The Nat Yuen Collection of Chinese antiquities at the University of Queensland Art Museum (UQAM) in Brisbane is a significant survey collection that is often overlooked in the milieu of the more “visible” Southeast Asian antiquities collections in Australia.

It comprises objects produced from materials such as Neolithic earthenware, stoneware, bronze, and porcelain, and represents the major stylistic periods and technical innovations of Chinese material culture.

Installation View of the Nat Yuen Collection at the University of Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane

Assembled with care, it enables a deeper understanding of China’s diverse cultural history, and beyond it the politics of Chinese identity that have developed over the past five thousand years. Featuring 84 works, the majority of the collection was gifted to the University of Queensland Art Museum in 1995, two years prior to the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by the People’s Republic of China, with additional pieces donated by Dr. Yuen in 2005 and 2006.

Ranging across a long history of Chinese connoisseurship, objects in this donated collection span the Neolithic era (around 4000 BCE) to the final imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qing, which ended in 1912. Dr. Yuen’s passion for collecting Chinese antiquities was sparked in the 1960s by a gift of porcelain pieces and works of art from his father, himself a scholar. Graduating from the School of Medicine at UQ in 1965, Dr Yuen settled in Hong Kong to practice medicine. A significant portion of Dr. Yuen’s personal collection was always intended for public display, and the continuity of Chinese material culture in the collection reflects a high level of foresight and planning.

Considered from within a chronological framework, the collection commences with Neolithic earthenware, dating from around 4100 BCE, and features unique pieces such as a white-glazed tripod ewer with handle from the Dawenkou and Majiayao eras (c. 4100 BCE-2600 BCE). Highlights of the collection include bronze swords and a bronze ritual ding(or funerary storage urn) from the Warring States Period (480 BCE-220 BCE), funerary objects from the Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618 CE-907 CE) eras, various celadon glazes from the Song period (960 CE-1279 CE), tea-ceremony related ceramics from the Jin era (1115 CE-1234 CE), Yuan dynasty Longquan celadon glazed ware (1279 CE-1368 CE), and the notable blue and white porcelains of the Ming dynasty (1368 CE-1644 CE).

Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, and Jiaqing porcelains and glazed pieces from the Qing dynasty (1644 CE-1912 CE) also feature in this comprehensive collection.

The Nat Yuen Collection functions as a portal to China’s diverse cultural history. A ‘TLV’ bronze mirror from the Han dynasty, named from its markings that resemble the letters T, L, and V on its unpolished back, exemplifies not only the technological sophistication of the Chinese bronze age, but also pinpoints the existence of a complicated cosmological cartography and established practices of divination appropriated from such sources as Buddhist mandala drawings as well as the Chinese game of liubo. The polished side of the bronze mirror would have served the purpose of providing a reflection, however these mirrors were mostly used as talismans.

In the collection is a ubiquitous earthenware Tang horse that is accompanied by a sculpture of its groom (Fig. 3). The groom waits, reins in hand, readying the steed for its owner to mount. Used as funerary objects, their unadorned and white-painted facial features signify their otherworldly role. The groom’s Central Asian attire communicates his Sogdian origins and more widely the internationalism of the Tang era as well as the influence of the trade routes of the Silk Road on Tang dynasty art. The size of these statues and their finesse underscores the high social status of the deceased.

The noteworthy ‘Grape Dish’ signals another formative period of porcelain production under the Ming Emperor Yongle’s reign (r. 1402-1424 CE). A similar piece can be located in the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum in London.

The large size of the dish and its central motif of grapes suggest that this dish was produced for export to a country of Islamic culture with collective dining practices. The grape ornament in the centre is bordered by a floral spray of twelve seasonal flowers which include the lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, camelia, gardenia, and azalea. The floral scroll is encircled by a stylised band of waves, alluding to the dish’s potential sea voyage. This dish provides evidence that porcelain of the finest quality was also produced as export ware and not only for use in the Chinese Emperor’s palace.

The noteworthy ‘Grape Dish’ signals another formative period of porcelain production under the Ming Emperor Yongle’s reign (r.1402-1424 C.E.) (Fig. 4). A similar piece can be located in the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum in London. The large size of the dish and its central motif of grapes suggest that this dish was produced for export to a country of Islamic culture with collective dining practices. The grape ornament in the centre is bordered by a floral spray of twelve seasonal flowers which include the lotus, peony, chrysanthemum, camelia, gardenia, and azalea.[3] The floral scroll is encircled by a stylised band of waves, alluding to the dish’s potential sea voyage. This dish provides evidence that porcelain of the finest quality was also produced as export ware and not only for use in the Chinese Emperor’s palace.

Artist unknown, Blue and White grape dish, Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period (1402-1424 CE), Nat Yuen Collection of Chinese Antiquities, University of Queensland Art Museum

A baluster vase covered in the langyao or sang de boeuf (or the oxblood glaze) articulates the extraordinary level of refinement that was achieved from the patronage and influence of the Qing Manchu Kangxi Emperor in reactivating the Jindezhen kilns (c. 1700 CE) while a blue and white porcelain Qianlong stem cup (1736 CE-1795 CE) crafted in the form of a Tibetan butter lamp reveals that the Qianlong Qing court followed the Tibetan Lama Buddhist tradition of burning yak butter as a votive offering.

The Nat Yuen Collection’s significance lies in its capacity to not only educate us about the richness and diversity of Chinese material culture but also in its ability to provide deep insights into the formation of the modern Chinese state.

Resources:

Schuyler Camman, “The TLV Pattern on Cosmic Mirrors of the Han Dynasty”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Oct -Dec., 1948), 159-167.

Lillian Lan-yeng Tseng, “Representation and Appropriation: Rethinking the TLV Mirror in Han China”, Early China, 2Vol. 29 (2004), 163-215.

Sushma Griffin, “The Nat Yuen Collection of Chinese Antiquities: Learning Resource”, UQ Art Museum, The University of Queensland, 2014. url: https://issuu.com/uqartmuseum/docs/nat-yuen-online-resource.

The museum website can be found at https://art-museum.uq.edu.au/whats/past-exhibitions/2009/nat-yuen-collection-chinese-antiquities

Contributed by by Dr. Sushma Griffin, Project Curator, ‘The Emotional Lives of Cities’, ARC and Research Assistant at the University of Queensland