HONG KONG — Politics and art don’t always mix well, but the combination has yielded a rare chance for Hong Kong residents and visitors to see what is arguably China’s most famous painting.
Trying to foster nationalistic pride in China’s heritage among Hong Kong residents, the Chinese government has sent 32 artworks here for an exhibition to mark the 10th anniversary of Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Among them is Zhang Zeduan’s “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” a scroll painted in the early 12th century.
“Qingming Festival” is famous partly for its involvement over centuries in palace intrigues, theft and wars, and partly for its detailed, geometrically accurate images of bridges, wine shops, sedan chairs and boats beautifully juxtaposed with flowing lines for the depiction of mountains and other natural scenery. It is routinely covered in courses on Chinese history, art and culture, across China and in the West.
“ The ‘Qingming Festival’ is probably the single most widely known work in China,” said Marc F. Wilson, a Chinese specialist and the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
He added that the painting was “like China’s Mona Lisa. ”
Because of its fragility, the scroll is seldom displayed, even in Beijing, and has never been lent for an overseas exhibition.
It was briefly exhibited in Shanghai in 2003, where it drew lines that snaked for a quarter-mile outside the museum, and in Shenyang, China, in 2005.
“Qingming Festival” and 15 other paintings and examples of calligraphy dating from the 6th to the 14th centuries are to remain on display through July 22. Another 16 works, dating from the 4th to the 16th centuries, will be on view from July 23 to Aug. 11.
Zheng Xinmiao, China’s vice minister of culture and the director of the Palace Museum in Beijing, described the works as “the highest grade of art ever shown” outside of China proper.
“Through all the turmoil of different dynasties, it is remarkable for these pieces to survive,” he said.
The purpose of the exhibition is clear from its title: “The Pride of China.” The Beijing government has sponsored a series of Chinese cultural events here this summer to foster Chinese identity in a population where many have seen themselves as citizens of Hong Kong first, and only secondarily as Chinese.
Yet one visitor, Ringo Lau, a 47-year-old consultant who attended the exhibition on Friday, the opening day, remarked: “I have no question I am Chinese. I don’t need this to enrich it.”
He said he had studied “Qingming Festival” and recalled that a bank branch near his boyhood home in Hong Kong displayed a large reproduction of part of the painting. Although only allowed to look at the painting itself for five minutes on Friday — guards enforce time limits for each group of visitors — he said he was satisfied.
“It’s detailed, it’s marvelous, it’s very colorful,” he said.
Like the Mona Lisa, “Qingming Festival” is to some extent famous for being famous.
The Mona Lisa became a household word partly because it was stolen from the Louvre in August 1911. The theft and subsequent sale of forgeries passed off as the real painting set off a frenzy of news coverage, as well as songs and even cabaret acts, until the original was recovered in Italy in December 1913.
“Qingming Festival” has been famous since the 14th century, when forgeries began to circulate, said Tang Hing-sun, an assistant curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art who helped organize the exhibition here.
Forgers could pass off their copies as the original partly because the original was repeatedly stolen or misappropriated from the imperial collection, starting as early as the 1340s. It kept showing up in the hands of wealthy, influential families, from whom emperors repeatedly recovered it when they confiscated estates during disputes.
Qiu Ying, a 16th-century artist, established a reputation for painting beautiful copies of “Qingming Festival,” prompting forgers even to begin producing forgeries of his copies.
The Nationalists moved the cream of the imperial collection to Taiwan shortly before losing the civil war to the Communists in 1949. But through a quirk of history, “Qingming Festival” had been separated from the rest of the collection and stayed on the mainland.
The last emperor, Pu Yi, quietly took the painting with him when forced to leave the Forbidden City in 1924. The Japanese military later installed him as the puppet ruler of Manchuria; caught by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II, he still had the painting.
The Soviets handed over the painting to a bank in northeastern China for safekeeping. It stayed there until 1950, when it was transferred to a nearby museum and later to Beijing.
With such a convoluted history, there is the theoretical possibility that a forgery was substituted at some point. The National Palace Museum in Taipei takes pride in holding 10 ancient copies of the original “Qingming Festival” in its collection.
But art scholars agree that the Palace Museum in Beijing does indeed own the original. The style and materials of the scroll — ink on silk — are consistent with work from the 12th century, and the many chops, or seals, of its owners over the years are accurate.
“There’s no question of what it is,” said Mr. Wilson, who was not involved in producing the current exhibition.
For art lovers, the question may be whether “Qingming Festival” is being shown too frequently: this is its third exhibition in five years. The National Palace Museum in Taipei restricts the showing of comparably old paintings to 40 days at a time, followed by at least three years in storage.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art has tried to manage the crowds and protect the art by having visitors pass through a series of galleries adorned with large reproductions and texts on “Qingming Festival” before they reach the scroll itself. The heavily guarded painting is exhibited in a long, thick-sided display case in a gallery with the lights kept fairly low.
Visitors are admitted in groups and are shooed along after the five-minute viewing. Tickets must be bought in advance for specific times.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art is trying to err on the side of caution in handling the crowds, as any mishap would be a national incident in China.
“From an historic and artistic perspective, these are treasures,” said Tang Hoi-chiu, the chief curator.