Of the four great civilizations of the ancient world, China is the only one that survives today. Over the years it has become the repository of a vast quantity of artifacts, dating as far back as the Neolithic period. Collecting Chinese antiquities is perhaps one of the most effective ways of enriching our understanding and appreciation of Chinese art. As Confucius said in his Lunyu (Analects): I was not born with knowledge; I acquired it through my fondness for antiquity and constant perseverance (Book VII, Shu Er). The spirit of fondness for antiquity has infused the Chinese psyche for the last three thousand years. The earliest collector of Chinese antiquities was probably Lady Hao of the late Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1100 BC), in whose tomb at Yinxu in Henan Province jade ornaments datable to the Hongshan culture (c. 3500-2000 BC) of the Neolithic period were found (see Yinxu fuhao mu (The Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu), Wenwu chubanshe, Beijing 1980, plate 162(1), 164(1)). These objects were therefore at least 1,000 years old in Lady Haos time. Similarly, jade artifacts from the Liangzhu culture (c. 3300-2200 BC) were discovered at a late Shang dynasty site in Jinsha, Sichuan Province (see Huang Jianhua, Jinsha Yizhi (Jinsha Remains), Sichuan Wenwu chubanshe, Chengdu, 2003, P.74) It is thus evident that the tradition of collecting Chinese antiquities began in China at a very early age.
Major collections of Chinese art today can be divided into three main categories: former imperial collections, archeological discoveries and private collections. The imperial collections were restricted to the tastes of the ruling classes, with vernacular objects being rejected as vulgar and of little worth. Material excavated from archeological sites mainly consists of burial goods; although historically important, aesthetically they may have less value. Moreover, the majority of such finds in China are housed in museums near the place of their discovery, and it would be difficult to form a thematic collection from such a wide distribution of sources. Private collections, on the other hand, have much greater diversity. Embracing both the sophisticated and the common, they are far more representative of the indigenous culture of ancient China.
The bulk of the Muwen Tang Collection was formed by the Kwan family in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with substantial holdings being acquired in more than twenty categories. Since the original motivation for forming the Collection was based on academic interest, new themes that were traditionally not considered collectables were explored, including ancestor portraits, modern Chinese ceramics, bamboo baskets, early glass and ancient jewelry. In the last fifteen years, only eight catalogues of the Collection have appeared, leaving a large number of works unpublished. Hence, in early 2003, it was decided that a complete catalogue in a standard format should be produced to serve as a permanent record. After eliminating some of the weaker sections, sixteen topics were identified for inclusion. In early 2004, it was decided to enlarge the catalogue to include 20 topics. Each topic will take up a single volume, and catalogue entries will be bilingual in Chinese and English, while a more detailed study of the pieces will be published separately later on. It is hoped that this complete catalogue will form a database for further research by other scholars and collectors of Chinese art.
Today, as the world heads towards globalization, an understanding of and respect for others values and cultures will be of utmost importance for the people of all societies and races to live in peace and harmony. Art and antique collecting and exchange could play a major role in achieving this goal.
Life is transient; collecting is no more than a temporary custody of objects by an individual. Works of art change hands over time. The Muwen Tang is dedicated to promoting an understanding and appreciation of Chinese art through the sharing of knowledge. It is our belief that human heritage is common property that should be enjoyed by people of all nations.