrayed in painting, calligraphy and stone rubbings, including Yihe Ming from the famous sixth-century cliff carving at the foot of Mount Jiao (514; Nanjing Museum; no.32), they appear alongside a funerary urn or soul jar (hunping) that showcases Buddhist imagery of the period (265–316; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; no.23).[1] 

The next section features Southern Song landscape paintings, including the well-known Eight views of Xiao Xiang by Wang Hong (c.1150; Princeton University Art Museum; no.46). The centrepiece is a well- preserved silk gauze robe for a young woman juxtaposed with skeins of Song dynasty silk thread, all from the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou (1127–1279; nos.50–51). A side room shows several paintings of Buddhist subjects of the same period. The next section features a variety of objects of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, including Cizhou ware with water-wave patterns found in the Suzhou area, calligraphy, a tea bowl, lacquer and silver boxes, blue- and-white porcelain and paintings. A watercolour depicting flowers and birds dubiously attributed to Qian Xuan (late 1200–1300s; Detroit Institute of Arts; no.87) is juxtaposed with a famous album featuring similar subjects by Sun Long (active 1403–39) from the Shanghai Museum – a highlight of the paintings on show. 

The abundance of art and handicrafts from Ming–Qing Jiangnan is dazzling. The section on the Ming era highlights the transformation of topography in landscape painting, which increasingly depicted the buildings of a flourishing urban culture. The way that paintings of real scenery and everyday life prevailed is demonstrated in this section by such works as Shen Zhou’s album Twelve views of Tiger Hill (no.103), Zhou Chen’s unique handscroll Beggars and street characters (1516; no.102), Qiu Ying’s masterpiece Garden for solitary enjoyment (1515–52; no.116) and Song Xu’s unique album Eighteen views of Huzhou (c.1588; no.113), in addition to Wen Zhengming’s Spring in Jiangnan from the Shanghai Museum (no.104; Fig.1). 

A Taihu rock, a sculptural limestone used in Suzhou gardens, has been erected in the room (Fig.3) next to a Ming dynasty zither (guqin) made in Suzhou (1584; no.125), which was recently rediscovered in storage at the CMA. A moon gate leads the visitor into a room painted red in which are displayed Ming loyalist paintings, a theme set by a landscape in red (zhu) – in Chinese the word is a homophone of the family name of the Ming dynasty – by Xiang Shengmo (1597–1658) from a private collection (1644; no.129). On one side of the room is a showcase of objects of fine craftsmanship, ranging from a cup attributed to the celebrated silversmith Zhu Bishan, dated 1345 (no.142; Fig.4) to bamboo carving from Songjiang and carved Qianlong lacquerware (1736–95; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; no.150). A pair of lacquer panels inspired by the illustrated book Pictures of tilling and weaving (Gengzhi tu) (1736–95; Museum für Lackkunst, Münster, nos.211–12) and large-sheet Suzhou colour prints depicting beautiful women (meiren) (1700s; private collection; nos.188) from collections in Germany are being exhibited for the first time. Following Qing imperial portraits from the CMA and the handscroll The Kangxi Emperor’s southern inspection tour from the Mactaggart Art Museum, Edmonton (1698; no.192), the exhibition ends with a section focusing on Jiangnan’s connections with the Qing court and with Europe, as revealed in prints and tapestry. 

Although the exceptionally varied display of works of art will be enjoyed by visitors, the multifaceted sub- narratives, understandably introduced for the sake of comparisons and groupings, occasionally turn the exhibition into a maze. At times, it may be wondered why, for example, the painting Bamboo in the wind by the Yuan dynasty monk-painter Puming (1300s; CMA; ex-catalogue) is hung in a hallway showcasing Suzhou handicrafts, next to a statue of Daoist deity and facing Jingdezhen porcelain. In addition, the exhibition seeks to downplay the traditional emphasis on ‘masters’ in a well-conceived statement about decentring the canon, but hanging single sheets from such famous landscape albums as Dong Qichang’s Eight views of Yan and Wu (1596; Shanghai Museum; no.105) and Shitao’s Reminiscences of Qinhuai River (1642–1707; no.133) in the corner of a room may well disappoint an informed audience. 

Despite these minor challenges and pitfalls, the exhibition deserves praise not only for its substantial contribution to Chinese art history but also as an example of international collaboration and exchange: the choice of exhibits from the outstanding collections of the CMA has been supplemented by forty-one loans from China, Japan, the United States, Canada and Europe. Among the thirty-four objects lent by nine institutions in China, seven are classified as ‘first-grade’ cultural objects. Bringing these works together is a impressive achievement, especially given that the exhibition was prepared during the pandemic. 


The catalogue, which includes essays by scholars of literature and social and economic history as well as art historians, had not yet been published when the exhibition opened.[2] There was, however, a two- day symposium with speakers from China, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, which, among a variety of subjects, provided detailed analysis and interpretation of some of the highlights of the exhibition. These included a presentation by Eugene Wang on a Tang dynasty bronze mirror made in Yangzhou decorated with the motif ‘hare on the moon’, from Shanghai Museum (722; no.14); an interpretation by Alfreda Murck of the depiction of atmospheric elements in the handscroll Cloudy mountains (1130; no.45) by Mi Youren (1127–1279); and an analysis by Elizabeth Kindall of Song Xu’s Eighteen views of Huzhou. A keynote presentation by Craig Clunas provided a picture of the visual and material culture of the Ming royal family and explained what Jiangman meant for the dynasty.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, the works mentioned in this review are from the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. [2] Catalogue: China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta. Edited by Clarissa von Spee, with contributions by Yiwen Liu. 432 pp. incl. 336 col. + b. & w. ills. (Cleveland Museum of Art, 2024), £50. ISBN 978– 0–300–27324–3.