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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 17 

Lot 17

Lot 17
Treasury 4, no. 604 (‘Portrait of Tan Xinpei as General Huang Zhong’)

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded foot rim; painted on one main side with a portrait of Tan Xinpei 譚鑫培 playing the role of Huang Zhong 黃忠 in the opera Dingjun shan 定軍山 (‘Mount Ding Jun’), his iconic ‘elephant-trunk blade’ held across his lower body, the other main side inscribed in regular script with a poetic encomium followed by the signature Ma Shaoxuan, and one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script
Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, 1899–1900
Height: 6.13 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.56/1.70 and 1.61 cm (oval)
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Zhirou Zhai 知柔齋 Collection
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1993)

Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 345
Kleiner 1995, no. 422
Treasury 4, no. 604

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March – June 1994
National Museum of Singapore, November 1994 – February 1995
British Museum, London, June–November 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997
Christie’s, London, 1999

Ma Shaoxuan was a keen Beijing opera fan and, we are told, a bit of an amateur singer himself. One of his heroes and one of the premier stars of the day was Tan Xinpei (1847 – 1917), whose talent was greatly admired by Ma as, indeed, it was by all opera aficionados, including the court, for which he played command performances.

Ma’s Beijing opera portraits were always superbly painted and impressive and we may assume, given their quality and the information from his biography, that he painted them all himself. He first painted them in 1899. During that year and the following one, 1900, he painted quite a large number (we have a record of ten that are dated, five from 1899 and five from 1900), but there are also at least a dozen undated examples.

The extraordinarily successful career of Tan Xinpei is covered in Curtis 1980.

The poem inscribed on the back of this example is in praise of General Huang Zhong

He had white-flecked brows and hoary head—but none could match his bravery;
With meritorious service to Emperor Zhaolie, he was truly a senior servant of the throne.
Yet if not for the actors of the Pear Garden, who sing and dance so well,
Who nowadays would know about this general?

Zhaolie was Liu Bei, monarch of the Shu kingdom. ‘Pear Garden’ refers to acting troops; an establishment by this name was set up in the palace by the Tang Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–755) for the training of singing and dancing performers. Given the role of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in keeping the lore of Liu Bei, Huang Zhong, and other heroes and villains vividly alive in the minds of the Chinese, Ma Shaoxuan is exaggerating the importance of the opera in educating the populace about Huang Zhong, but indeed Tan Xinpei made the general larger than life in turn-of-the-century Beijing. A common saying of the time was ‘Who has time to worry about the nation’s survival? The whole city competes in shouting “Tian’er”’. (Guojia xingwang shei guande, mancheng zheng chang, jiao Tian’er! 國家興亡誰管得,滿城爭唱叫天兒.) Tian’er (‘Heaven’s kid’) was Tan’s stage name.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


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