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Clear and Muddy Water

Rediscovering a Chinese imperial tapestry scroll
Clarissa von Spee, Curator of Chinese Art
April 17, 2018
Mingling of Clear and Muddy Water at the Junction of the Jing and Wei Rivers, 1736–95. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong reign (1736–95). 1915.618

On November 17, 1914, two years before the Cleveland Museum of Art opened to the public, the board of trustees confirmed the receipt of several Chinese art objects from Canadian-born John C. Ferguson (1866–1945). While conducting missionary work in China in the late 1880s, the 21-year-old soon became acquainted with Chinese dignitaries who then introduced him to a network of scholars and art collectors. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Ferguson was the only foreigner appointed to the Chinese committee that viewed and catalogued the vast art collection at the imperial palace in Beijing, which became the Palace Museum in 1924.

Mingling of Clear and Muddy Water at the Junction of the Jing and Wei Rivers, 1736–95. China, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong reign (1736–95). Handscroll; silk: tapestry weave and embroidery; ink and colors; 273 x 29.6 x 34.5 cm. Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust, 1915.618.a

Capitalizing on his international connections and his knowledge of Chinese language and antiquities, Ferguson became an agent who helped to build the Chinese collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. He sold to the CMA major Chinese objects that remain highlights in the collection, such as the magnificent jade ceremonial tube cong (1915.630) on display in the arts of ancient China gallery (241A) and the ceremonial blade zhang (1915.673). In a letter of 1929 to curator Howard Hollis, Ferguson expressed his pride at having secured for Cleveland “the first Chinese things that they possess.”

Included in these “first Chinese things” was an item listed as “Source of Yellow River—K’o-ssu [tapestry],” a silk tapestry-woven scroll now on display in the Chinese paintings and calligraphy gallery (240A) until mid-August. The scroll features a map illustrating the Mingling of Clear and Muddy Water at the Junction of the Jing and Wei Rivers (Jing qing Wei zhuo tu) and a report by the statesman Dong Gao (1704–1818), preceded by an imperial commentary of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–95). The map shows the clear (blue) Jing River in the north joining the muddy (yellow) Wei River in the west; together, they flow into the large Yellow River in the northeast. The roofs of houses and the city wall in the lower part of the map refer to the city of Xi’an, a former imperial capital in today’s Shaanxi province. (Xi’an is not far from the excavation site of the terracotta soldiers of China’s First Emperor.) The Cleveland scroll was woven on a loom using tapestry techniques of the highest quality and refinement. However, the brief geographic descriptions and place names in Chinese on the map are hand embroidered. Microscopic examination of the tapestry astonishingly revealed that light watercolor and ink were applied with a brush to enhance the colors. The scroll’s wrapper in yellow silk cloth features a dragon, the emblem of imperial power.

Wrapper for the Tapestry Scroll Mingling of Clear and Muddy Water at the Junction of the Jing and Wei Rivers, 1736–95. China, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong reign (1736–95). Silk and metal thread: tapestry weave; ink and colors; 55.5 x 55 cm. Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust, 1915.618.b

Managing the empire’s vast network of waterways, dams, and irrigation systems was an important responsibility for China’s rulers. Throughout history, the Yellow River carried so much silt and sand that it constantly threatened to overflow its banks. Flood prevention was essential, for when the Yellow River overflowed, it caused disastrous loss of farmland, settlements, and both human and animal life. According to the imperial inscription on the scroll, the Qianlong emperor had requested an on-site investigation of the Jing and Wei Rivers in order to rectify historic written sources that confused the two waterways. With the help of local governor Qin Cheng’en, the court official Dong Gao generated a report and painted a map that corroborated the emperor’s suspicion, and then corrected the ancient classical sources. The emperor’s relationship with his trusted official is documented in yet another work of art in the CMA’s collection: Wang Mian’s magnificent hanging scroll Prunus in Moonlight, which bears several seals, indicating that this painting was an imperial gift to Dong. One that reads “ci ben” (bestowed item) is impressed above the seal by Dong Gao, “chen Gao gong cang” (Your servant Gao respectfully [received this into his] collection).

We can thus conclude that the imperial tapestry scroll is of remarkable art historical significance. It documents the inquisitive mind of the Qianlong emperor, one of the world’s greatest rulers and art collectors, a Manchu and foreigner on the Chinese throne. The initiation of the emperor’s so-called evi-dential research movement encouraged the critical revision and correction of classical texts and imagery that for centuries had been transmitted as truth. The emperor’s personal pride and the imperial propaganda resulting from his having rectified the canonical Chinese texts is manifest in the reproduction of this court document in other media, such as incised stone and silk. A paper version of the Cleveland scroll, which represents a rubbing taken from a probably lost stone relief, is preserved in the National Library of China, Beijing, and an identical silk tapestry scroll is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The scroll is further evidence of the museum’s early fascination with Chinese art, and shines a light on those who initiated the beginnings of an outstanding collection.