Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition focuses on China’s Jiangnan region

The Cleveland Museum of Art presents China’s Southern Paradise: Treasures from the Lower Yangzi Delta, a landmark exhibition that explores the historical and cultural riches of a pivotal region known as Jiangnan. The exhibition—the first in the West to focus on this area—features more than 200 objects relating to Jiangnan which has remained one of China’s wealthiest, most populous, and agriculturally fertile lands.  

China’s Southern Paradise, shown exclusively at the Cleveland Museum of Art, opens September 10, 2023, and is on view through January 7, 2024. 

Through major loans from more than 30 institutions around the world and selections from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s world-renowned collection of Chinese artChina’s Southern Paradise explores the coastal region south of the Yangzi River, where the earliest remains of cultivated rice were found. Key loans from six Chinese institutions, including the Beijing Palace Museum, the Shanghai Museum, and the Nanjing Museum, bring rarely seen objects to the US that illustrate how Jiangnan gained a leading role in China’s artistic production and succeeded in setting cultural standards.

The exhibition also includes objects from Japan, Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States, brought together for the first time, some of which have never been presented to the public before. 

Jiangnan’s lush, green scenery inspired poets and artists to conceive it as heaven on earth. For millennia, it has been an area of rich agriculture, extensive trade, and influential artistic production. Art from Jiangnan—home to such great cities as Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Nanjing, as well as to hilly picturesque landscapes stretched along rivers and lakes—has defined the image of traditional China for the world.   

“So much of what we associate with traditional China today—such as rice, silk and lacquer production, color printing, garden culture, landscape painting—either originated or flourished in the Jiangnan region,” Clarissa von Spee, the show’s curator and the James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art, Interim Curator of Islamic Art and Chair of Asian Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, said. “To bring these rare, unique treasures together from around the world provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors, nationally and abroad, to witness the richness and unsurpassed quality of art from a part of China that is still associated with natural beauty, elegance, high culture, and erudition. Jiangnan imagery and goods that reached 18th-century Europe shaped our idea of China more than any other region.” 

Exhibits in China’s Southern Paradise range in material from jade, silk, prints, and paintings to porcelain, lacquer, and bamboo carvings, and date from the Neolithic age to the 18th century. 

Exhibition highlights

  • A 12th-century National Treasure from the Tokyo National Museum—categorized as among the most precious of Japan’s Tangible Cultural Properties—Imaginary Journey through Xiao-Xiang is a handscroll that reflects the region’s natural beauty of mist-shrouded mountains along rivers and lakes. 
  • An 82-foot-long scroll documents in fascinating detail urban and rural life along the route of the Kangxi emperor’s 1689 Southern Inspection Tour from Beijing via the Grand Canal to the lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), lent from the University of Alberta Art Museums. 
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art’s well known carved jade cup with Daoist procession, almost identical in shape and decoration with an imperially marked white cup in the Beijing Palace Museum, will be shown together for the first time. Believed to have been made by Suzhou craftsmen, they exhibit a high point of refinement and workmanship, and offer a unique opportunity for comparison. 
  • On view for the first time in the United States, grains of carbonized rice excavated from Tianluoshan, a site of the Neolithic Hemudu culture in modern Zhejiang province, represent the world’s earliest cultivated rice, lent from the Zhejiang Archaeological Institute. 
  • Also on view for the first time to the American public is a group of large-scale, multicolor prints, the finest of their type ever produced in China. These prints from Suzhou depict fashionable beauties and famous sights. 
  • New Year’s Morning is a European-style tapestry depicting a large family gathering that once furnished an imperial palace interior. Thanks to the generous support of June and Simon K. C. Li, this rare tapestry in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art was conserved for the exhibition by the Textile Conservation Laboratory at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York. Only one other example is known to be in the Beijing Palace Museum.  
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art’s five-stringed guqin, a zither that is China’s most prestigious musical instrument, was the subject of a discovery when conservators cleaned the object for display and found an inscription which established that the instrument was made by Zhang Ruixiu from Suzhou in 1584. 

“Our incredible holdings of Chinese art have inspired the confidence of our more than 30 partners across the world to lend works of art, which allow us to present an exhibition with objects of impressive quality and scope never seen together before,” William M. Griswold, Director and President of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said. 

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