Antiques expert's latest books are for students

A lack of teaching material at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art prompted Ji Chongjian to write his latest three books in just three months


Ji Chongjian is a prolific author. “Appreciation of Chinese Ancient Calligraphy,” “Studies of Art Collection” and “Revisiting the History of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures” are his 51st, 52nd and 53rd books in the past three decades.

But unlike his previous works, these three will be used as teaching material for students at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art’s cultural relics restoration department.

Ji is often amiably called Lao Ji, or Old Ji. He is a legend in the world of antiques — an expert in ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures — after working for 21 years at Shanghai Museum. He is also a collector and founder of the Chong Yuan Auction House and is now the vice dean of the institute’s relics restoration department. 

Ji knows almost everything that needs to be known about the big names in antiques — from collectors and dealers to experts and artists.

He admits that he’s quite talkative at dinner parties, as his stories are “often more interesting than the cuisine.”

Ji, who is in his 60s, is rigorous and academic in his area of knowledge, and people are often marveled at his remarkable memory, never missing the tiniest detail of the ancient Buddhist sculptures he comes across.

Born into a well-off family, Ji was assigned to work at a chicken-processing factory on a farm in the city’s suburbs for five years during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).

“Our team had four people and we had to process nearly 100,000 frozen chickens every day,” he recalls. “It was too much for me. I couldn’t spend all my life facing these dead chickens.”

Fate intervened when Ji got a job at Shanghai Museum. He became lost in the world of Chinese Buddhism and published a series of essays and books that established his reputation both in China and abroad.

“Life can never be planned,” Ji says, smiling. “How time flies. Now I am an old man. I often think I belong to a generation that can never be repeated as we witnessed too many dramatic changes both in our own lives and in our society.”

Ji Chongjian is a legend in the antiques world — an expert in ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures. 

Q: What prompted you to write these three books?

A: When I was invited to teach at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art’s cultural relics restoration department, I found there were no proper textbooks. Sometimes what the teachers were saying was totally wrong.

If the students don’t have the basic idea of what antiques are, how could they restore them? I just transformed my knowledge and experience acquired in the field into the books. I think they are very practical.

Q: How long did it take you to write the books?

A: Believe it or not, it took me only three months, but during that process I sat in my studio for almost seven to eight hours a day. I like writing books though.

Q: Do you have any other plans for the department?

A: Sure. There is a great demand for “new blood” in the restoration of Chinese relics. But there is no appropriate training for students. So the gap is huge.

Once I saw a teacher tutoring students on how to restore a modern painting, but the technique for a modern painting is utterly different from an antique. If the students are not given a chance to approach a real antique to accumulate experience, how can they do it after they graduate.

Students ought to be given a chance to widen their scope in both appreciation and restoration of antiques.

I have a big social circle, so I plan to invite the top experts including museum directors, collectors and restoration experts both at home and abroad to give a seminar at the institute every year. I am sure what they say will be of huge benefit to students.

Q: Why did you close your auction house, as your academic background and good relationship with collections helped your auction house to succeed?

A: Because I wanted to enjoy my retirement. I wanted to begin a new life, returning to research. For me, money is no longer important.

I also wanted to nurture these young students on the right track. You know, usually it takes at least eight to 10 years for an experienced hand to restore the antiques.

In the past, there was a tradition of apprenticeships in antique restoration. I felt fortunate that I was tutored by my teachers at Shanghai Museum and faced so many antiques every day. But now conditions are different, we have to seek out a new way for the next generation in the restoration of cultural relics, otherwise there will be no one to restore these national treasures in the future.

Q: What’s your daily schedule?

A: I wake up early. After a bowl of nutritious soup, I go to the gym and walk on a treadmill for one hour. Then I go back home to write calligraphy or books. In the evening, I usually have dinner gatherings with friends. To tell you the truth, I am a gourmand. I often fly to Hong Kong and Japan delicious cuisine, of course most of the time I am visiting collectors and their antiques on the way.

Q: You have seen many ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which one impresses you the most?

A: It is a Buddha sculpture from the Northern Qi Dynasty permanently on display at Shanghai Museum. In my eyes, it is also the one of the best 10 collections at the museum. But I saw three similar sculptures at overseas museums and collectors. I found it was very strange, and I wanted to seek an answer. I went to the library of New York University for some material by of C.T. Loo (1880-1975), one of the world's most famous curio dealers. Based on a careful study of the four sculptures and the material I read, I can prove that the one at Shanghai Museum is an original.

This is also the reason I wrote “Revisiting the History of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures,” because my interpretation and judgment of some ancient Chinese Buddhist sculptures will change when more evidence and material comes to light.

“Revisiting the History of Chinese Buddhist Sculptures” is Ji Chongjian's 53rd book in a 30-year writing career.

“Appreciation of Chinese Ancient Calligraphy” is one of the three books to be used as teaching material for students at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art.

Ji Chongjian is renowned as a collector, and his “Studies of Art Collection” will be of great value to students. 





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