Traditional Chinese culture gets a fresh plug

In 1941, a Chinese art collector was kidnapped in Shanghai, and it took his wife eight months to put together the ransom for his release.

This was because the poet and and collector of ancient Chinese art works Zhang Boju forbade his wife, the artist Pan Su, from giving his abductors the priceless paintings in his collection that they wanted.

Instead, she sold her jewellery and borrowed money from family and friends to raise the ransom. The couple later donated some of the most valuable pieces in their collection to the state.

This story was told by the Palace Museum director Shan Jixiang and other speakers yesterday at the launch of the Zhang Boju and Pan Su Cultural Development Foundation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The non-governmental foundation was set up by the late Mr Zhang's grandson, Mr Lou Kaizhao, 54, to promote traditional Chinese culture, at a time when President Xi Jinping has called for "cultural self- confidence" and the development of China's cultural soft power.

The foundation also has the long- term goal of recovering cultural relics that have been lost overseas, in keeping with Mr Zhang's endeavour throughout his life to protect Chinese cultural heritage from falling into foreign hands.

In a famous move, Mr Zhang, who died in 1982 aged 84, prevented a Sui dynasty painting, Spring Outing, the earliest extant landscape painting in China, from being sold overseas by raising funds to buy it.

This included selling his own 13-ha courtyard house and garden, once the residence of Li Lianying, the chief eunuch of the Qing empress dowager Cixi.

Mr Zhang had, in his writings, said: "I do not wish to possess the things I collect. But they should stay forever in this land of ours, to be handed down from one generation to the next."

While Mr Lou's idea of a foundation began 10 years ago purely as a way to realise his grandfather's idea of "building a culture for the public" and to continue his work of protecting Chinese cultural heritage, it falls in with Mr Xi's idea of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, including through drawing on its traditional culture.

"To revive the nation, we must be confident in our path, in our theory and in our system as well as our culture.

Artists should learn to draw essence and power from Chinese culture to create classical works to inspire people," Mr Xi told Chinese artists and writers last November.

Mr Lou's foundation yesterday signed several cooperation agreements, including one with the Beijing Language and Culture University to set up the Zhang Boju and Pan Su International Humanities Research Centre, where foreign scholars can study the academic thought of the couple.

Mr Lou also plans to raise funds for a scholarship to bring in foreign scholars.

The foundation yesterday also kicked off the "Love Heritage - Culture for the Public", a public service programme whose first project is to encourage Chinese people to read, in collaboration with major publishing houses and television stations.

As for the recovery of historical and cultural relics that have been smuggled or sold overseas, however, this is not an immediate goal of the foundation, said Mr Lou. "The prices of (these items) auctioned by the auction houses are astronomical," he noted, adding that his foundation is not financially able to buy back relics.

However, he hopes in the long term to build the foundation's influence overseas and, through this, to get "the other side to return the cultural relics to China".

This article was first published on Feb 19, 2017.
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